Babel

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Babel

Night Life

Night haunts, night spirits, slipping through moonlit rooms, down starlit stairways, past mystery doorways into dream chambers, where love potions splash on ice, and music plays magic melodies for sleepwalkers who dance in a trance, arms holding each other, eyes blazing with rapture, mouths pressed together, as they devour each other, before youth is over.
“Confined in my cloud prison,
An invisible enchantress in an echo chamber sings on a CD played in the posh nightclub through surround sound speakers.
“I watch a rainbow arch across the heavens.
The crowd encircles Solo as she drifts away from her partner and dances on her own, something she does each night at the stroke of midnight.
“Dreams shimmer through fate’s prism.
The language of her body is a visual calligraphy, describing to every mesmerized yuppie passion, love, mystery – the slants, angles, spirals, tangles, as her black eyes flash and her raven hair sweeps in perfect circles
“I fall through life’s crystal ball.”
Beauty is a commodity, Stiletto knows. Even amidst night life’s harem of glamorous, high-maintenance, lynx-eyed temptresses scanning the scene for Prince Charming, Solo took desirable to a new level. Why wouldn’t she? Solo was a breathtaking anomaly for the young titans of capitalism whose lives, however grand, tended to be as manufactured as the products they bought, sold, made or invented – a trophy wife not only for show and domestic enjoyment but for erotic and existential fulfillment. She was a breathtaking anomaly to him as well, who had seen everything and had stories to tell.
“She would never dance away from me.” Stiletto brooded, as he stood like a night world shadow behind the bar in his fade to black Fab club designer uniform, satin shirt, silk slacks, jet black hair pulled back in a long, tight, braided snake down his back, his sculpted Aztec face with it’s high cheekbones and smooth skin like a pre-Colombian bust in a museum, polishing cocktail glasses with the flourish of a magician and waiting for the next drink order. They would dance together in rapture forever. Lips of fire were pressed to his, at least in his imagination as he watched her flicker like a flame across the dance floor, waving her lithe Latina body in syncopation to the echoing songstress and the sensuous bongo rhythms. They were locked in fire. He was breathing flame. Their bodies burned as their passion blazed. Even their souls were an inferno.
“Life’s road is a scar, Stiletto,” she had said to him the first time she sat at the bar and he introduced himself and asked for her drink order – maybe his name had suggested the allusion? – “cut by a butcher. You can only cover it up with playa powder.” She had said this with a sigh, a shrug and ordered a bottle of Champagne, which Fab club served its glam guests in a silver bucket as shiny as Mercury. She was dressed in a stunning rainbow weave of fabric, with silver and gold threads lacing through it, rich and exotic. Her cosmic, black hole, midnight in the unknown eyes seemed to look through him, not at him, as she talked softly to him, fro, some far away reality which was completely beyond him. Heaven? Armageddon?
“God would never let life scar anyone as beautiful as you are.”
Stiletto had said, not gallantly but matter-of-factly, as he filled her glass with the sparkling French delicacy.
“The tears of life cloud everyone’s cup,” She took a sip. “Each day is a balloon which flies away from us.”
An anomaly? No, an unfathomable mystery. In their subsequent brief encounters at the bar, before some yuppie Lothario whisked her off to a table, his exchanges with her were equally inscrutable.
“This morning I saw a robin, Stiletto. It was building its nest with black ribbons of mourning. Do you think that was a warning?” Or: “When I was a little girl I would stare up into the dark and make wishes on the stars. I thought they would fulfill all my dreams. But now it seems the dark beyond those dreams is the real meaning of living. Somehow, since I was a little girl, something happened to the heavens.”
What was she doing with these commodity exchange zombies? The BP oil spill, the Great Recession – greed beyond comprehension. That gas pipeline from Canada – now there was a weapon of mass destruction. Could she find love, passion with men with minds like adding machines or scrabble board games? Hearts? Souls? They had traded them long ago. Aztec gods danced with her across the nightclubs walls. Like fire on snow Stiletto saw her lying on their nuptial bed. “She would never dance away from me.” Stiletto brooded again. Stiletto was tall and lean and handsome. He looked exotic and women went for it. Over the years, he had had more than his share of love affairs. He found most women were much the same It was the same with men. But Solo inhabited a planet of her own. You could see that by the way she danced. Solo had a soul. She would free herself of her partner and express the passions deep inside her, mysteries which whispered her name. “She would never dance away from me, once she got to know me”
But what did that mean, to know Stiletto? He was the son of illegal immigrants, Indians from a village in the mountains. They rode the Death Train across the Mexican plains when they were teens, hurtling in wonder atop, inside and under the box cars. They settled in the San Joaquin valley. Stiletto was born in a shack, delivered by a midwife, his American birth duly recorded with a birth certificate. His citizenship was the harrowing journey’s purpose. His mother was “with child” on the Death Train. More than likely his parents were never married.
As a boy he worked along side his mother and father harvesting cotton, grapes, other crops. They traveled continually around the valley and lived in workers camps. His parents were caught and deported, complications with their green cards, when he was seven. Stiletto was left to be raised by the migrants.
When he was thirteen he and his friend Juan ran away to LA> There began a life for him in an urban underground, hard years hiding with “illegals” in an underworld brotherhood, working low paying jobs and surviving brutal barrios. Stiletto was sharp. That’s how he gor his nickname, not merely because he carried one for protection and let that be known.
He had another gift, beside citizenship, from his parents: he was handsome. His mother was as beautiful as Solo. His father was a stunning man. He knew this from the photographs left to him. Stiletto caught on quickly in the restaurant business, moving from dish washer to chef’s helper to waiter and bartender and when he finally got his GED, after much self studying and struggle, manager. He came to Chicago two years ago when the owner of the restaurant he was managing in Hollywood asked him to help his son with his new Rush Street club, manage the bar, the Latino kitchen. Stiletto was rich – at least from the perspective of his humble prospects.
Stiletto saw Solo hiding in his shadow. One day she would see him in hers. That’s what love was. That’s what his parents had. He could see that in the photographs. That’s what sustained them on the Death Train, in the work camps. Without that love one was dead.
“I’ll have a Gibson, Pedro, whenever you wake up from your dream world.” The Junk Bond King of Chicago was suddenly seated before him at the bar, blonde, blue-eyed, brash, young, younger than Stiletto, a baby faced billionaire, resplendent, as usual, in his designer glam-guy grab. He was staring past Stiletto into the mirror at Solo, his customary arrogant smirk twisting into a sneer as he studied her. “Dry, shaken, arctic cold,” he continued “and try to remember, Pancho, it’s garnished with onions not olives. Por favor.” Eyes riveted to the mystery in the mirror, who threatened with each movement to disappear, he fingered a diamond cufflink as though to reassure himself that what he saw was really there and that he was a young master of the universe and if he chose he could own her.
“Me llamo Stiletto.” Stiletto placed the drink before him. This was a game with them, initiated by the young titan who thought it was amusing. Someday, the wrong day, it would have a bad end.
“Stiletto? Isn’t that the heel of a woman’s shoe? Does that mean women walk all over you? Not very macho.”
“Stiletto is a blade, senor. A weapon for Chicano Zorros. Call me Zorro if you like. One day, I will be happy to demonstrate.”
“Touche Jose.” The broker lifted his cocktail. “Who’s the spic chick?”
The song ended and Solo rejoined her partner at the candlelit table. Regge played and new couples flickered in the multicolored light show. Stiletto searched out her silhouette and tried to fathom what kind of intimate conversation Solo and her latest beaux could possibly be having. It must have been as hopeless as their syncopation when dancing. He supposed she just sat graciously and listened.
“You have already met the beautiful senorita.”
Stiletto let the insult go. Every restaurant would go broke if they didn’t regard their obnoxious customers as jokes. Fab was a deck flush with them: a full house of jokers in every hand – Cobra ladies looking for young men, drug dealers, high priced hookers, sirens, doctors, lawyers, commanders of corporations, chiefs of nations, upscale bedlam.
“Yeah, we had our little moment. Not very illumination. Fill me in.”
Last week the Junk Bond King had discovered Solo at the bar and immediately sat down next to her.
“Hola Chiquita. Mind if I take this seata?” He set down his laptop and settled in. “Rough day in the trade but I made a killing. Do you think it’s nice in Nice? I’m thinking about traveling.”
Solo turned slowly and said to him thoughtfully: “We see death’s door at the end of every corridor. Before we go through that one we should open as many of the others we can.”
“How about I open yours?”
“I’m never there.”
“Where are you?”
“I am never anywhere.”
She said this after deep reflection and seemed to be surprised by her own situation.
Her escort came and they went away to a table in the corner.
“I never talk about the customers.” Stiletto took away his empty glass and served him another. “But I will in this case. I will tell you the rumors. You can hear them anywhere. Maybe after you hear them, you won’t bother her. She is Rush Street’s beautiful mystery. She has slept with no one, despite the parade of nightclub boyfriends. She comes and goes, from where no one knows. Some say she is the daughter of a Columbian coffee plantation owner. Some say she is the daughter of a South American drug cartel overlord, or his wife. Some say she is on a Holiday. Some say that she is here studying, others she is hiding. Solo is an enigma. Solo inhabits a world of her own. Solo is a phantom.”
“Interesting.” The baby faced billionaire sipped his drink. “But maybe she grew up in a Chi-town ghetto? Maybe she still lives there? Maybe she weaves those clothes out of the fabric she’s stolen from a day in a sweat shop in Chicago’s underground garment district? Her fingers look as nimble as her body. Imagine the Braille she could write over your skin in a night of passion! Maybe she’s just another Fab club gold digger, but one more clever? Maybe Ill have a detective agency investigate her. Princess, pauper? Whatever she is maybe I’ll have her for a night of pleasure. Money can buy anything, one way or another.”
Maybe you better not bother her. Stiletto brooded as he wiped the bar and moved away to another customer.
Stiletto had already shadowed Solo. He could not help himself. They were made for each other. He had to get to know her better. He had to sit and talk with her. He wanted the same one dance/one chance rendezvous as the others, for that’s what was going on. One Fab club interlude with Solo and if something was wrong you were gone. Everybody knew it. It had become a Fab club tournament – which prince could win the princess. No one was insulted. In fact they enjoyed the challenge. They were all too full of themselves to be offended. Besides, they had no hearts to be broken. Even the lynx eyed lovelies weren’t disturbed. Solo did not come as an eclipse over their sugar plum planet of French perfume, manicured nails, styled hair, tanning salons. If anything she made it easier for them to catch a man on the rebound. Solo was looking for a husband and she knew what she wanted – no dating games, party life, or one night stands. At first it seemed a little old fashioned and quaint in a world where “now” is all that matters anyway and nightlife was a drug one shot through ones veins, each night a new fix, night after night you looked forward to the next. But that soon changed into a fabulous Fab club game of speculation – who could temp Solo into a second date?
Solo wanted a mate. Stiletto knew if she got to know him she would see how right they would be for one another. But it was impossible here. He could not come back on his days off – it was against the rules. They were his rules. Fab was not to be a party place for the wait staff. It generated too many problems. He had learned that lesson managing the restaurant in Hollywood. This was not the right setting anyway, not for a meeting of soul mates. As far as the Junk Bond King’s speculation that she was just another gold digger and very likely a poor one, Stiletto had already considered that. If that were true – and after his obsessive stalking he still didn’t know, it was more complicated than that – her poverty might work to his credit. It was another bond they could build a life upon.
Stiletto was no longer a poor man. Stiletto was an affluent young professional and he had plans. Between the tips he declared and the tips he hid, which were tycoon generous, plus his salary as manager in one of Chicago’s most exclusive nightclubs, he easily made as much as a doctor – at least one who was in general practice. Small change, of course, in this rarified world of corporate magnets. Yet enough to live in grandeur – a deluxe apartment in a high rise in one of the worlds most beautiful cities, where he could sit on a terrace, surrounded by skyscrapers, and look down from fifty stories at a forest of parks, a treasure of mansions, museums, Cathedrals, public gardens with sparkling fountains, amidst a luxury of tree lines streets, abundant with art galleries, bookstores, cafes and expensive shops, all of it spread out along a sparkling fresh water sea dotted with cruisers, freighters, sailboats and yachts. One day he would open his own Gold Coast café. He had the savings, connections, backing, credit with banks. He knew what he was doing and everybody liked him. In time he planned to become a legendary restaurant owner. This bold renegade would carve a Z with his blade – a Z for zillionaire not zero, which he was when he was a migrant worker.
“THEM,” he once made up a poem when he was tired, defeated, working on his GED and fed up with how he was treated, by fate, society, because of his dark complexion and poverty. “They come with nowhere to go but the ghetto. They do their time at the bottom of the heap and the back of the line. There is no end to THEM. We keep letting us in.” Now in Arizona they wanted to pass a law where there was no citizenship for Hispanics like him born in America from what they called illegal aliens. They were against pathways to citizenship. Many states were.
He wanted to talk about his life with Solo. He wanted to tell her all his dreams and sorrows. He wanted to know hers. But shadowing her had been a bad idea. He had unexpectedly hounded her into a world of horror, puzzling and disturbing.
“With all the whores before me, Zorro, wither shall I point my dick?” The Junk Bond King asked Stiletto and laughed. “To paraphrase Mary Shelly, if you have any acquaintance with literacy.”
The drunker he got the more angelic he looked, with his blonde, designer hair and white, chiseled features. You had to look closely to see that his thin lipped smile got meaner. Angels and demons all morphed together – Heaven and Hell in the same Dream Chamber. This time of night, after hours of booze, drugs, echoing music and multicolored lights, the goblins, witches, and demons came out of the shadows. Fab began to resemble a vampire’s castle. “With all the world before me wither shall I bend my step/” Mary Shelley’s monster wondered`. Junking up a line from Frankenstein – how appropriate, how Junk Bond clever. Down the road to perdition is where they were all headed and taking everyone with them.
“I was the bard of Harvard Yard, Zorro. When they called me the Wiz Kid they meant in bed. You want to talk numbers? There’s only one amigo. Numero uno. Got a new name for you my friend: Apocalypto. Ever seen the Gibson flick? I started drinking these after it.” He lifted his glass. “You look like that doe-eyed Mayan guy, or whatever he was, running around naked in the jungle trying to save his ass after his village got mashed by the big boys. They all thought they were something those Aztecs and Mayans. Just like you do. It cracks me up the way you think you’re so cool with your braided, Indian pony tail. Must be something in the blood which muddles the head. So the flick goes from that piss ass little village of gathers and hunters where all your relatives lived, to the big kingdom of the gods with their pyramids and witch doctors where everybody thinks life is really rocking. That flick cracked me up. What a bunch of deluded fuck ups! I thought of you when I saw it. ‘Cause BAMMO! WHAMMO! Horror of horrors! Here comes the Conquistadors! That woke them up. I love that last scene. The big ship with the real masters of the universe floating like a nightmare on their piss ass sea. You can run little savages nut you can’t hide from me! I’ll have another Zorro, I mean Apocalypto, dry, shaken, arctic cold, and remember those onions, por favor.”
“But of course.” Stiletto leaned over and took his empty glass. “But let me tell you something.” He lowered his voice. “I mean what I say sincerely, my friend. I don’t like you.” And one day I may kill you, he added to himself. “But I feel that I must warn you. You must be very careful about Solo. For her sake as well as your own. There are things that you don’t know, things none of us know. You may get into a situation you don’t want to – or create one.” His mind flashed back to the mean streets he had shadowed her down, the dangerous characters, the mysteries. “I must warn Solo about you too. About the detectives you mentioned. I told you Solo inhabits a world of her own. She is something of an enigma. One must be cautious about involving themselves in the affairs of others. There is a saying among the people I grew up with. It was to remind them to stay out of trouble with one another. ‘Don’t start a fire you can’t put out.’ George Bush could have used that for Iraq. Maybe Obama for Afghanistan, definitely for Iran. And the bankers before they created the bubble that broke and brought on the recession, in which we still wallow to some extent. Although none of you seem to be suffering. One must be careful in life, proceed judiciously.
“You don’t warn a conquistador,” he smirked at Stiletto, “especially with barrio folk lore. All I need from you is the drinks you pour.”
Conquistadors galore – Fab was filled with commodities toreadors. Stiletto shook his head and made the drink, moved down the bar to take care of the next customer. These “masters of the universe” were masters of disaster to the world, themselves, their families ultimately. They couldn’t feel and they couldn’t think beyond their own lust for money and their power trip. This was a bad turn of things, muy malo. Stiletto wondered, seriously, if he should kill the Junk Bond King, tonight, follow him out and cut his throat in the dark. If he looked into the affairs of Solo, as Stiletto had, he might cause her trouble. Was the day the dark side of Solo’s life? By what he saw it seemed that way. Was she involved in a South American drug cartel? Chicago had its tunnels, funnels, cross currents like every world city. Maybe they led to a South Side Chicago drug running operation? Rich or poor, was she working Rush Street dealers? Was that what she was doing in Fab and the other high end watering holes? Was flirting and dancing her cover? her mode of contact? Was she on the run from a lover or husband with a stolen score from South or Central America and was cashing in on it, like a dying butterfly, across the night scene, door to door?
Stiletto’s mind was spinning with the mysteries and possibilities. All he had were the rumors, the puzzle of Solo and what little he had seen. She was staying in a grand hotel downtown, the Palmer House, an old money estuary with a lobby you would only find in a Hollywood movie. He had followed her there and watched her disappear into the rooms above on an elevator. The domed ceiling above him sparkled with chandeliers. Beneath it the lush, plush, expansive room was filled with overstuffed chairs and antique style tables at which one rested and enjoyed a cocktail. The wait staff, dressed in formal attire, ran around taking care of the guests like maids and butlers. Statues, fountains, paintings, completed the lavish grand hotel ambience. This was all fitting. Where else would the magnificent Solo be residing?
The lobby became his home away from home. Before work, on his days off, days he called off, he would hang out there, sitting in a plush chair, reading, having a drink, hoping he would catch a glimpse of her coming or going so he could casually run into her. But she never appeared. There were too many other entrances and exits to the grand hotel which she apparently preferred. Security began to eye him suspiciously. He had to give up the ghost, the ghost of Solo, admit defeat.
But then, quite by chance, he did run into her at the museum. Art was a passion with him. If Stiletto could wake up one morning with the ability to paint like Miro or Picasso he felt he would finally possess a real soul. She was standing in a gallery in the contemporary section with her back to him. She was dressed, casually, in a dazzling autumn print, gypsy dress with puffed shoulders and billowing sleeves, over which her raven hair cascaded like a tropical storm’s renegade showers or a poet’s dream. She was looking, intently, at the almost Surrealistic rendition of the beautiful opera singer Maris Callis by Gerhard Richter. With staccato brushstrokes of grey, white, black and silver, the artist captured the majestic woman descending a staircase from heaven – or certainly some grander realm than the one we live in – no place Stiletto had been or could imagine. The portrait brought to mind those old black and white silver print photographs of the glamorous stars of the Silver Screen from the Golden Age of filmmaking. But of course it was even more otherworldly and breathtaking. The painting shimmered. Maria looked like she would vanish before one’s eyes even though her presence was supernaturally vivid. She was at once haunting, chimerical, yet, rivetingly real. She looked like Solo, Stiletto suddenly realized, or a future manifestation of Solo which time and maturity would bestow. Yet despite the beauty and majesty of the woman descending the staircase, the expression in her eyes, her features suggested tragedy. There was a determination in her gaze, a stoic look of resignation, as though descending those stairs, into wherever she was going was her obligation, even mission. Was this Solo’s story?
Suddenly Solo had turned away from the painting and looked at him. Her face was stricken, with terror, horror, devastation. Her black hole eyes looked hypnotized. She walked passed him, shaken. She didn’t see him standing in the doorway. She saw nothing. Stiletto was too confused to move. Heart pounding he watched her zombie down a hallway and disappear around a corner. That was the beginning of his stalking nightmare.
She left the museum. He spotted her on the street getting into a cab. “I’m undercover.” He had said crazily to the driver as he hopped into the cab behind her. “Follow her.”
“Want to run that past me again?”
The cab driver looked in his rear view mirror.
Stiletto tossed a fifty in the front seat. The driver looked at it and started his ignition.
“We never had this conversation.”
They followed Solo to the worst Latino ghetto in Chicago. The buildings looked like bombed out shells in a war zone. The streets were crowded with gangs, as bad as any he had seen in East LA. They brought back memories of drug lords, stabbings, shootings. Stiletto was scared. What could Solo be doing in this dead zone?
“Far as I go amigo.” The cab driver pulled over to the curb. “I go down a side street I may get into trouble.”
The streets were closing in on themselves, dead ending as they toppled through their own small jumble in the urban jungle. Her cab was gone. Stiletto could have pursued her on foot but it seemed hopeless, and dangerous. He was too well dressed, a target. Sure he was Latino but he didn’t belong. His accent was wrong, as were all of his expressions, everything about him. The gangs out there would be on him in a minute.
“Take me back.” Stiletto reluctantly told the driver that day. He had to give up the ghost. A phantom was what Solo remained.

