Babel

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Babel

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?”

Carnival

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Fog shrouds the buildings, wraps the antique streetlamps. We can see nothing. The monsters sweep us blindly through the maze – devils and demons, banshees and goblins, witches, warlocks, vampires and cretins – festival costumed creatures lurching drunkenly through the labyrinths. Or are they?
“We’re walking in circles!”
Deserie clutches my arm. Thunder rocks the rain lashed streets, lightning flares.
“Look for the church!” I shout above the chaos. “Try to spot the steeple!”
Deserie seems an apparition herself, pale, frenzied.

We had been lost in the mountains, driving dizzily through the dusk, in the ancient black, Bentley which the hotel had provided for us, when we saw the lights of a city flickering in the valley.

“Shangri La?” I quipped.
“Dunno about that.” Deserie studied the tour guide by the interior light. “Whatever it is, it’s not on our map.”
“Maybe the map’s as outdated as our ‘vintage’ loaner car?”
“Nothing’s as old as old Bentley.” Deserie patted the dash. “Maybe Noah’s Ark.”
The car was a riot. It was a mystery it ran. I immediately nicknamed it: “Our Honeymoon hearse.”
Night fell swiftly, as we descended the steeps. I wrestled the black shadow down the long winding roads, between the snow capped mountains with their bends and sweeps. The chasms were treacherous. We held our breaths. The city in the valley seemed nestled in death. My joke got less funny. We reached the bottom with our fingers cramped, amazed that we made it, civilization at last.
We parked near an old church on a narrow, cobbled lane – a grim, gaunt structure with a tall bell steeple. But the roller coaster ride was not over. Bonfires, lanterns, fireworks lit the streets. The old city was mobbed. There was a carnival or some sort of festival in progress.
“One big party.” I ‘Groucho Marxed’ my eyebrows at Deserie, after I danced around the Bentley and opened the passenger door.”
“That was your vow.”
She gathered her skirts and slipped out.
“Life in the fast lane.” I crooned. “Life on the edge. The trip to nowhere.”
“I think we found it.”
Jugglers, acrobats, magicians mingled amidst the throngs, vendors, fortune tellers, phantoms on stilts – everyone was costumed, everyone was masked. It reminded us of Mardi Gras or The Day of the Dead, or that one Halloween night in Greenwich Village when everyone turned out. But there was something disturbing about this festival. The revelers seemed too strident, their fervor directed, madly, at itself, as if madness was what they were celebrating, their march a lockstep into hell. Like bats in a belfry they swooped and swarmed us in the night. My pockets were picked. Deserie’s purse was snatched. Before we knew it, everything was gone – identification, money, even the keys to the car. We were swept up in a maelstrom which made no sense. The streets had no names, the shops no signs, the buildings no numbers, the clocks no hands. There were no policemen, except the costumed kind. The revelers wouldn’t talk to us. They didn’t seem to speak at all.
Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

The Pawnshop

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

“Twins ride a see-saw as storm clouds gather over them. Each catches a glimpse, in turn, above the other, of a star on the horizon. The grim one ponders hers and finds profound insights through it. The happy one peeks at her own, bewildered and bemused, until it finally shines on her too. It is the star of life, for one magic, for the other a wonder of science and physics. Each, identical in everyway except for the way their brains were arranged, balances and enables the other in their teeter-totter journey to nowhere. As they ride up and down under the clouding night sky, the grim one sees that soon her star will vanish in the storm. Her sibling will see that too but only when her is covered and is gone. The lonely cry of a train’s whistle wails by like a one note lullaby.”