“Would you like to dance?” The voice of Solo roused Stiletto from his dream world. She was suddenly seated next to the Junk Bond King sipping her Champagne and staring challengingly at him.
“I don’t dance standing up Chiquita.” The baby faced billionaire stared back at her and grinned. “What I do is the Swim. One partner on top, the other on the bottom.”
“Let’s test the water.”
Solo got up and walked out onto the dance floor. The young conquistador smirked and followed after.
It was like watching a swan mate with a monkey, or a goblin chase a ghost, or a devil chase an angel through the fires of Hell with his pitchfork. The Junk Bond King, who was tall and gawky, slashed menacingly at the air, determined, it seemed, to sly the beautiful creature bef0re him. Solo eluded his lethal blows, weaving and feinting and twirling in and around him.
The crowd began to clap. They encircled the clashing couple, one who whirled like a dervish, the other who stalked like a monster. It was a horror show and yet it was beautiful and they raged against one another in dazzling disorder, eyes riveted, mouths twisted, with passion? defiance? It didn’t matter. Stiletto knew that he had lost her.

Doors in the rain, locked, lonely, all the same, where the endless night never sees a glimmer of daylight, and life falls through fate’s cracks like a vanishing act.
“We see death’s door at the end of every corridor. Before we go through that one we should open as many of the others as we can.”
Death’s door. That was the only one left down Stiletto’s corridor. Or so it felt. He sat bundled up on his terrace, the city sparkling below him with its panorama of Christmas, and read in the papers about the marriage of Solo and the Junk Bond King on Christmas Eve in a little town in Guatemala which no one had ever heard of.
“Life’s road is a scar, cut by a butcher.”
Solo was a teacher there, according to the article, who came to Chicago to visit her childhood friend on a holiday. The woman, Maria, was a dress designer who wanted to establish her fashions in America. She was living in poverty, illegally. Now Stiletto knew where she was going when he followed her that day and where Solo got her magnificent clothes. The Junk Bond King took care of Maria. He bought her a shop on Chicago’s Gold Coast, fixed up the legality of her residence. The Junk Bond King was taking care of everything. He was building a school for the town Solo came from and a hospital, and a factory where the people of the town could manufacture the products from his vast holdings.
Stiletto could read between the lines of the Cinderella story. The town had collectively raised money, just as the migrants had done for one another many times in his childhood to help the others and themselves. To send Solo to America. The beauty had done her duty. She had married money.
“Confined in my cloud prison,
Stiletto replayed Solo’s song in his head as he read, watched her dance again.
“I watch a rainbow arch across the heavens,
“Dreams shimmer through fate’s prism,
“I fall through life’s crystal ball

Fallen Soldiers

The homeless vet

bums a cigarette

as he leaves the

public library,

wondering,

while he smokes it

and enjoys the small

comforting glow.

of the burning tobacco,

where he’ll go next,

to survive the blistering

cold of Chicago.

Death like a bullet

shot from a gun,

is coming for him,

and everyone,

jobless, roofless,

hopeless – thousands

just like him

in every city.

His comrades in arms,

now missing in action,

abandoned by their country.

Dead on the sidewalk,

dead in the alley,

dead on the asphalt –

the vet knows death. He’s

seen enough of it.      .

The night is a war zone.

You survive or you don’t.

Jack in a Box

Fist hit days knocking them off their feet and no way out, not tomorrow, maybe never, rain pounding down sad enough to make one weep, all day, every day.

“Punch out and pull your pay, everyone, we’re closing down.”

With the weighted steps of weariness, they walk the stormy streets, looking for anyone, anything hiring, bills to pay, mouths to feed, hearing the music of life’s mystery play in shadowed souls and haunted heartbeats as they search the city, restlessly.

STOCKS PLUMMET, BANKS FOLD, JOBS LOST, HOUSES FORECLOSE

            Tattered newspapers flutter down the walks, grabbing at their steps.  When they finally get home, at the end of each payless day, their working class houses seem to huddle together like headstones in a graveyard.  Every street sign seems to read Death’s Row instead of Pine, Maple, Elm and Oak.  And there’s no going back to what was before because it isn’t there anymore.

 

Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the lord my soul to keep and if I die before I wake I pray the lord my soul to take …

            Dreams float without soul, each night a new death.  Each day a postmortem on dreams abandoned.  Five months out of work and counting.  All the days bleak, bitter with the early onslaught of winter.  No heat up yet, holding off on that.  Kids colic, wife stoic.  Jack’s teeth start to chatter as he lies awake trying to imagine their fate.  He gets up and throws another blanket on the bed, gets back under the covers with a shiver.  Julie hasn’t slept yet either.

“Do you think we’re going to make it through this?”  She asks.

“Sure, we can raise some cash.”  Jack says soothingly.

If they could sell all their trash – furniture, house, used car, knick knacks, clothes.  Factor in his unemployment checks for as long as they last.  Add whatever handyman gigs he can put into that.  Government food stamps?

“I’m afraid.”

“No need to be.  We’ll be OK.  Take care of our needs – some kind of roof over our heads, heat, food for the kids.”

Jack stares at the darkened ceiling of the bedroom.  Fire sale!  Fire sale!  Flames leap.  The night stands ignite.  The bed burns, dressers, tables, chairs, drapes, the whole sprawling ranch house swirling in flames, boy scout, girl scout, little league pictures erased as plumes sweep each room.

“Try to get some sleep.”

 

Jack ponders the mob in the mirror.  They look like a convention of those background characters in the funny papers, always outside the main action, doing pratfalls as they move things around trying to get the world’s business done.  He used to be one when his life was fun.

Finnian’s bar is packed to its corned beef and cabbage rafters (shamrock clocks, Leprechaun tap handles, emerald green walls stacked with paintings of smiling Colleens, potato farmers, trout stream fishers, and other Celtic doo dads, drawings, carvings, thing-a-ma-gigs – not to mention the all Irish jukebox where every other play seems to be “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?”) packed, stacked, maxed with Granton’s finest fixiteers: roofers, plumbers, mechanics, barbers, house painters, brick layers, H&R Block financial advisors, trash collectors, dog trimmers, street cleaners, carpenters.  Fifteen million out of work, including him, but the fixiteers still reveling in the American Dream.  Something always needed fixing, except luxury foreign cars because no one could afford them anymore.

“Having any luck big guy?”  Old McGinty the plumber asks Jack’s reflection as he slaps his broad back.  He means finding work.

“Sure am Mac, but it’s all bad.”

“Fuck that shit!”  Mac waves his Pabst.  “Next one’s on me!  Guy with your skills don’t got to worry ‘bout a thing!”

Except house payments, food and a congressional extension on his unemployment compensation.

“Pickin’ the lotto?”  Bob the barber looks over Jack’s shoulder as Jack scribbles numbers on a cocktail napkin trying to figure out how much he owes everyone.

“You got it Bob.  That winning ticket will fix it.”

“I always play important dates: weddings, birthdays, deaths, anniversaries.”

“You ever win?”

“Not yet.”  Bob looks kind of scary as he ponders this.  Come to think of it, it’s the same puzzled expression you see on his face in the mirror when he’s standing over you holding a pair of scissors or a razor.  “But it’s all in the planets, damit, ain’t it?”

There she goes again.  Rosemary Clooney crooning about some “Londonderry bird” with a “cheery word” and lads and lassies “sighin’ Torrlay.”

How much could he take?”

Skills.  Jack glances at McGinty in the mirror.  Skills weren’t paying the bills.

Jack and Julie went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.  Jack broods as he scribbles out more numbers.  The numbers are mind numbing.  The sum total brain boggling.  Their house was a white elephant.  They had traded in their bungalow for a hummungalow.  Why not?  He was making good money and the family was growing.  The economy was growing.  The country was flourishing.  Now they couldn’t sell it and they couldn’t pay for it.  The current Markey value was half of what he owed.  Same with the car.  The Benz was a behemoth guzzling him up.  But again why not?  He was, or had been, a kind of big shot on the imported car lot and got a super discount on anything he bought.  It came out to no more than a Cadillac would have from a different dealer.  After his promotion didn’t he deserve that?  Mortgage, car payments, credit cards, health insurance, property tax, heat, food, new furniture – but why not new furniture?  Julie was the best and she deserved the best, and those new bikes, but his kids were the best, his family deserved the best life, which he could well afford, at least before the bull market turned into a hibernating bear who ate goldilocks and was snoring in his lair.  Who expected what happened?  Did anyone mention the Great Recession?  They had no savings!  Married fifteen years and he hadn’t put a dime away for a rainy day!  How much could he have saved anyway?  Life came at you fast, like a bomb blast.  OK maybe America was having itself one big blast but did anyone say that blast wouldn’t last?  Who said last call?  Kudlow?  Cramer?  All he heard was rock on!  Jack fell down and broke his crown and Julie came tumbling after.  And Tim and Beth and little Jimmy.

He tried to figure out how much he had lost with the market crash on his 401K retirement investment.  All he had left for his retirement was his burial plot.  Maybe he could sell it back at a discount?  The money would help.  The whole country had fallen down and broken its crown.  Everyone was tumbling.  The fixiteers would get theirs as the misery trickled down and spread around.  The party was over.  The American Dream was a nightmare.  You didn’t even have to read the papers.  The living obituary featured all your friends and neighbors.  His brother was out of work, too, laid off from the plant.  His father had been forced to take early retirement.  His sister’s fiancé, just out of college, couldn’t find a job.  They were postponing their marriage until the economy rebounded.  “Now I pronounce thee – Never Ever.”  Watch the news and feel the blues.  No sign there that Jack’s fixiteer profession was going to get better in anything like the near furure.  Fixing Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Porches, Rolls Royces, Bentleys, Benzes, Jags and Beemers for Luxury Imports was like trying to survive off vanishing species.  For the last two decades more and more of these exotic imports were filling the streets of Granton and all the neighboring towns as credit got looser, dividends higher and status symbols grander.  You had to park something in front of your MacMansion other than a crummy Caddy or Lincoln.  Hell even the farmers were buying them and his ex boss, Mr. La Ponte, became a multi-millionaire selling these dream machines to the noveau riche in hamlets and townships for miles around.  And then came the recession and repossession and La Ponte consolidated his business and left Granton.  He was now operating exclusively in Cherry Hill, New Jersey where he had been well established (Granton was a satellite location) since the sixties.

Every mainstream place Jack applied, Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, not to mention Nick’s Quick Muffler said he was overqualified.  They said that he would jump their ship as soon as he got a better offer so why should they bother?  Well, yeah, maintaining super expensive imports paid almost as much as the average Granton GP took in each year and you didn’t have to buy malpractice insurance.  Life had thrown a monkey wrench into his internal combustion engine.  His life was a lemon.  He was “too old” for sock work.  Too big and scary to sell insurance.  No one said that but that was his impression.  That and that he wasn’t a people person, which you could translate “Not good at ass kissin’.”

“Life is simple.”  John Jasper, the photographer, squeezed in next to him, elbows on the bar waiting for Finnian to refill his glass of bourbon, and said as if he just read Jack’s mind.  “Saw it on TV.  The Discovery Channel.  The Big Bang, the primordial soup, reproduction, evolution, monkeys and missing links, Homo sapiens, Knowledge, conflicts, polarization, nuclear proliferation, global warming, Armageddon.  Why?  No reason.  Even if you out God back into the equation.   To top it off the global supply of oil is running out.  Cheers.”  Jasper downed his drink and disappeared.

Jesus Christ!  Jack watched him melt back into the mob, camera strapped across the shoulder of his safari outfit.  What a bummer!  What were the gas guzzlers supposed to run on?  Flubber?  Didn’t anyone talk about sports anymore?  John was getting weird.  Maybe everyone was?  Maybe the recession was driving everyone nuts?  He studied his reflection in the mirror.  The same boy scout face he had worn since he was eight – trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, the same clean-cut crew-cut haircut and incurious hazel gaze – stared back blankly at him at thirty-eight.  No signs of impending insanity that he could see,  But then his vision was starting to blur from all the beers.  There was a screw loose rattling around somewhere.  He could feel it clank and clatter.  He was no boy scout anymore either.  He was back to tuning up cars around the neighborhood for small change, something he did when he was a teenager; but now, unlike then, he was cheating all his customers – charging them for parts he never put in, nickel and diming everyone so he could join the fixiteer crowd at Finnian’s.  This lunatic asylum was a haven for him?  And the amount he was drinking now!  So far Julie hadn’t said anything but most nights lately he would actually come home stinking!

Jack the Beanstalk.  Jack recalled his nickname as a kid.  Jack the Giant Killer.  I had evolved into by the time he was a high school senior.  He stood six feet six inches tall and it was all muscle back then.  Jack the Nimble, Jack the Quick, Jumpin’ Jack – he was the star center on Granton High’s only, to date, championship basketball team.  Jack Frost, no scoring on Big Jack, he’ll block your shots and freeze you out!  Life had turned queer.  His nickname now would be Jack the Ripper, he’ll rip you off for a drink of liquor!  What was happening to him?  How far down the ladder into hell could he descend?

“I work in an All Nite Laundromat.”  Some guy Jack didn’t know, who looked like a troll, squeezed into the place Jasper had just vacated.  “I take care of the machines, keep the place clean.  Mostly loners come in with their bundles.  Inside, they sit back and stare and watch the machines cycle, dry.  I see them, blobs and sacks for eyes imitating life with blank expressions and occasional automaton movements.

“When I started having dreams of ghosts staring at me from white Whirlpool coffins, ghosts shivering, grinning through the windows in the washer’s door, I knew, yes I knew it was time to put a new spin on my life.”

Who the fuck was that guy?  Jack stared after the troll as he disappeared back in the crowd with his fresh drink.  Marley’s ghost?  Was this some kind of cosmic joke?  Was he the bearer of some cryptic message?  A new spin on life?  Life was spinning him.  Life was out of control.  Life was no longer black and white, wrong or right.  Life sure as hell was no rainbow with a pot of gold.  Ghosts in white Whirlpool coffins?  Was that supposed to be him?  Did this guy know his name?  Mickey’s?  Was this a prophecy?  A premonition?

“Jack Black … Black Jack … Mickey White … White Mickey … Jack sipped his beer and reminisced about the clusters of pretty teenie boppers that always surrounded him and Mickey – the jolly white giant and the sleek Afro-American – back in high school at dances, malt shops, parties, the giggles, laughter, as he dead panned his play on their names, while Mickey mugged along, in silence, with a befuddled expression on his sculpted ebony face, pointy fingers poking in all directions … white Black … black White … see girls … Jack would lift his hands and roll his eyes …we’s all messed up!”

Him and Mickey, smooth and tricky.  But they were heroes then, at least in the eyes of Granton.  Mickey was his point man.  He would dribble the ball down the court and set the plays.  Feed Jack perfectly times shots to make, hooks, dunks, spinning layups.  Whatever was appropriate.  Their sync was telepathic, their precision in execution like the workings of a Swiss watch.  He could read what moves to make by the look in Mickey’s eyes.  They were like brothers all through high.  It had been a long time.  Jack couldn’t even remember the last time he had seen Mickey White.   Rumor had it that he was doing great.  He owned a bar in BlackTown and a penny arcade.  Not that BlackTown wasn’t a part of Granton and of course nobody called it that.  They called it SouthTown.  Granton was one of those Midwestern towns with shady streets and manicured lawns surrounded by white picket fences, and divided into sections around the lush Town Square, where the court house was and the main streets were.  It began as a farming community but over the course of a century had attracted business and industry because of its location in downstate Illinois between the big cities of Saint Louis and Chicago and its population had substantially grown into a kind of mini city.

Mickey was the play maker.  He could read the scrambling, shoving, jostling for position situation, time and feed it with the perfect play.  He knew how to play life too.  He didn’t fuck up like Jack had, getting crushed by hoop dreams, and jock imaginings of glory beyond his ability.  Mickey ignored his offer of a big then basketball scholarship.  After Granton High, he went to work in his uncle’s bar, just a joint, as bartender and manager.  Eventually je inherited the place and after a while he bought the mom and pop grocery next to it, which he turned into a pinball and computer arcade and that little daily trickle of money, mostly from teens, is where his fortune, such as it was, was made.  It became a hangout “Mickey’s Arcade,” actually something of a rage, and he promoted it with old newspaper articles about the trophy winning team, pictures of himself dribbling down the court, Jack making dunks and blocking shots, team portraits.  “Be A Champion” was lettered over the display in reference to playing the games, in which there were on going prizes and honors.  Come to think of it that was the last time he saw Mickey, at the opening.  Mickey was practical not delusional, street smart, life smart, not egomaniacal and suicidal like the jolly white giant who screwed himself up royal and had to struggle, back then, for his mental survival.

“Cabbage soup, cabbage salad, stuffed cabbage, boiled cabbage, sauerkraut …”  Not this story again.  Jack looked in the mirror.  The General had squeezed in next to him.  “Everyone in the tenement ate cabbage everyday, everyone in the town.  You had to eat something.  You couldn’t breath anyway.  The factories smothered the town with toxic clouds.  Smoke from their chimneys filled the streets and alleys.  It could have been London.  It could have been Heaven.  Maybe angels flew with the wind.  Who knew?  You couldn’t see anything.  My father had a face which looked like a kicked in door.  My mother had a face which looked like a cabbage cooker.  It’s hard to describe hell well.  I got drafted == three squares a day, meat, potatoes, pie a la mode.  The air was filled with bullets, explosions.  I re-uped anyway, over and over again.  The food.  Now I’m back to cabbage.  The army pension don’t cut it.  I can’t get a job.   Least you only have to breathe your own cabbage in Granton.  That’s something.”

“Hang in there General.”

The guy gets a pension and he’s still complaining?  Jack watched the General retreat into the mob.  Jack wished he had a pension.

The tall happy life of Jack Black almost ended after its first act.  The scholarship he got from MichiganState was contingent, of course, on his athletic performance.  He was too short to be an NCAA center but they thought he would make a good forward – a white Dennis Rodman.  With his build he could muscle in and grab rebounds, with his speed steal balls, with his agility be able to break away and score points with jump shots and layups.  None of that happened.  Everyone was a step faster and a shade quicker.  They would slap the ball from his hands, block his shots, even the lanky guys managed to muscle in on him and steal the rebounds.  He was dropped from the team after his first season.  Suddenly Jack was nothing.  The Granton hero was zero.  He could have gone to a smaller school and played a lesser venue.  That would have been the smartest thing to do because he could have gotten a free degree in some respectable college or university.  He had been recruited, along with MichiganState, by many.  But he was afraid.  Jack had completely lost his grip on things.  What if he failed again?  He’d be less than zero.  He’d be some giant clunk who wasn’t really a hero at all but just bigger than the other seventeen year old boys in his own and the surrounding small towns.  Maybe he really didn’t have any skills at all?  That was something he didn’t want to face.  His ego would have been totally erased.

After he finished his first year, basically roaming the campus in total despair, Jack dropped college altogether and borrowed money from his father.  He used the loan to enroll in an automotive technical training school in Detroit.  He had been messing around with cars since he was a kid and was good at fixing them.  He needed to get back into something he was good at.  It wasn’t basketball and it wasn’t scholastics.  It’s not like he was going to graduate from anywhere at the top of his class.

These were two dark grueling years for him.  He had to drive from Granton to Detroit three times a week, sleep in his car there and drive back to his parents house where he felt he was holed up like Kafka’s giant cockroach.  He lived like a hermit.  He avoided Granton like the Black Death.  If he ever accidently ran into anyone and they asked him about Michigan he would lie and say he hurt his back but when it got better the basketball team wanted him back.  In the future he would tell everyone the same story and add that his back never got better – fate, whatever.

To get the automotive engineering certificate Jack had to completely reassemble a disassembled car from scratch, start it up and drive it around the campus.  He was the only guy in a class of fifty whose junker performed perfectly!  Jack was back!  Jack could name his ticket.  Maybe not in the NBA or anything that grand in prestige or pay but in something that would get him through life in a good way – or should have.  Now even that was up for grabs.

“I met her in a blind alley bar.”  A voice next to Jack whispered.  “She had Queen of Darkness written all over her.  Roadkill dripped from her lips.  She drank from a bottle with a skull and crossbones on its label.  ‘Are you the one,’ she batted her Black Hole eyes at me, ‘looking for some fun?”  I downed my beer and went home.”

Finnian just kept the beers coming, without asking.  The money he had laid out on the bar was disappearing.  One more for the road and he was gone.  The wackos kept coming too.

“You know that waitress Molly, Jack?  In the dark in bed she said” ‘Damn the torpedoes, full spread ahead!’”  Finnian’s was a loony bin.  He had never noticed it before.  But then he had always just stopped for a couple after work.  Jack in the box didn’t pop out much.  He was a family man: church, picnics, little league, camping trips, visits with the uncles and aunts, grand mummies and granddaddies.  It’s not like he drank and hung out with louts.  At least not until his life fell apart.

Liquidate, evacuate, relocate.  Jack brooded as he pondered more numbers.  That was their fate.  But to relocate he needed a stake.  He couldn’t even pay off his debts.  He had gotten a nibble from a Chicago Bentley dealer.  Nothing that great.  Nothing like Luxury Imports.  But old La Ponte’s business had been a mechanic’s godsend.  La Ponte had cornered the market.  He carried everything, new, old, in between.  He dealt in volume, kept them coming and going.  Jack could fix anything.  Jack knew cars.  Lately, he had made a hobby of studying the G.M. electric lemon the Chevrolet Volt, paid for by zillions in tax money with that government bailout.  What absurdity!  If only he could get his hands on that thing!  So they were to leave their home in Granton, their friends and loved ones for a gritty city where the pay was shitty?  A move like that would kill Julie.  The kids, to say the least, would not be happy.  They would probably get into gangs, drugs, become juvenile delinquents.  Maybe he could commute?  Three hour drive back and forth.  Julie and the kids could stay with his parents, or hers.  Be kind of crowded.  Maybe they’d have to split that up?  His brother was living at home again.  God things were fucked up!  It was getting to be a strain on everyone.  “The great unraveling,” as someone said – that Jewish guy who won the Nobel Prize – was actually happening to him!

“Moments lost, withheld, passed over.”  Pete the pipe fitter squeezed in next to him and waited for Finnian to refill his draft beer, “moments at the bottom of a wishing well, from which we could have drank our fill.  But we never went there.  Me and Sarah.  Maybe we didn’t dare.  Across the table, she gives me her icy stare.  I give her my lethal glare.  Must be love, we’re still together.”

Jesus!  Jack watched Pete take his beer and retreat back into the mayhem.  Was that going to happen to him?  Was that what was coming?  Julie had been giving him icy stares lately.  He had been giving her glares – not lethal, just drunken.  Julie was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him – aside, maybe, from playing on the high school championship team.  She was the one and only ray of light in those dark days of his despair.  Tall, blonds, beautiful, just out of high school, she was waitressing at the diner he’d catch breakfast at now and then before the long dreary drive to Detroit.  She was a few years behind him at Granton, but, of course, she knew him as the star of the championship basketball team.  You’d think Brad Pitt had just walked in.  The team had given her the greatest thrill of her teens.  She gushed.  She told Jack she cried when they lost in the regional finals.  She felt so sorry for them.  They had worked so hard, gone so far.  She was saving for college, taking general classes at Granton Junior.  Her dream was to be a veterinarian.  She loved animals.  She hated to see them suffer.  They never knew why they were suffering.  The reason was beyond them.  She was afraid she wasn’t smart enough to get in.  Even if she did, it was super expensive.  Jack certainly had been a suffering animal.  Maybe that was the initial attraction?  He told her his sad story about his back injury and that he’d never play serious ball again.  Her heart went out to him.  He told her he was studying to be an automotive engineer.  It wasn’t anything fancy like law or medicine but he liked cars and had a knack for fixing them.  He had magic hands.  She thought it was heroic, they way he traveled so far “to the Motor City” and slept in his car so that he could study and learn.  The way she said “MotorCity” you’d think she was talking about Freud in Vienna or Einstein in Berlin.  They dated.  When he got his certificate they married.  Julie became a homemaker.  The bay making was delayed.  Julie had problems with her ovaries.  But then she was a mother!  The best ever!  Julie was a saint – a wonderful wife and mom.  He couldn’t live without her!  She was trying her best to find work.  Anything, even waitressing.  But there was nothing.  Anything available went to the family and friends of the posters of the want adds.  If she got a job they weren’t sure anyway how that would work out, with three small kids.  Jack glanced at his Rolex, remembered that he had hocked it, just as he had sold or pawned everything he could turn over to keep up with the bills, including the power lawn mower.  The shamrock clock said ten o’clock.  He had to move his big ass, get something accomplished.  The Benz had to go.  Mickey’s Arcade was still open.  Right now Mickey would be sitting in the back room counting his money.  He’d offer him the Behemoth.  Mickey could afford it.  It was a good deal.  In fact it was a steal.  Mickey was tricky, he would see that, once again, he had gotten lucky in a business buy.  And he had, due to Jack’s misfortune.  One hand washes the other.  Hell Mickey would buy it just out of friendship.

“Rocking around, Jack, laughing out loud, about everything, and nothing,” Carl the carpenter wedged in next to him, “no clue to or inkling Jack, sad to say, of anything except the party going on, day and night, in the space between their ears, where the sun and moon and everything in between pass before their eyes without rhyme or reason, like some recurring dream.  Your kids are young Jack.  Kids are cute at that age.  Mine are teens.  Six years of the teen beat!  Do I cry or scream?”

“You just say something about my kids?”  Jack tried to wrap his head around the barrage of words that Carl had just uttered.  “You just say my kids are fucked up?”

Jack stood up.

“No Jack.  I was making a joke about my own!  Teens in a dream!”

“Put him down Jack!”

“Where the hell do you get off talking that way about my family!”

“Calm down Jack.  Put Carl down.  You’ve had too much to drink.  Jack, I’ll have to call the police!”

“Fuck you Finnian!”  Jack dropped Carl.  “Fuck this place!  It’s a loony bin!”

Jack shoved his way through the mob and staggered to the door.  SouthTown?  He blinked and looked around – left, right, up down?

 

2

 

The lights were off in Mickey’s Arcade, but peering through the bay window Jack could see the silhouette of a bulky black youth sweeping the floor in a darkness illuminated by a few safety lights on the ceiling and a flashlight which the kid moved across the checkered, tile floor with his foot, beaming his push broom’s path in secret across the room, as if he were the clean floor fairy or a dirt burglar.

Go figure.  Jack watched the kid as he bent and swept the dirt into his dust pan, poked the flashlight along with his toe and started another row.  “Hey.”  Jack rapped on the window; but the kid ignored him.  “Hey kid!”  He rapped again, harder.  Without looking around the silhouette lifted it’s hand and flashed him its middle finger.  Jack stormed to the arcade door and pounded it with his fist.  He rattled the handle, slapped the glass.  The kid finally came over, studied the drunken giant white guy and opened it a crack.

“We closed man.”  He sneered.  “We close at ten.  Don’t rattle that door again.”

“I’m Jack Black.”  Jack gave him a lethal stare.  “I need to see Mickey.  Jack Black.  We go way back.”

The kid slammed the door shut.  Jack looked at it.  He lurched over to the bay window, saw the kid shuffle toward the back where a crack of light appeared and the kid came shuffling back.

“He’s in the back Jack.”  The kid glared at him as he let him in.  “Don’t trample on my shit!  Some jerk or another always wantin’ in,” he muttered to himself, “even the black out don’t keep them out!  You stay exactly behind me bigfoot, hear?  Don’t go slip sliding here, there and everywhere.  Give you the broom,” he muttered, “Black my ass, honky goon.”

They tight roped down the middle of the narrow room which was lined on other side by pinball, (oddly making a comeback with the kids in Granton) shuffleboard and computer games. Posters of sports figures packed the walls.  “Be A Champion” was lettered here and there.  Mickey’s office was more like a five by five closet.  He sat behind a small, gray metal desk – nothing more than two filing cabinets with a sheet metal top.  There was a box-safe next to it.  He was counting money, stacks of singles, piles of change, nickels, dimes, quarters, and scribbling in a ledger.

“have a seat Jack.”  Mickey smiled but continued with his work.  “I’ll be with you in a minute.  How long has it been?  Not since the opening.  You surviving the recession?”

Mickey looked natty in his camel-hair blazer and burgundy turtleneck sweater.  Dark brown slacks and wing tips completed the ensemble.  A London Fog trench coat hung on a coat tree in the corner, beside which a Mr. Coffee set brewing on a stand.  Jack lowered his giant blue-jeaned, Old Navy jacketed, drunken body on a folding chair, suddenly feeling a little grubby and disordered.  Mickey looked pretty.  His sculpted ebony face had hardly ages – not like Jack’s had with its pouches, wrinkles and beginnings of a double chin.  There was just a streak of gray on each temple of his crew-cut, jock haircut which he could easily have brushed away with Grecian Formula as Jack was starting to do when he went on job interviews.  But why would Mickey bother?  They gave him the dash of the debonair.

“Looks like you are.”

Jack watched with fascination as Mickey slid his pillars of change into little canvas bank bags marked with the appropriate denominations, his long manicured fingers looking as nimble as ever, reminding Jack of how young Mickey could handle the ball, dribbling it under and through and around his legs and back again as he ran down the court.  Mickey was tricky and apparently lucky.  Jack saved change in a Maxwell House coffee can.  His bank account, he joked, which he promptly cashed in when it got too full to cover with the plastic lid.  Jack knew change.  Take ten times that in every day, minus the overhead, no much, taxes, upkeep, Mickey owned the building, and you were sitting pretty.  He also owned the bar next door.

“Livin’ off the fat of the land.”  Mickey laughed.  “Just kidding.   More like living off the lean times.  Getting by on nickels and dimes.  I put together a cheap place to have fun and then came the recession.  You know I bought this place with the intention of expanding the bar.  I wanted to turn it into Granton’s first Black jazz and blues nightclub.  Lot’s of Blacks now in Granton, and in the neighboring towns.  I figured I’d clean up.  I couldn’t get the backing from the banks or the approval of the city counsel.  I think everyone figured it would turn into some kind of drug and hooker shoot ‘m up joint.  Not that Granton doesn’t have its share of those tucked away, black, white, and every other color of the rainbow, or cesspool.  Just not so close to downtown.  I may give that another fly someday.  So I put together this kids arcade.  Just for the hell of it really.  My uncle had all this junk in the bars basement.  Scuffle board, pinball machines, I dragged it out.  Never though the kids would go for it like they did.  Hard times I chalk it up to mostly.  Many of these kids can’t afford the latest, coolest computer games.  “Be A Champion,” clippings of you and me and the winning team.  No flack on that!  It’s a good thing too.  Kids need somewhere to get together.  Keeps them off the streets.  Keeps me off the streets!  But how are you doing?”  Mickey finished his accounting and with a big grin stretched over the desk and grabbed Jack’s hand.  “Been forever, man!  What can I do for you!”

Trade places?  Cut me in?  Nice little set up Mickey had.  Nice of his uncle to get him started.  Instead of sleeping in a car in Detroit and sweating out mechanical gig saw puzzles it must have been nice to have had life settled.

“I was hoping I could do something for you.”  Jack got the ball in his court.  Sometimes turning back the clock can cause a shock.  “Make you an offer you can’t refuse.  I have a business deal.  If you agree you’d be helping me, as well as yourself.  I’m in a game I can’t win, Mic, and the clock is running out on me.  I lost my job.  I’m about to lose my house, car.  I’m totally wiped out.  All that separates me and my family from being out on the streets is unemployment checks.  You know that ain’t much and they’re running out fast.  But I have a few shots I can score some points on.  Everyone wins with this one.”

“Gosh, I’m sorry to hear that Jack.”  Mickey shook his head.  “I heard you were a Top Chief mechanic.  Never would have figured anything could go wrong with that.”

“Supply and demand, my friend.  Those gourmet feasts everyone was gorging on gave them indigestion.  They couldn’t afford them.  I partook of one: top of the line Mercedes Benz, black, fully equipped, every bell and whistle packed into it.  I bought it off the lot, brand new, two years ago.  I got it for a song – twenty percent off.  With that kind of discount and with my trade in, plus making double payments, it’s half paid off.  But I can’t keep it up!  I can’t even afford insurance!  I’ve missed two payments and it won’t be long before they repossess it!  I need to sell it quick and pick up some cash, just five grand more than I owe on it would give me a stake.  I got a job offer in Chicago.  Half of what I’m used to but after being out of work for six months anything will do.  We’re selling the house too.  They’re going to foreclose on that also.  It’s the same situation.  We used the sale of the bungalow for the down payment, and over the last few years, despite the fact that we had the new place completely furnished, managed to make a big dent in the mortgage.  Business was booming at Luxury Imports.  I was working double shifts.  But the house now markets for half of what we signed for.  And despite that we can’t sell it!  We’re just hoping to break even.  I don’t want bankrupt on my credit rating.  I got trouble enough.  It’s another good investment.  Buy low, sell high, when and if this recession ends.”

“Goddamn recession is killing everyone.”  Mickey frowned.  “My brother Rodney lost his job.  Remember him?  I got him working at the bar, although I really can’t afford the extra hand.  I don’t know man.  I tell you quite frankly that house is out, although I know what you’re talking about.  You bought one of those long, rambling ranch style jobs with the fireplace that’s open on two sides, between the living and the dining room, stone-stacked wall in between.  Me and Trudy took a peek at them.  Now that’s living!  We’re living with my mom.  When my dad died we moved in.  She was really down.  Man, I was down.  That was a big blow.  I could have used you bro.  I was kind of hoping you’d show up at the funeral.  But, anyway, it works out real nice.  We take care of her and she takes care of us – or at least her grandchildren who she spoils to distraction.  We decided to stay there even when she passes.  Hell, me and Rodney and Floree were raised there and we came out OK.  Never felt deprived in any way.  When the time comes I’ll have the house appraised, give them their share.  Besides, we’re saving big time for the kids’ educations.  Not leaving that to chance.  Better to play it safe than be sorry these days.  Now that Benz is mighty tempting.  Always been my dream to own one of those high class luxury machines; be the big shot of the Granton High School Class Reunion parking lot!  Let yawl know what’s what!  Yeah boy, what a toy!  I drive a Prius.  Talk about a boring, married with children suburban!  Let me turn that over in my mind.  That’s a deal that has facets to it.  If I don’t want to drive it I can sell it for a profit.  Or I can drive it for a while, for the hell of it, and then sell it.  God, I’d probably pick up a quick ten grand.  But that deal has its own problems.  Insurance, as you know, is a lot higher in SouthTown than in the rest of Granton.  So is theft and vandalism.  I got two places to run, so Trudy would get stuck dealing with the sale, calls, visits, test drives.  I’d have to talk with her first.  Let’s see what develops.  We really can’t seal any deal tonight, Jack, in your condition.  Looks like you been partying pretty good.  Let’s both sleep on it and tomorrow we can meet for lunch.  On me man.  We can catch up.  Maybe I can make some calls in between, see if any of the brothers are still solvent and in need of a badass machine.  Maybe we can put our heads together and think of a game plan.  You know that house  foreclosure problem may not be exactly like you think.  Takes a good year for the powers that be to evict you from your property.  You land that job in Chicago and you can start building up some cash while you live rent free.  Going bankrupt is common enough these days, given the situation.  Getting your credit back ain’t exactly a snap but the right lawyer can make that a lot easier.  I know a guy you should talk to.  Here’s my number.”  Mickey scribbled on a business card, smiled and handed it to Jack.  “Call me tomorrow, brother.”

“Oh, I got your number – brother.”  Jack folded his arms and glared at Mickey’s outstretched hand.  “Tricky Mickey, slick and slippery.  You think I’m so drunk I don’t see when someone’s jiving me?”

“Say what?  Now slow down Jack.”

“Jack-off is what you’re handing me!  I’m the big Jack-off!  I blew my money and can’t take care of my family!  Not like you can because you’re the man with the plan!  Every other sentence you been rubbing that in!  If you really wanted me at your father’s funeral you would have reached out and shared!  What, I’m supposed to read the Granton Gazette obituary?  What else you trying to imply?  Maybe that Trudy and Julie haven’t exchanged recioes lately and now I come in with my hat in my hand?  You’re glad I showed up so you could show me up!  You been sitting there in your high chair counting your money with that shit eating grin!  You been laughing at me ever since I got dumped by Michigan!  Not you!  You’re no fool!  You’re the man with the plan.  You’re not dumb enough to get sucked in by some hoop dream!  Not tricky Mickey!”

“Now wait a minute Jack.  I never thought that!  I’ll admit I never believed that hurt back business.  All I knew was you went for it!  You gave the big time a shot!  You put your balls on the line!  I admired that!  I thought maybe you been avoiding me all these years ‘cause I chickened out.  Hell, I knew the competition I’d be facing.  Nationwide!  I didn’t want to take the lickin’.  It was what it is and it ain’t what it’s not.  You got to keep that straight in life.”

“Not like me right?”  Jack stood up.  “I can’t keep things straight and I can’t straighten things out!  I’m just old Jack-off the fuck-off!  But I’m good enough to promote your penny arcade!  In between yuks that is!”

“Look man sit back down!  You got it all wrong!”

The husky black kid appeared in the doorway gripping his push broom like a weapon, ready to take on all comers.  Jack threw him into the Mr. Coffee maker.

 

“Are we going to make it through this?”  Are we going to make it through this? Jack?  Jack”

With a shaky hand Jack grabbed the tumbler resting on the cushion of the billiard table.  He closed his eyes, tasted the thunder.

“Death.”  The whiskey whispered.

“Bring it on.”  He softly answered.

Half-wits and whores, drunks, degenerates, undead corpses, Granton’s small taste of urban blight, surrounded him in the night.

Mickey Mouse bought a house for Minnie and Prince Charming and Cinderella and little Jiminy.  The house that Jack built.  The house of cards.  The house he couldn’t pay for anymore.  All there in black and white.  Mickey White, Jack Black, no going back.  His magic casle in Disneyland.  Next stop The Twilight Zone.  Julie my jewel.  Julie my angel.  Fire sale!  Fire sale!

“Double-cross in the corner.”

Jack slammed the pool-stick and watched the colored balls collide like constellations in a sky gone wild, criss-crossing, cascading, ricocheting.

“Life sucks in the side.”

He buried the eight ball and hung up his stick, staggered through the shadows and collected his bets.  The Granton police, tasers ready, were waiting by his bar stool.

“Jack Black?  You’re under arrest!”

The juke-box wailed some song in the darkness about hard times, heartbreak, hopelessness.

 

3

 

“Never again, only a dream, never your eyes longing for me, never your heart beating with mine, never your touch deep in the night, never your smile, never your kiss, never your tender embrace, never your soul to soothe me through life, only my tears which you can’t erase …” Tears filled Julie’s eyes as she sat at the kitchen table and listened to the sad song on the radio.  Tim and Bethany were off to school.  Jimmy was asleep.  The table was still cluttered with breakfast dishes waiting to be loaded into the high tech washing machine.  But every day Jack was away she found it harder to get started.  When she woke up some mornings and found herself alone in the big bed she found it impossible just to move and had to force herself to get up and take care of the kids.  She never liked this kitchen.  Jack had loaded it up with every latest innovation to make her life less demanding.  It didn’t really look like the place where mom cooked.  It looked and felt more like the control room for some Star Ship.  Jack had to teach her how to operate each gadget.  Sitting in it now, all disheveled in her robe and tangled hair, made the nightmare she was living even more disturbing … “only the wind, only the rain, only my prayers we’ll meet again …” The singer was lamenting the death of her young, soldier husband who had been killed in Iraq by a roadside explosion … “beyond the moon, beyond the stars, beyond life’s dream, someday in heaven …”

            Jack.  Jack.  Julie shuddered.  Please come back – intact.

“Jack’s in a straightjacket.”  Her father-in-law had informed her after he returned from the Granton police station that night the world had come to an end.  Big John had gotten a call from Mickey White, Jack’s old friend.  Mickey didn’t have Jack’s and Julie’s number so he called the old man.  Julie had been calling everyone in the family that night, and all their friends, as well as all the hospitals and emergency rooms in the vicinity, frantic with worry.  “They keep those things at the station to stabilize the odd violent drunk.  I guess Jack was one.”  John Bernard Black was a mountain of a man.  That night he looked more like a mountain in the midst of an avalanche, tumbling, crumbling, caving in.  “They think he’s nuts.”  Tears streamed down his creased face.  “They’re going to put him in a loony bin.”  He sat slumped in a curved kitchen chair and stared straight ahead.  “Jack attacked this black kid in SouthTown.  The kid’s in the hospital, neck broken.  Word got around.  When I got to the station an angry mob was outside shouting and screaming.  Cars had been turned over on Main Street, shop windows broken.  Police were running out dressed in riot gear.  You could hear sirens everywhere.  Jack had beat up the two cops who had tried to arrest him.  They had stunned him with tasers but he came to before they got the cuffs on him.  He tossed them around the room.  They’re in the hospital too.  It took the entire bar to bring him down.  You’ll read all about it in the paper tomorrow morning.”

Big John finished and broke down, sobbing while she sat stunned.  And it was all there in the Granton Gazette the next day and more.  Jack had attacked another man earlier in Finnian’s bar.  “He was like a monster.”  The man told the Gazette – Carl the plumber.  She had known Carl forever.  “Like Godzilla, or Frankenstein.  A human demon”  “It was wild!”  One of the patrons at Buster’s Billiards, who had helped subdue Jack, told the Gazette.  “That big dude couldn’t be stopped!  There was flying cops!  We piled on him and went for a ride!  Finally he tumbled down and we managed to pin him until one of the cops crawled over and got the cuffs on!  He had his gun out that time.  He wasn’t messing around!”

Julie had read the paper with disbelief, shocked, rocked at the descriptions and actions of her husband.  Jack couldn’t harm anyone!  He couldn’t even bring himself to discipline the kids.  “Wait ‘til your father get home,” never entered into the family punishment program.  She got stuck being the bad guy every time, which she resented.  Jack was a pussycat, and the kids took advantage of that.  So did the neighbors and everyone who knew him.

There was a picture of the black youth in the paper lying in a hospital bed, his neck in a brace.  There were pictures of cars turned over on Main Street, photographs of rioters.  Fortunately no one got seriously hurt.  There was an old photograph of Jack in his overalls at Luxury Imports, smiling and waving with his head under the hood of a new Porche.  The Gazette had done a story on him a few years before.  The new caption under the picture read: Manic Mechanic In Mental Institution.

“Your husband will be with us for evaluation for thirty days, Mrs. Black.”  The director of the asylum informed her when she finally got an appointment with him.  They wouldn’t let her see Jack at all.  He was in isolation.  “If at the end of that period no definitive conclusion as to his state of mind can be made, he will remain with us for another term of equal length.”  The institution was something from a horror movie.  The Gage County Asylum For The Insane was a great, stone, prison-like edifice set on acres of asphalt and accessible only through iron gates.  An unsmiling armed guard had met her car at the entrance and after checking her ID against his roster and recording her license plate number grimly let her in.  More uniformed security with cuffs, Billy clubs and tasers attached to their belts prowled the grounds.  Inside burly attendants stalked up and down, while zombie-like patients in medicated stupors roamed the halls.  The walls were battleship gray.  The windows barred.  The guard led her through a dreary maze, each hallway long, wide, the ceilings cracked and high.  She had dressed in her Sunday best.  She should have worn sackcloth and ash.  She felt like the canary in the coal mine, all bright and chirpy and naïve to the fact that the reason it was it was there had less to do with life than it did with death and fear.  “If after the end of that period, Mrs. Black, no conclusion still can be reached your husband’s stay with us will be indefinite.”  He had paused briefly for emphasis.  “Jack Black is a danger to himself, the community and probably his family.”

She remembered the director’s office with a shudder.  She was amazed she hadn’t fainted there.  The dark, windowless room was a setting from some Old Boris Karloff movie, cavernous, mysterious, filled with light fixtures and furniture that were turn of the 20th century relics.  He had spoken to her across an antique desk as big as a raft, with piles of yellowed papers stacked on it.  Despite the floor to ceiling library of books, which should have smothered each word, his monotonous voice still echoed in her ears.  Just remembering the director scared her.  He was tall and stick thin and he looked more like a mannequin than a man.  The tight white flesh of his face had seemed painted on.  It seemed to be stretched over his huge skull.  The shaggy, black mop of his hair looked like a wig worn backwards.  He wore a tweed jacket and a bow tie.  The collar of his starched, white shirt was too big by a size.  His scrawny neck seemed screwed into it.  His lips were thin and his expression wooden.  The thick, black framed glasses he wore seemed to magnify his eyes, which were cold and bright.  Julie remembered wondering if they had the power to hypnotize.  She wondered if the director could read her mind.

“But Jack’s not like that!”  She had protested.

“Jack snapped.”  The director reminded her.  “It’s not like we can just snap Jack back.  Comatose is his current status.  That means he’s locked in a dead man’s dream, to put it simply.  Jack’s mind is in limbo.  Nobody home.”

“What happened to Jack?”  Julie had wailed.  Her body had shaken and she sat twisting the straps of the purse on her lap, as she was twisting her handkerchief now sitting alone in the high tech kitchen crying and listening to the sad song on the radio.

“Something old,”  the director had shrugged, “something new, something borrowed, something blue.  We won’t have an inkling until we can pick his brain and we can’t do that until he starts to communicate.  In the meantime we’ll continue to medicate.  It’s the level of physical violence he displayed which is troubling.”

“You don’t still have him in a straight jacket?”

“No, he’s wearing one of his own.  He sits docile in a chair and stares.  But wait.”  The director had suddenly remembered something and shuffled through some papers on his desk.  “This is a step in the right direction.”  He looked at a memorandum.  “I remember reading it this morning.  Jack ate today, or at least he drank.  He drank his cocoa.  Maybe we won’t have to force feed him anymore.”

“You force feed my husband!”

“Once a day, state law you know, but maybe that’s over.  He blew on it.  The cocoa.”  The director held up the memo.  “The nurse made a note.”

“He blew on his cocoa?”

Julie was stupefied, trapped in the Twilight Zone.

“Cocoa is hot.”  The director put down the paper and glared at her.  “He didn’t just swallow it down and burn his mouth.  Good sign.  Shows that he’s conscious, at least to some extent.”

“… suddenly I’ll see you there inside a cloud walking my way …”

What had that meant, conscious to some extent?  Was Jack brain dead?  She had screamed at the director, hysterically.  Where was he?  How come they wouldn’t let her see him?  She was his wife!  She had her rights!  The mannequin man must have pushed a button on his desk.  A giant woman in a white uniform immediately came in and sat next to Julie, arms folded, on a metal chair, while the director continued to blandly rattle some incomprehensible rigmarole about childhood abuses, traumas, tumors, chemical imbalances, stresses – all possibilities in the Big Jack Attack as he called it – amidst innumerable other facets and factors which had to be considered.

All through the following week, hordes of case workers, social workers, institute investigators swarmed the Black family, Julie, the children, her family, friends, neighbors, in a Kafkaesque inquisition probing every nuance and facet of their existence from past to present.  Did Jack beat Julie?  The kids?  Did he touch them funny?  Was he beaten, as a child?  Did he pull the legs off spiders?  Porn?  Violent movies?  Monster video games?  Were any of those his thing?  Big John and Effie were stunned.  Julie had to listen to her mother say once more that she had told her so.  Jack had always been a “big jerk” according to her.  Jack’s not like that!  Jack’s not like that!  Julie kept screaming to herself.  Aside from his obsession with the GM Volt, which he nicknamed Dolt, bombarding her with sketches and diagrams which she couldn’t possibly comprehend concerning cabin forward and trunk battery storage and gizmos and gadgets and computer programs, Jack was normal, as far as she could tell, judging by the other men she knew, if that was any clue.  Jack followed sports and read Field  and Stream.  All men cursed and screamed at the sports teams on television and got depressed when theirs lost.  Nothing abnormal about that, if you were a man.  He didn’t hunt but he and Big John liked to go fishing, even though they had wonderful fish at Skolowski’s market and they seldom caught anything.  Otherwise pizza and a movie was his main form of recreation and relaxation, although they didn’t seem very relaxing with all those fights and shootings.  He had begun drinking lately and talking funny, that was true.  “Fe fi fo fum.”  He muttered to himself, sitting in the living room with her, both staring at the fire.  “Excuse me?”  “You heard me.  I’m that giant in the story.  The one with the golden goose.  I’m the other guy too.  That dope with the beg of beans who filched it from him.  My bean was a basketball.  It grew my stalk to you.  What if I told you you married a fable, Julie?  That you married a zero not a hero?  A fake pure and simple.  What if I told you the truth?”  Jack shook his head.  “It was wrong.  You should have gone to school, met someone real.  Degrees, pedigrees.  I should have left you alone.”  Jack I married you because I loved you, and because you loved me.  Everything will be OK.  That job in Chicago sounds great.”  Chicago.  Leave Granton and live in a slum.  Kill the golden goose and the golden eggs too.”  Jack had shaken his head.  “It was wrong.”  Jack repeated.  “I should have left you alone.”

Maybe she should have told the mannequin man about that?  Maybe that was important?  Maybe she should tell him now?  She didn’t know what to do.  The nightmare didn’t let up.  The neighbors either snubbed her or they leered at her.  She hated to leave the house.  She had the groceries delivered.  When she went to church no one would sit next to her.  No one offered her sympathy, inquired about Jack, asked if she needed any help with anything.  The minister shunned her.  She could sense gossip all around her.  The kids were bearing the brunt of it.  “Where’s daddy?”  Beth would ask.  “Jane says daddy is crazy.  I miss daddy.  Where is he?”  With Tim there was recurring violence.  “Hey Tim how’s your pop, Jack in the Box?” or “Hey Tim, I thought Jack went up the hill not down the river?” or simply: “Hey Tim, how’s your nutcase old man?  Like father like son?”  Tim would come home battered from fighting, bruises, fat lips, black eyes.  Meanwhile they repossessed the car, foreclosed on the house.  Bill collectors called day and night.  “Well,” her mother lorded over her, “what do you expect?  If Jack is declared incompetent they can’t collect.  They’ve bet on the wrong horse to pay its debts.  You can’t always pick a winner; but you’d think, taking a good look at Jack, they would have known better.”

If it wasn’t for Jack’s old high school friend, Mickey, Julie would have gone crazy.  He called her everyday.  He was soothing and reassuring.

“Julie don’t worry about a thing, hear?”  There was always a smile in his voice.  It made her feel safe.  “Jack had a breakdown, but he’ll come around.  And don’t worry about that clown Tyrone.  Broken neck?  I’ll kick his butt!  Callin’ the police over a little shove and then getting hisself all lawyered up!  You know Tyrone played football in high school?  Now he’s so fragile?  As regards those police charges, I talked to the prosecutor and from what I gather they don’t hold water.  They can’t hold someone who wasn’t responsible for his actions.  Jack wasn’t himself.  He will be soon enough, but that night he was out of it and there ain’t no doubt about it.  Now my lawyer is going to stop around with some papers tomorrow.  He’s also going to make sure that you get Jack’s unemployment comp. without any bureaucratic hassle from the government.  You are entitled to a little welfare help too, he’ll explain that to you.  Trudy wants to come visit, bring a cake she baked.  She’s bringing the kids.  They’re about the same age as yours so they can get together and play with each other.  Milton’s got some hot new video games.  Stuffs not even on the market yet.  I get them at the arcade first to test.  Him and Tim should have fun with them.  I’ll call you tomorrow and remember it’s always darkest before the dawn.  Did I say that?  What corn!  What I meant to say is every dark cloud has a silver lining.  That sounds pretty corny too, but stayed tuned Julie Moon.”

Mickey was so nice.  Julie wondered why they never got together with the Whites.  Jack loved him.  He could talk about Mickey endlessly.  Life was funny.  Suddenly Julie wanted to be in Jack’s arms.  Life had blown up at Jack, like that roadside bomb had blown up on the soldier in the song.  Fortunately the tests on Jack’s brain all came out OK.  There were no tumors or brain damage.  It was all psychological not physical so they could treat it with therapy.  She wanted Jack to hold her.  She wanted “his smile, his tender embrace” like the sad woman sang about.  She wanted to feel his touch again “deep in the night.”

 

Strange place – at night the yard below Jack’s window was filled with darkness, shifting shadows.  The darkness was visible, the shapes he sensed, like equations on a blackboard in a schoolroom, long forgotten, which have been erased.  During the day, it was the other way == light too bright, ghosts at play.  Three squares a day, meds, shrinks, burly attendants – all you needed between the clock and the bed.  The days popped up like white rabbits in a magician’s top hat.  Each night Jack vanished.

 

4

 

“Whiplash?”

“Yeah, I got whiplash, Mickey, when that big white dude shove me.  That what my doctor say.”

“I’ll bet de did.  And I’ll bet your lawyer got you your doctor.”

“What if he did?”

Tyrone lay in bed with his neck-braced head propped up on pillows.  Tyrone’s mother had given Mickey dirty looks when she led him into the rock, movie, and sports poster filled room.  The monster who had attacked her son was Mickey’s friend.  “Now baby you let mama know if you needs anything mo.”  She patted Tyron’s leg and gave Mickey another lethal glare as she waddled out the door.  Tyrone had been shoveling down ice cream when Mickey came in.  There was a big bag of potato chips in the bed next to him.  A plate of chicken bones lay atop the dresser.  The football game was blasting on the TV.  Tyrone lowered it when Mickey moved around the armchair and sat down next to him.  It looked as though Tyrone wouldn’t have to ring the service bell for a while.

“Tyrone, you know the difference between jivin’ and lyin’?”

“Ever body know that.”

“Jivin’ is funnin’; lying is destroying.  Ain’t nothing funny about a lie.  Ever hear the commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness?’  Ever hear: “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?’  Ain’t nothin’ wrong with your neck Tyrone.  I had my lawyer look into it.  The X-ray showed nothing.  The doctor who examined you found nothing.”

“It hurt.”

“Tyrone you played football in high school.  You probably got pushed harder goofing off in the shower room!”

“Whiplash funny, Mickey.  Don’t show up no way.”

“Tyrone, your lawyer must have told you you can’t sue Jack Black.  Mr. Black is in a mental hospital.  No matter how bad Mr. Black’s actions were he can’t be held responsible for them.”

“We knows that, Mickey.”

“I know you know that, Tyrone, and I knows in my bones you about to sue me.”

“Never sue you, Mickey, we’s homeys.  We be suing your insurance company.”

“And that ain’t suing me?  What about the bad publicity?  You know someone broke my window?  Look Tyrone, if by neglect, chance, or accident I had caused you any injury I’d be happy to pay you and your lawyer anything.  But you ain’t hurt Tyrone.  I know you got roughed up and I feel bad about that.  But the person who did it had reached his limit.  His mind brokw down.  These are hard times.  Everybody’s hurtin’, sufferin’. Some of them exploding.  And there you go acting like you got your neck broke and causin’ racial trouble.  You’re the boy who cried wolf!  The guy who yelled fire in a theater!  You got to think about this Tyrpne, turn your story around.  You got to be a man, do the brotherly love thing, show empathy and compassion.  You can’t just lay there lyin’ about how you dyin’!”

“My lawyer wouldn’t like that, Mickey.”

“You trust me?”

“Sure.  I guess so.”

“More than you trust your lawyer?”

“Suppose so.”

“If I told you I had a better game plan than your lawyer did would you believe me?  That in my plan no one would lose and everyone would win, even your lawyer.  And that your mother, father, everyone would be proud of you, would you want in?”

 

“That moment in the night, big fella,” the old man who sat across from Jack in the day room leaned forward and mumbled, eyes like crystal balls, “when the echoes and apparitions of the tenements evicted=from-life former residents, began to haunt the tumbledown premises, amidst the clanging of old pipes, the creaking walls and groaning staircases, the hiss of radiators, with their moans and spectral appearances, was my cue to grab my coat and get my hat and hole up in one of the neighborhood’s booze and blues rattraps, until I could numb myself from their cries and sleep before the bed bugs started to bite.

“I know they all needed closure from their victimization by fate and that they would never rest in peace until they got it off their chests and attained some catharsis.  But I’d heard their stories before, seen them on TV, read about them in history: slum landlords, usury, discrimination, exploitation, tyrants, death camps, ethnic cleansing, aristocrats, bureaucrats, slavery, iron fists, holocausts – every misery one can imagine involving man’s inhumanity to man.  I saw the sequels of their tragic destinies all around me in the misery and poverty I moved through every day in my life as a starving poet.  Yeah, big fella, I have my own sorry story to relate, which I’m sure I’ll do when my hard-luck lot is through and I clatter around in my chains.  You only live once.  There’s no second chance.  When you never got your due in life wailing through eternity is all that’s left for you.  I developed a theory nursing my nightly drinks in the ghetto gin mills, surrounded by lost souls almost as dead as the ones I fled.  Tenements topple, ghettoes crumble, civilizations fall to ruins – all of them replaced by new habitats that will also be erased.  What do the ghosts haunt then?  I think they roam the wind, form a civilization of howling phantoms, cause hurricanes, tidal waves, change the climate, melt the ice caps.  I believe everything they say about carbon emissions, toxic waste, air and water pollution, all greed and gluttony and abuse propelling us toward the end of the world.  But I think the haunts contribute as well, big fella, with their tales of living hell.”

 

“In one dark doorway and out another, big guy,”  the fat man leaned forward in his chair and whispered to Jack, “all of them locked, block after block – private dwellings, public places, theaters, shops, pubs, cafes.  The city was empty, big guy.  But you could see this vanishing act developing if you were paying attention, and I was.  The man who wasn’t there that I met upon the stair.  The ticket to nowhere that the postman made me sign for in his ledger.  The game of blind man’s bluff in which ‘getting colder’ couldn’t have been shouted at me enough.  The expired passport, the lost key, the anonymous caller who hung up on me.  The desolate buildings were like an eerie dream.  I searched the city desperately, looking for anyone, anything living.  Now they crowd the night cafes out there, big guy, the ghosts of the end of days.  They drink hemlock on the rocks under broken clocks while they listen to a church organ play.”

 

“The world dropped into night,” the little man lisped to Jack, “that day I flew my kite, up and down the school’s playground.  Lightning flared, thunder rumbled, but I held on tight, spellbound as it danced, fluttered with the black winds in the stormy sky, until the rains came and it tumbled.”

 

“Intelligent Design, pal, Intelligent Design is what it’s all about.”  The thin man with glasses peeped at Jack.  “Intelligent Design saw a cosmic sign and wondered: ‘What if I use the slime to start a “line” to me the Devine on which waving hands can bud as they climb along a vine out of the mud to say ‘hello’ to me and perhaps, eventually, grow up and form a tree and from that height will see that the next step to be like me collectively to pull out of the ground, jungle bound, and crawl around, independently, on little pegs which develop legs which lead to feet as they move around adapting in shape, size, savvy and learn to use their limbs to clutch, and spiky thorns to munch tasty meat which will give them a brain so that, technologically, they can appreciate, when becoming humanoid is their fate, that it was ‘The Devine’ from where they came.  Intelligent Design, pal.  That’s the name of the game.”

 

“Talk about nowhere.”  The old man with the crystal ball eyes was seated before Jack again.  “I was there.  We lived in a bungalow on No Man’s Road, near the intersection of Dead End Drive and Take A Hike Turnpike, in a well populated village with few living inhabitants, where ‘you’ll never take us alive,’ was the welcome mat for most of the residents (along with ‘don’t wake up the dead, we need them for our overhead’)  and the only industries, before they opened the small factory where my father finally got himself a job, were the innumerable cemeteries to which caravans arrived, periodically, to deposit their loved ones in the lonely, willowy, burial facilities.

“I was ten.  Both my parents were working then.  My mother commuted to her office job in the city.  My father put in long hours at the factory.  They signed their ‘rest in peace lease’ and buried themselves alive to pay the bills and raise their offspring me.

“School was out.  I was alone.  There were young couples about with babies in the other bungalows.  No kids my age.  Mists, fog, eerie lights, howls, moans filled the days and nights.  I roamed the graveyards.  They were my home away from home.  My friends became the names chiseled into the weathered headstones.  Everyday was a dream of Halloween.  Every night, in sleep, the departed would creep from their tombs, vaults, mossy mausoleums, graves and visit me.

“Life, death, the mystery of being, joy, sorrow, and everything in between came with them as stories written on the wind between the birth and death dates and transferred to my imagination.  Before I knew it I became a poet.  Talk about nowhere, big fella!”

 

“This place is just like Finnian’s!”  Jack looked around at the huddled figures in the crowded room, where a giant flat screen television blasted in a corner and inmates ran amok in various stages and degrees of mental disorder, playing, fighting, laughing, screaming.  “Everybody’s nuts!”

 

4

 

“Grover?  Hey my friend, this is Mickey White.  I thought I’d gotten your voice message again!  Your voice sounds exactly the same in real life as it does on the recording machine, flat, rehearsed.  How you doing buddy?  Splendid?  You’re splendid?  Well splendid!  Oh, you know, the same ole same ole.  Look, I just wanted to congratulate you on that black jack job you did on Jack Black in the Gazette.  Got the whole Chicago media down here to cover it and the racial conflict which, unfortunately for them, was short lived and long gone before they got here with their talking heads and cameras.  Media everywhere!  You’d think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had ended!  Must have been a first on the trials and tribulations of a small town like this.  “Things have, momentarily, calmed down in Granton after the brutal assault.’  Don’t you love that guy!  I watch him every night!  That photo of Jack you dug up with the caption ’Maniac Mechanic in Mental Institution’ under it was an especially nice touch.  Must have made Julie and her kids feel real good and proud.  Didn’t you date Julie in high school, Grover?  And after that, if I remember, you were still courtin’ her at GrantonJunior College until Jack cut in?  Yeah, long time ago.  Yeah, I know you were just doing your job with the Jack Black expo.  Did a good one too.  Got a flicker of national attention before it was over.  Maybe they’ll offer you a job at that paper where all those inquiring minds who sniff glue, or don’t need to, want to know?  I’m funny too?  No man, lame compared to you; and that Humpty Dumpty photograph of poor Tyrone in the hospital was really touching and heart wrenching.  I’m surprised we all didn’t rise up and go after Jack Black with torches, like some folks in South Town did who are employed, from what I heard, in various low level capacities by the Granton Gazette.  Not that I’m implying the whole thing was a set up.  What?  I’m out of luck if I want to cancel my full page weekly add for the arcade in the Gazette?  I’m bound to a contract?  Gee whiz Grover, I don’t want to do that!  I want to add another full page add promoting a charity competition the arcade is featuring with a new non-profit game, all the proceeds for which are to help a down and out Granton family devastated by the recession.  I was hoping to sound you out about the layout.  You’re the master of spin.  Be fore we get into that, though, I’d like to know when you’re going to do a follow up story on the Jack Black tragedy?  Say what?  You’ll do a “The bigger they are the harder they fall’ kind of thing, maybe?’  Is that what you just said? ‘Jack Black’s Black Hole, Self Dug’ would be the title?  Funny Grover.  You’re a funny man.. No, my friend, I mean like local hero, family man, credit to the community, knocked out by the recession, sort of thing.  ‘Jack  Black already had his fifteen minutes of fame and his fifteen minutes of infamy?’  Gee Grover, I didn’t know you were so clever!  Guess you can’t tell a book by its cover.  But slow down now, don’t put Jack in the box just yet.  You know that news feature on national TV that comes out of Chicago ‘Someone You’d Like To Meet’?  Well Tyrone’s the one you’d like to meet this week.  He’s the one who thought up this new arcade charity game which is called ‘Hoop Dreams.’  We ran the story past the station and they went for it, wanted to cover it.  The idea of the game is to make as many baskets as you can in ten seconds – all miniaturized of course.  Got cash prizes, trophies.  All the proceeds go to helpin’ the Jack Black family because Jack Black, after all, is a local hero who fell on hard times, and we can’t turn our backs on them in their time of need.  They helped out their neighbors, plenty, over the years.  Hell, Grover, their sad story is all of ours these days.  In fact, Tyrone wrote a little poem which he recites in the interview.  Now Tyrone ain’t no Shakespeare but I think it’s pretty cool.  He calls it ‘Born to Lose.’  Goes like this: ‘Like a death rattle of wind chimes, playing the desperate cries of hard times, through dark, despairing notes, across the rhythms of their hearts and souls, the lost generation wanders the recession, searching for salvation from life’s regression, hoping too little, too late don’t be their fate like it was for Jack Black, which we all regret.  It’s the music sensation that’s sweepin’ the nation, the beat of a dream’s retreat.  You can hear it in Chicago, in the MotorCity, in PhiladelphiaPA, all across the country.’  No Grover, I ain’t shittin’ you!  They shot the segment at the arcade this afternoon.  You can catch it on the evening news, and all week in fact.  Tyrone is the grand master of it; sittin’ in his neck brace in a wheel chair and talkin’ about how we got to help our brothers no matter what color, ‘cause we all in this together and how he don’t hold nothin’ against Jack Black, the man who attacked him.  He understands.  All he wants to do is help him.  Brought a tear to my eye, man.  I was trying to demonstrate the game but I got so broke up I could hardly make the shots.  Mercy!  There you see me cryin’ on the TV.  Now, I ain’t sayin’ this is Pulitzer Prize winning stuff, Grover, but hey, you never know!  Better the Granton Gazette covers the Jack Black story with all its pathos and American tragedy than some hot shot from the Chicago Sun Times, or the Tribune, or the reader or New City.  Course they probably all gonna be there anyway seeing that new kid the Bulls just signed for umpteen gazillion dollars is going to be the first to play the game at the opening.  Yeah, that’s the one.  Tyrone a big fan of his.  He’s on the kid’s face book or text list or something.  You know Tyrone ain’t shy.  Real nice guy that kid.  Got to get that on the layout we talkin’ about.  Him showin’ up.  Gonna be pretty crowded that night.  Yeah, Tyrone’s still here.  Yeah, he got a copy of the poem.  You’ll be over in an hour?  You want to bring your cameraman?  Het, no problem!”

 

They finally let Julie see Jack; but it was from another room where the burly attendants and the security guards sat and had breaks and kept their eyes on the inmates through a one =way looking glass.

“Jack’s making progress.”  A male nurse sat with her, munching on a bag of ships.  “He doesn’t talk yet but we can see that he listens.  He eats, feeds himself, dresses himself.  He looks around, takes things in.  It’s still kind of blinky but you can tell the world is coming into focus for him.  Dr. Stroger was tempted to let you visit him in the conference room but he thought it better to hold off at this stage of things.  Reality might cause a shock.  We don’t want the big guy to go ballistic on us.  He’s very patient with the other patients, though.  And they can be annoying.  Yesterday one bounced a volleyball off his head, repeatedly, and Jack didn’t get mad.  He didn’t look too happy about it, but on the other hand if he had been that wouldn’t have been an encouraging reaction would it?”  The nurse smiled at her and winked.

Tears filled Julie’s eyes as she listened to the nurse and watched Jack sit alone in a corner and stare.  The “day room,” as they called it, was a nightmare – something out of some penal film or that old movie Snake Pit.  It was a vast, square, barred windowed room, lit dimly by cage covered ceiling light bulbs which cast shadow shrouds across the Spartan furnishings, which consisted of threadbare sofas, worn metal folding chairs and battered card tables as in some homeless, charity shelter.

The patients were all dressed the same in drab, gray uniforms.  They looked like gulag inmates with name tags instead of numbers; but just numbers or a mass somehow remained their identity.  They were not human beings.  This was the violent ward and except for the big screen television, which nobody seemed to look at, and some scattered toys, which no one seemed to know what to do with, and stacks of box and board games on a long table, which some of the patients grabbed, now and then, and took with them, only to spill out, or fling around, or examine, nothing – no ornamentation or decoration – relieved the depressive atmosphere of the room.  The walls were bare, no inmate drawings like she had glimpsed in the “day rooms” of the other wards.  “They eat them.”  The nurse had told her when she asked.  “Or burn them.  God knows where they get the matches.  Of course, we have them draw; and what some of them do is most interesting.  The psychologists collect them.  Gallery owners come around to take a look and sometimes buy some.  But we can’t display them.”

The patients played in their minds, it seemed to Julie, not with the toys or games.  They walked around talking to themselves, sometimes erupting into fits or seizures.  The one’s who actually interacted with each other still seemed locked in their own realities, just simulating exchanges or conversations.  Julie guessed that they weren’t really connecting but colliding with shapes, shadows, phantoms that surrounded them each day.

“The patients nicknamed Jack ‘little Jack Horner’ because he always sits in his corner.”  The nurse informed her.  “Jack has a presence here.  The patients like him.  Many have taken to sitting and talking with him.  The day room has become much calmer since he appeared.”

Jack, Jack.”  Julie twisted her wedding band and wailed inside as she looked at Jack trapped in the middle of bedlam.  Jack had a boyish face, round and innocent.  He looked bewildered, helpless.  Her “band of Gold” was all that was left.  Just this cold band of gold which has once been a dream, a dream but was now a nightmare.

She didn’t cry there.  Not like she wanted to.  She broke down at home.  She was home alone.  Big John and Effie had taken the children on a vacation to Disneyland.  “we got to get the kids out of this town.”  Big John had declared.  “They got to get away from this, have some fun.”  Depressed, lonely, maybe half crazy, she buried herself in the family albums and revisited the fifteen years of their marriage.  Jack was such a clown.  He grinned from ear to ear in nearly every picture from their wedding and their honeymoon to the photographs of them and their growing children.  Was something wrong with these pictures?  They all looked like “Kodak Moments” to her, capturing a happy couple and family.  “What went wrong?”  Julie wondered. Jack had a job in Chicago.  They could have had a new start.  Was it her fault?  Did he think the job wasn’t good enough?  She never nagged him, like many women did their husbands, about money or material things.  She had no interest in keeping up with the Jones or the Jones period.  It was Jack who was the material man with his obsession with the latest, greatest whatever: the big house, car, Weber grill, lawn tractor.  But Jack didn’t really care about them either.  They were like trophies that he collected – collected and neglected, never polished or dusted.  But he had to have them.  It was a mania with him.  Julie wondered if they took the place of those trophies he had always gotten for his athletic abilities as a boy; which ended when he hurt his back?  Maybe they made him feel like a champion again?  She wondered if she should ask the mannequin man about that?  But he was a champ husband and a champ dad.  Was it her fault that he didn’t realize that?

The dream of love, marriage, what was anything if Jack wasn’t there with her?  She couldn’t take it anymore.  Jack had to get better!  Life had to get back to normal!  And what was Mickey up to?  Just when everything had begun to calm down and be forgotten, Mickey brought it all up again!  That’s why Big John took the kids to Disneyland, to get them away from Mickey’s circus.  “What are you doing Mickey?”  She had asked him on the phone.  “I appreciate what Tyrone said on that news program but couldn’t he have just made a statement to the Granton Gazette?  And this arcade game you have to help Jack – it will just keep things stirred up!”

“I’m doing what is necessary Julie.  You’ll see.”

“Don’t you think Jack would be better off if everyone just left him alone and he had a little peace and quiet?  You’re playing a game Mickey!  Like you two did in high school.  Like you have in your arcade!  You’re trying to score points, turn things around, win!  Life isn’t a game, Mickey!”

“Sure it is sweetie.  It’s a puzzle.  We gonna put this one back together.”

Or kill Jack trying, she almost said, completely destroy his mind!  But she stopped herself and hung up instead.

 

That dark spiral down, even beyond the reach of the reach beyond, staring at the day as if life took place in perpetual night.  Jack sat in the “day room” and saw a comic madhouse of shadows searching some maze they had all wandered into, trying to find the path of bread crumbs which would lead them back.

“That’s what you get when you fly without a net!”  He heard the voices of Granton hoot and laugh in his head, enjoying the show from righteous row.  “That’s what you get when you can’t hack it!”

Watch the clowns tumble down.

“That clown got what was coming.”

“That clown never was good for nothing!

So, blow the trumpets, bang the drum, gather round, rejoice, have fun.

“Jack, Jack, are we going to make it Jack?”

            Julie?

A woman wrapped in sunlight appeared to him in his delirium.  She was tall, blonde, beautiful, kind.

“Every soul is a rainbow, Timmy, Beth, remember that.  Every soul is hallowed.”

            “Julie?”

 

“Hey Collar, this is Mickey.  How’s my favorite preacher?  You and God still talkin’ to each other?  He been talkin’ to me?  And Tyrone?  Maybe brother.  I don’t know.  Got your phone message.  Glad to hear you’re coming to the opening.  Having a man of the cloth involved in my poor doings is highly flattering.  Maybe you can say a blessing?  You’re bringing the whole congregation?  Get out!  It’s my arcade or hell?  Get out, you didn’t tell them that?  Sure I know you were jokin’ them.  No, I didn’t hear about the bake sale.  Angel food cake bake-off for the Blacks?  Trudy gonna want to get in on that.  Black angel cakes?  How does that work?  They taste the same?  Who thought of that?  Ain’t she sweet.  Yeah, I know Collar, lot of us don’t like what’s goin’ on around here.  What?  You’re gonna hold a revival meeting at the opening.  Just kidding again?  Yeah, my friend, don’t know about that one.  Look bro, I got to go.  Got to make some phone calls.  OK, thanks,  Nice talkin’ to you.  God bless and see you at the opening!”

Mickey checked his watch.  One more stall call and then he had to get some balls.  You got to make hay while the sun shines.  You got to strike when the iron is hot.  Where did he pick up all this corny shit?

“Mayard?  Mayard it’s Mickey.  Mickey White.  Mayard get it together man, we done known each other all out lives.  Mickey White, right, we see each other every night.  Look Mayard, I just wanted to thank you again for that little ditty you scribbled out on the bar napkin for me.  The poem Mayard.  The recession poem.  Never mind, just making sure you know the drinks are on me this week; so don’t go laying down any money on the bar like you did last night.  Right, all of them Mayard not just most of them, like usual.  Rodney be there, he’ll take care of you.  Rodney.  My brother.  You known him all your life too!  When you come in he’s going to give you back what you left when you left.  You put it in your pocket, hear?  OK Mayard.  See you later man, stay cool.”

Now, the big one.  The one he’d been stalling.  Mickey stared at his phone, hesitating again.  He took a deep breath and looked around his office.  Grover had just left with his cameraman.  Grover had taken notes.  His partner had shot up the room – all preliminary sketches for the grand opening.  The next issue of the Granton Gazette would be awesome.  Mickey reminded himself.  All the Chicago papers and media would cover it too, at least with a snippet.  He reminded himself of that as well.  “Quit stallin’!”  He told himself.  “Shoot the shot!”  Instead, he fished into the papers on his desk and looked over his backup.  Hell, he might just throw this letter into the conversation to add to his pitch, point, whatever it was he was selling, myth, man, mad add grab, bottom line numbers.  Some Billy Bob NASCAR racer wrote him a letter and wants the “Maniac Mechanic” on his pit crew team.  Interesting.  Must pay OK.  But Mickey thought he could do better than have Jack run around the back country with Red Neck drivers.  Timmy would dig it.  Maybe Jack too.  But he couldn’t see Julie and Beth enjoying it.  Besides it wasn’t exactly stable.  It was another risk.  Well, hell if all else failed.  You had to hand it to those hillbillies, though.  Nothin’ tight ass about those folks.  They were wild as the wind, hard as steel.  Chance was their dance.  They were real.  OK, Mickey took a deep breath and eased it out slow.  Time to make the donuts.  He picked up the phone and dialed the magic number.  A secretary answered.

“This Mickey White.  I have a phone appointment with Mr. Sumner.  We’ve been corresponding and he asked me to call him.”

 

5

 

“The smell of blood would hit them, lads, as soon as they turned out corner and we’d watch them from our porches change from docile to demented, jostling in the cattle trucks which rattled past our houses, hauling the herds each morning to the stockyards down our block.  Inside the prodders would poke them to the slaughter rooms in a procession, wild eyed bellowing and shaken where the mallet men would kill them, spiking their skulls with swift strong blows before they hung them by the chains which dangled from the ceilings.  That was childhood back of the yards friends.  That was life, back in the day, as you know yourselves all too well, unless you were among the affluent who went to college.  Steel mils, industries, factories, hard labor, nothing pretty.  Hardened all of us up for ‘Nam I guess.  Or those of us who were in the industrial neighborhoods that were the targets for the draft, blue collar, ghetto, working stiff, total.  Bad as it was I bet we all wish those days were back.  Least there was work.  Everybody had food and a roof over their heads.  The hard times paid back in nickels and dimes maybe, but you could play and get paid.  Kids nowadays are all high tech.  Don’t do them no good.  They ship those jobs to India or other third world countries same as the others.  Another slaughter going on by those greedy tycoon robber barons.  Killin’ out children.  I got two just out of college, both with advanced degrees, and another, the surprise one, graduating high school.  Raised them in this nice clean town, gave them top notch educations and none of them can make a living.

“I hear you man.  All I know is work comes harder while the pay gets smaller and the hours longer and if there’s one thing I learned by growing older it’s my life went nowhere and it’s getting shorter.

 

“What’ll I have beautiful?  How ‘bout you in the back room unadorned by that ruffled. Frilly, Irish waitress uniform?”

 

“A perfect day.  Clouds like whipped cream floated across the sky like a dream.  A bad one.  I couldn’t fight it.  There went my diet.  I headed for the Dairy Queen.”

 

You’d think one of these days I’d get the one every dog’s got coming, mates – like now and again, from time to time, something to do with the moon and stars and planets and signs.  OK, I saw my sign when I was knee-high, big middle finger flashing at me from the sky.  My ole man hit the bottle and me too and my brother and sister and mother.  So I got in trouble, didn’t do well in school, had a little problem with the golden rule.  Someone told me to pray and the Lord would show me the way.  All that got me was sore knees and allergies from the stuff they burned at their rituals and ceremonies.  Someone said I should read these books about positive thinking and influencing people.  All that got me was a stretch in prison.  There’s no moral to this story, mates.  All I want to say is if you ever got that day you did OK and if that big hand in the sky never threw you a bone you’re not alone.”

 

“Sure sugar, we’ll have another round.”

“Yeah darlin’ we want to drink ourselves cross-eyed so we’ll see two of you.”

“There’s an eyeful.”

 

“Cabbage soup, cabbage salad, stuffed cabbage, sauerkraut, everyone in the town ate cabbage everyday.”

 

“She was the one, gentlemen.  She was the one.  It’s over and done, but she was the one.  I had my fun playing love on the run.  Sexy and young, saucy and fun.  I sure got stung.  I sure was dumb.  I had life’s plumb.  She was the one.”

 

“Yesterday I said goodbye to my brother.  He outlasted most of his charmed circle, playing a lucky hand from beginning to end.  ‘Time is money.’  Is all he’d say.  Think he’d toss any my way?  ‘Life is a gamble.’  Glad he cashed in, the bastard.  Even in the casket he wore that smug expression.”

 

“Hey babe, if I accidently drop my coaster will you bend over and pick it up for me?”

 

“What a night!  What a fright!  The ‘no jive five.’  The live until you die five.  Together again, at last, for a reunion blast!  The strivin’ five!  More like a reunion of the crucified.  The forum filled with boredom quorum.  The 9 to 5 five.  The better off dead than alive five.  The upright, uptight, pay your bills, bite your nails, do not make ways, not even ripples, fellows.  Or do I bore you guys?”

 

“The world began without a plan and soon may end, gentlemen.  I saw that on the Discovery channel.”

 

“In the corner of my eye, I catch her glaring at me, as we watch TV.  If looks could kill!  She shifts her gaze when I glance her way, pretending I’m not there, nor is she.  Her face filled with loathing.  The world does turn doesn’t it, gentlemen, from undying love to love deceased, only the corpses have to live together at the scene of the murder – it’s their just punishment for killing each other.  ‘You want a divorce?’  I ask her.  We both know the answer.  We have pondered it enough, separately and together.  ‘Has the ink dried?’  Her eyes flicker.  ‘On which document,’ I humor her, ‘the marriage certificate, baby’s record, mortgage agreement, home and health insurance, car installments, loan advances?’  Yeah, the world does turn and we toss around in it like flip-flopping clothes in a washing machine: his, hers, ours, all jumbled together forever and ever.  Has the ink dried?  Has the sky fallen?  Has the Messiah arrived?”

 

“Death Row, that last hold on the invisible forces in the impalpable net of life’s coil of turmoil that entangles you, when you pay your dues, in the spider web of the living dead.  Is that what’s next, after they ho ho over my portfolio, repossess my limo, foreclose on my big home and I spend my last bonus check and hock my Rolex?”

 

“Bottom’s up beautiful.  If you get my meaning?”

“It’s cock-tail for the guys, doll, and cock-tale for the gals.  Get it?”

 

“Good God!”  Franny thought as she ser her drink try on the bar and jotted down the last drink order.  Not ‘How Are Things In Glocca Morra’ again!  If listening to these clowns babble all night didn’t drive her nuts that song would.  She looked in the mirror.  Her face was pale.  Her hair was awry.  The puff shouldered, min skirted, Coleen Bo peep milk maiden, leg flaunting, green costume she wore was already sweat-soaked and rumpled.  Nancy was way late and Finnian was no help.  He did more talking than bartending.  She looked like she had been attacked by a wild gang of Leprechauns.

“Finnian!”  An aerial shot of Sumner Motors car lot appeared on the television.  “Finian turn up the sound on the TV.  Jack’s on!  Looks like a new one!”

The Sumner “Maniac Mechanic Monster Sale” commercials were fun.  Everyone enjoyed them.  They were all basically the same; but they had their little variations.  The next shot took you into the showroom and there would be Tyrone in his janitor uniform, sweeping the floor with his push broom.  Jack would come stomping out in his auto repairmen overalls, stiff legged, arms outstretched, a Zombie expression on his big blank face.  “Oh no!.”  A close up of Tyrone’s shocked face would appear next.  “The Maniac Mechanic is back with another monster deal!”  Jack would lurch around ripping off the prices stretched across the windshields.  New prices, even lower, would appear beneath them.  “Someone should put this guy in a mental institution!”  Tyrone would exclaim, wide-eyed, open mouthed.  Then they’d be together and in a dead pan voice Jack would relate all the grand deals on the new and used cars Sumner Motors featured and how good the service was because everyone at Sumner Motors went crazy over their customers.  All the while Tyrone would give him looks and do that figner circle around his temple.  Once they had a bunch of leggy women in short skirts looking at the cars who ran out creaming as soon as Jack stomped in.  Another time there was a wimpy looking guy who fainted; and another was a shot in the parking lot amidst the “acres of pre-owned Maniac Mechanic restored to brand new wonders.”  In that one a little dog kept barking and nipping at Jack’s heels.  Tyrone tried to chase him off with his push broom but the little dog chased him off instead.  What really made them likeable was that everyone in the region knew the story and that Jack was in real life the chief mechanic and Tyrone the foreman of the Sumner Motor’s janitors.  They were a big hit, except for the crowd at Finnian’s, which is why Franny always made it a point to announce them whenever they came on, which was often.

“You turn up that nut and I’m walkin’ out Finnian!”

Someone shouted.

“It’s disgustin’!”  Another chimed in.  “A guy who belongs in a loony bin making money hand over fist because he almost killed someone!”

“Yeah, hot dogin’ it around in that Bentley like some big shot, when he ought to be in a straight jacket!”

“Straight jacket!  Ha!  The jackets I see him in are Ralph Laruen or maybe even Armani!”

“And his wife, flittin’ around town in that sports car like a movie star!”

“Them kids of theirs don’t even go to Granton Grammer anymore!  They go to private schools!  And that wacko Jack Black is supposed to be some kind of local hero!”

“Jack is a hero.”  Franny said flatly.  “he was in high school and now he’s a local TV celebrity.  I think the commercials are cute!  I think Jack’s cute and that Tyrone’s a riot.”

“They’re a riot all right!  In fact they caused one!  You forget that?  Everybody forget that?  We let that nut case run free on the streets endangerin’ the town’s women and children!”

“You better not let him in here Finnian!  You do and I’ll drink elsewhere!”

“He better be banned from here Finnian, sure n’ begorrah!  That emphatic enough for ya?”

“Jack Black don’t drink in here no more.”  Finnian smiled, sadly.  “Jack Black got better places to go and people to be with than you poor fools and that includes me too.  He stops at Mickey White’s new nightclub.  Grand place, classy, cool.  I go there myself, now and then.  Great music!  The whole Black clan is there, dancing up a stor, Big John, Effie, Joe and Judy and their spouses.  That was some wedding reception Jack threw for his sister!  Julie’s family comes too.  Tyrone’s always there.  He’s dating his lawyer’s daughter.  Now there’s a looker!  I guess the old man’s handling all Tyrones advertising contracts.  Jack and Tyrone got more than Sumner Motors going on.  They’re doing layouts for that Big Man clothes outlet.  And of course, Mickey and Trudy.  I’m takin’ the night off Saturday and going with the misses.  Don’t get a chance to dance much in Granton, outside weddings.  We used to go dancin’ all the time when we were courtin’ in Dublin.  I think Jack and Julie got me inspired.  They got stars in their  eyes when they dance at Mickey’s.  You lads should try it.  Not that I want to lose business!  But I think you’ll like it!”

“Enjoy it while you can Finnian!  That place is about to be banned.  We’re all signin’ a petition!”

“Town counsel should never have approved it!”

“Bunch of crooks!  Jack Black’s money backed it!  It ain’t legal!  He’s a convicted felon!

“Jack Black was never convicted of nothing!”  Franny slammed her tray on the bar.  “Now shut up and drink up!  This one’s on Finnian!”

 

No tips tonight.  But no more hoots, jeers, pinches, leers, either.  Franny mused.  The trade off was worth it.  Now if she could only plug up Rosie Clooney she might make it through it.

 

“Nowhere is everywhere, my little elf-like friend, when nothing is anything, and everyone is anyone when no one is someone.  But everything is nothing when something is anything and everywhere is nowhere when somewhere is anywhere and no one is anyone when everyone is someone.  So no one is somewhere, little guy, and everyone is nowhere and nothing is everywhere.”

 

“It was dark in the room when I awakened, my little friend.  The curtains were drawn.  I sensed evil in the shadows, an evil more relentless than my own.  There were bars on the windows; you could see their outlines on the curtains as shadows.  Restraints dangled from my bed.  I was back in the violent ward, I knew.  I could sense from the evil that I would never get out, my little man.

‘For your hands are defiled with blood,’ a phantom emerged from the shadows and said, ‘and your fingers with iniquity.  Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue muttereth wickedness.  You live in the dark like the dead, and you weave a spider’s web.’

‘Right.’ ’I said to the phantom. ‘So when is breakfast served?’”

 

“Fog theater where haunts wandered through an unscripted stupor, amidst empty bottle and broken clocks and each day was a sequel to a final act, is where I lived just before they locked me up here, little fella.  Such is the life of a starving poet.  ‘If the world is as it should be,’ I’d brood each morning as I crawled out of my jerry-built, blind alley bunker, usually some cardboard box I’d drag away from the back of a Stop and Shop, coat collar turned up against the blistering cold, ‘there wouldn’t be so much misery.’  Around me derelicts dug in dumpsters for breakfast.  Church bells tolled throughout the labyrinths.  Homeless families, jobless Joes, shuffled back and forth, nowhere to go. ‘Life is like a lottery,’ I’d muse, ‘wining numbers not for everybody.’  I’d head for a different church each Sunday to catch the high mass.  I’d sit in the back lost in the darkness and warm up by candlelight, last row always, seat by the aisle, shivering by the drafty doors of the vestibule.  A home away from homeless, those houses of worship, along with the soup kitchens, rescue gospel missions, park benches, tunnels, viaducts, shelter, bridge basses, police stations, public libraries, museums of free days.  In the warm and mellow illusion of transcendence, I would sit and reflect, little fella, upon the mystery of birth, life and death and feel a little  peace and momentarily forget my permanent state of hopelessness: roofless, jobless, friendless.  ‘Bless me father for I have sinned.’  I’d say to the man upstairs who probably isn’t there.  ‘I cheat, steal, connive.  But not like Madoff,’ I’d add.  ‘Not like Wall Street.  I’m just a poor poet.  I sin to survive.’  And them when the collection basket came, I’d steal it.”

 

“I don’t know how to describe it, Mayard.”  Jack reflected over his drink at Mickey’s.  They sat at the bar and watched Rodney finish setting up, while they listened to the combo rehearse some of the new numbers they wanted to introduce that night.  Mickey’s new place was plush.  The wall behind the back bar was pure art deco, something one might have seen in New York in that elegant era when they made all those great films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The mirror backed shelves which rose to the ceiling were filled with expensive and exotic bottles, many of them made of ornate shaped crystal, all art works in themselves.  The most expensive were set highest and Rodney had to reach them on a sliding ladder.  Spotlights lit the display.  The rest of the room was darkened except for tiny lights, like little stars set in the ceiling so that you had the feeling you were sitting, dancing, drinking in a dream.  All the tables seemed to float.  The chairs were as comfortable as clouds.  Lush leather sofas and love seats were scattered around for anyone who wanted something more intimate, private.  Every acoustical care had been taken to capture the best sounds possible from the music being played.

“I can’t really even remember it.  Everything got foggy, it had been getting foggy for some time, and then everything went black.  Before that I remember feeling like that giant in Gulliver where all those Lilliputians had him tied down.  I had to break loose, get everybody off me.  I met some nice people at the mental hospital.  There was this one poet there I always used to talk to and always felt better after.  Then one morning I woke up and said to myself: ‘Another day.  Why?  I am.  Do I need another reason?  Does anyone?  The steps go up.  The steps go down.  The spiral staircase goes round and round.  But wait.  Reflect.  Linger for a moment on that staircase.  Listen to the wails of sorrow, the laughter of children.  Imagine the journey through life from birth to death – joy, love, heartbreak, despair, passion, triumph, tragedy, loss, celebration, all that we experience, quiet thoughts, blue skies, dream … but Mayard whatever happened is basically all still a mystery.  But I better get going.  Julie’s cooking up a storm.  Mickey and Trudy are coming over with the kids.  We’re all going to toss around the best way to work out this new charity we’re thinking about.  Let’s drink this last round to the invisible lives in the slums, ghettos, grottos, hollows, who pray themselves to sleep each night, hoping their children can have a better life.”

A Tail of Two Kitties

Bright Lights Big City

“Out there, beware, lost souls everywhere,
misery, poverty, murder, robbery.”
The Fat Cat said to Stray who happened
to pass his way. “In here, good cheer,” he
gestured toward the high, arched door he was
about to enter, “nothing to fear, nothing to
long for, comfort, camaraderie, peace and
prosperity. The way life should be.”
He tipped his top hat and wished Stray a good
day, not without irony. A door man bowed
to Fat Cat, ushered him inside, and went back
to guarding the entrance again.
Gender? No. Race? No. Nationality? No.
Country? No. Neighborhood? Social status?
No. Heritage, family tree, parents, siblings,
anybody good for anything?
“Curiosity killed the cat. So what!” Stray
thought. He was half-dead anyway.
He sat “out there” in a seedy bar and made
a list of what he was responsible for in his
life and what he missed when things were
handed out by God or Fate or the Force.
Whomever dealt the cards and got him
into his mess. “Looks? No. IQ? No.
Talents? Math, science, art, music,
athletics, no – like everything else
worth having, money and influence especially,
talent had to be inherited, a gift from lucky
gene combinations Education? Sure,
Harvard or Yale. Ha! Lucky he didn’t end
up in reform school. Not much came with
that birth certificate. Stray brooded. And
then you died at the end of it! Stray felt
gypped, cheated. He was a patsy. Why was
he handed the short end of the stick in
everything? Why was he just another mangy
alley cat, and an unlucky black one at
that yowling in the darkness? It wasn’t fair.
He was just a workus. When he could find work.
While these whosits were blessed!
“The fat cats feed off the nation”
Stray scribbled on his bar napkin.
“The strays their hope for salvation.
The hip on jubilation.” He continued.
“The cool on calculation.
It’s a dog’s life.”
He finished.
Hey! He did have some talent! Stray reread
the poem he had just written. Not bad. He
was a poet and didn’t know it. A lot
of good that would do him. Just another
useless occupation. Thank you Lord, Stray
sighed, once again for nothing!

Motel Hell

Motel Hell 2For Motel Hell Top (2)
Satan’s eye, slipping out of sight beyond the shifting sands. A blind eye now to the denizens of the desert, but still burning in the memory of each scorched skull. Now night, and once again, the million flaring stares, peeking through the peepholes of the sky’s black mask … and the bright mad moon … and the howling wind. …
The door flew open. Clem looked up from the motel ledger as his brother, Chester, lurched into the room. In the hawkish light of the cabin office, Chester looked like nothing so much as a wayward desert ghoul. His tangled beard and disheveled hair, glistened with sweat. His slept-in custodial uniform was in disarray. “Have a nice nap Chester?” Clem shifted uneasily behind the metal desk. Chester stared at him without expression. He clutched a crumpled sheet of motel stationary in his gnarled fist. “Seems a might cooler.” Clem stammered. “Reckon we’ll catch a break if the wind don’t shift?”
“Epiphany.” Chester whispered.
“Excuse me Chester?”
“EPIPHANY!” Chester thundered. He stormed across the room and slammed the crumpled paper on the desk.
“Oh.” Clem poked his horn rimmed reading glasses (which he had been peering over) back to the bridge of his nose. “I guess you done writ me another poem Chester.” He sighed as he picked up the page.

“I wake up, the nightmare’s still there.
I wake up to panic and fear.
I wake up to doom and despair.
I wake up, there’s death in the air.
And my room’s like a tomb sealing me in.
And the clock on the wall is spinning its hands
And I hide in the dark from the unknown again.”

“That’s a right purty poem Chester.” Clem forced a smile. “Epiphany’s a right fine title.” He fished an aspirin bottle from the desk and swallowed a handful. “Chester, reckon you might take a look see in cabin 3? If you feel rested. That slicker couple – one’s with the Benz and that little fluffy dog what bit your leg – they been callin’ and complainin’, complainin’ and complainin’ … Chester … slow down bro … Chester! … DON”T YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT NEEDS FIXEN’?”

Softly in the dark, the Magician slips past the bolted locks of Clem’s snoring aspirin- numbed imagination, up the slender, spiral staircase of fantasia-land, down its narrow, dimly-lit hallway, through the silent, moonlit bedchambers, out the window and over the roof – as quiet as a shadow, draped in his midnight magic black cloak, carrying his satchel of starlight and moon glow, as he dusts the night with dream.

The streets are empty as Chester shadows through the unknown city in his recurring nightmare. Dark, deserted buildings surround him. He had no idea why he’s there or where he’s going if anywhere. There’s not a soul in sight. But he senses something in the sir. He knows he’s being followed everywhere.

The air is crisp. The weather has cooled. The motel is deserted. The last of the travelers finally gone, thank God, that city slicker Chester swore he saw on “America’s Most Wanted.” That had led to all kinds of problems. Chester shouldn’t have gone after him with the shotgun. Hadn’t he called the police right in front of him to calm him down? He should have known that old gun had a mind of its own. He should have known not to point it at anyone. When they dug through his wallet turns out he weren’t no crook at all but some big shot. Nothin’ to do with the body but get rid of it. That wad of cash he was carrying was tempting he admitted. Waste not want not. Couldn’t bury that. Half asleep, Clem sits loosely on a tall metal stool behind the cluttered motel office counter, arms hanging at his sides. The doors slowly opens. Chester’s hair and jacket, even his black, tangled beard, are caked with blood. There are burn marks on his face and hands. His clothes are blackened by smoke. His arm is broken. It dangles and swings as he lurches toward him and falls forward.
“Help me Clem!” Chester clings to the counter like a drowning man a raft’s edge. His body trembles. There are tears in his eyes. His crusted mouth drools. “I’m hurt bad Clem! They durn near killed me!”
The pale clerk rises slowly, adjusting his glasses. His brother’s eyes are wild, filled with fear and panic. He can see no open wounds or lacerations.
“You should of used a fuse on that there Caddy tank Chester.” Clem pulls the motel ledger from beneath his brother’s toppled figure. His thin lips pursed. The top page is smudged with smoke. The binding smeared with red. He must have carried that city slicker over his shoulder. Clem brooded. He should have drug him to a hole. His brother had no sense at all. “Fuel’s dangerous, Chester. Thought you might know better.”
He’d never wipe this off. Clem shook his head. He’d have to start a new book. The records would be all messed up, lest he attached the pages from the previous lodgers and that wouldn’t do.
“Caddy tank!” Chester lurches up like a madman. “Weren’t no Caddy tank blow me! I hid the Caddy. Were the chopper I shot down explodin’. Almost landed on me! Crashed into Widows Peak. Plumb knocked the top off! Big boulder broke my arm! Fire nearly burned me
alive! The damned thing tumbling down! It was hell!” He whimpers.
“Chopper? Chester where’s your shotgun?”
The brothers turn abruptly from one another and gape out the window. Headlights sweep across the motel parking lot. A dark sedan pulls up near the office. A lone man sits inside. The plain car looks official. The brothers eye it warily. Their bodies stiffen as they study the man behind the wheel.
“Best go in the back Chester.” Clem straightens his suspenders and puts on his clerical visor.: “We’ll talk about this later.”
The man emerges slowly from the car. He has dark, curly hair. He looks rough and rangy. Clem catches a flash of a 45 holstered beneath his dusty Bureau windbreaker. Clem’s pulse races as the man strides through the door. His flesh feels clammy as the scowling agent approaches the counter. When Clem looks in his eyes sweat breaks from his pores.
“Stragger.” The man holds up a badge. “FBI. I’m following up on a call you made last night. You told the Black Water police you had a suspicious man staying here. Guy on “most wanted. A killer.”
Clem swallows hard and heaves a sigh.
“That man is gone, officer. Like I told the other what called later. Bad looking man. We’re lucky we’re alive.”
“Who’s we?” The agent glares at him and scowls.
Clem’s face turns white.
Agent Stragger lifts the ledger from the counter and studies the entries inside.
“Me and my brother Chester.” Clem stammers. “This motel is ourn.”
“What’s your name?”
“Names Clem.”
“Where’s your brother, Clem?”
The agent rips a page from the book. His moustache forms a frown.
“He’s away. In town I reckon.”
The agent looks around the room and lights a cigarette. He blows the smoke in the nervous clerk’s face/ Something starts eating away at the back of his mind. His eyes narrow.
“Is this your entry? How come it’s been scratched out?”
Clem’s palms start to sweat. He forces a smile. The agent’s eyes are serpents. They bore through him like fangs.
“Really didn’t notice sir.” Clem’s legs tremble. He plays with his suspenders, fidgets with the visor on his head. “maybe he done snuck in here and scratched it out, cover his tracks?”
“Was the car a Cadillac?”
Smoke trails through the agent’s nostrils.
“Can’t rightly say I recollect. Maybe it were, maybe not. Might have been a Buick.”
“We’ll enhance this page on a computer, see if the letters stand out. We’re looking for a V.I.P supposed to meet the mayor of Tucson this morning. Figured maybe his car broke down. The mayor sent a chopper to search the desert. Someone shot it down. Last call the police got was about a black Cadillac off the road by Widow’s Peak. He was going to check it out. I’m going to send another agent around with a photograph of the V.I.P.. Kidnapping? Assassination? Something to do with that “most wanted” guy you recognized from TV? You and your brother Fester help him out. Give him a description of the man who stayed here. Make sure Fester sticks around. I don’t want to have to look for him. We’re too busy to play around.”
“That’s Chester, officer.”
“What?”
“Chester not Fester.”
“Someone get cut?”
The agent holds up his hand. The long blunt fingers are stained with dried blood. Clem watches the agent’s eyes wander along the counter. They move from it to the floor and to the spotty path that led to the washroom door.
“yes sir. My brother.” Clem’s voice is shaky. “Earlier in the day.”
“That why he went to town?”
“Sir?”
“Did he go to town to see a doctor?”
“Yes sir. The doctor. Cut real bad. Been too blamed busy to clean it up.”
“Place is a real bee hive.” The moustache smiles. “Can I use your washroom?” He vaults the counter and strides toward the back. He drags on his cigarette and drops the butt on the floor.
“Plumbing ain’t working officer.” Clem’s voice is strained. “I can let you in the room next door. Nice and clean, fresh new towels.”
“Just want to wipe off my hands.” The big man turns and smiles. “Maybe run a comb through my hair.”
“That lock’s plumb busted!” Clem calls after him shrilly. “You can’t get in!”
“That’s OK. I’ll fix it.”
Stragger kicks in the door. Chester is seated on the toilet, holding his broken arm. He is biting on his wallet, squirming with pain.”
“Works better with your pants down.” Stragger says pleasantly. “Oh, that’s right, plumbing’s out anyway. Guess if it was working you’d have washed up some.” Stragger studies the tortured, blackened figure. “Lookee here, Clem.” He turns back to the clerk. Clem stands and stares, white as a ghost, his arms frozen at his sides. “Your brother’s back from town. Why don’t the three of us take a little ride?”

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