Heather paused in her reading to push away another avalanche of chestnut hair that had tumbled across her glistening face, veiling her vision, puffing out strands with each word, as she gripped the wobbly podium, which Michael must have borrowed from some rescue gospel mission, and to swallow an ice cold mouthful of bottled water, which went down the pipe, just right, as her grandfather used to say of his whiskey, which she wished she were drinking instead. In the back of the room, resplendent in diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and every other pricey doodad she could attach to her voluptuous, platinum haired, tanning salon presence, her rival gazed at her haughtily, yawning periodically as she fanned herself with the night’s program. Now and then, the Gold Coast socialite would turn to smile flirtatiously at Michael who stood by the door looking, as usual, like the count of some mysterious somewhere or other, dressed like a pasha in a flamboyant silk woven evening jacket, camel hair slacks and cashmere turtleneck, set off by a hypnotist sized diamond ring and solid gold watch, all unclaimed remains from the clandestine hoardings of his father’s hock shop (the watch probably left by Midas) to greet any latecomers held up by the snow storm. Heather suspected that Pasha and Prima Divorcia (she must be hitting fifty by the record of her mega buck marriage hops, although she looked no older than Heather due to the miracle of cosmetic surgery) had slept together last night, one swept away by the moment (everyone had been a little drunk) the other using her well worn witch broom to fly another conquest to her magic midnight bedroom. It was apparent by the smug look (or was that the only expression that’s left after your umpteenth facelift?) she had directed at Heather when she made her grand entrance and handed Connie, Michael’s assistant, her sable for safe keeping.
“Years pass.” Heather continued. “Each sister is now far from her home in Kansas.”
The gathering of Chicago aristocrats, seated in rows of folding chairs before her in the brightly-lit, steaming-hissing cellar, looked like nothing so much as a comedy skit – some parody one might find on Saturday Night Live or Comedy Central. She couldn’t stop the imp that flashed a smile across her lips. “Is there something wrong with this picture” Should be the caption under the photographs the Tribune was taking for its “Society” feature. She wondered if the spread would also include the front entrance? Michael had never removed the three balls that hung above his father’s pawnshop when he converted the space into an art place – “So the little shop of sorrows became a bargain basement of miracles.” He said, with a shrug, when she asked about the incongruity. “It’s still a place of lost souls and dreams and it’s still all about money, sadly. Like the pawn guy says on TV. ‘Everything here has a story and a price.’ Instead of my desk I probably should transact sales behind a cage wearing my father’s visor, sleeves rolled up. Besides it lends a touch of Duchamp to the ambience.”
All dressed to the nines in Dior and Armani, the tycoons and Grande Dames sat uncomfortably, sweated profusely, and listened politely to (of all things) poetry recited by a banshee haired, pixy faced PhD. She still looked, she knew, at twenty-eight, more like the freckle faced daughter of the Keebler elf than Big Jim McMahn’s brat kid, runt of the litter that she was. “I wanted Heather to learn the construction business and someday take over.” Her father had told the revelers at her doctoral graduation celebration. “She’s got more brains than her brothers. They’ll be the first to admit it. But she kissed the blarney stone instead, disappointing her old dad. Well the world got a great poet and a pretty one at that. What she creates with words will last longer than what I put together with brick and mortar.” Not yawning yet, but fanning themselves with their programs as much to stay awake as combat the heat, her audience sat wondering what they had gotten themselves into as they listened to her rant. Now and then, they would turn their bewildered attention to blink at the mural sized paintings of barrio life that surrounded them. Depicting, in clashing colors and expressionistic figures, drug lords and drive-bys, hookers, beggars, gangsters, horror, squalor, and other urban nightmares, the pieces were created by the Hispanic inner-city high school student Michael had awarded, out of his own impecunious pockets (which were about as deep as a conversation with the platinum haired “Black Widow” would be if she got stuck talking with her later at the festivities) a full scholarship for art to whatever Chicago academy was his wish. There were two more such prizes, the total exhausting, she learned, his entire savings, one for poetry, in which she was the judge, the other for science.
“Diego Rivera” Michael had whispered to her, that day they strolled together through the settlement house exhibit where the young man’s works were on display, “with a touch of Hieronymus Bosch thrown in?”
“And maybe a few amphetamines?” She mused, looking around at the chaos of colors and figures which could easily get the kid arrested for assault and battery to the senses.
“And maybe a few more again.” Michael laughed. “This is bravura work, an artist taking on his own inner demons while he battles social injustice in the process. I’ll check out the rest of the students on my short list but I’m sure I’m done.” Michael frowned. “I know art isn’t supposed to make statements anymore and each of this kid’s works is a Holocaust, with no let up. Not one like my father’s. you couldn’t even make art out of that! That story was best told by newspaper photographers, documentary film makers or young girls who kept diaries while hiding in attics from Nazis. This is riveting stuff, packed with the pathos and all the tragedy being human can be. I could see these gut level recreations of ghetto life coming but I didn’t suspect so many would be so good. I knew, of course, I would be taken by whatever came in. But then Jews don’t have to bend their brains much to find beauty in such visual nightmares. They were born into a surrealist dream and they bear the legacy of their exotic genes, which lend themselves to Symbolist renderings. Besides, “a bit mashugina is what everyone I ever knew thought of me.” (Gee, I wonder why Michael? She refrained from commenting. Can it be because you do things like give away all your money?) “That’s what many of the real art experts think I am anyway. Art for me has to involve itself in humanity, express feelings, emotions, not word games or mind games. They don’t agree. But what do I know? I’m just a small time art dealer, the son of a Holocaust survivor turned pawn broker. I guess empathy is my eccentricity. Much of what they show looks like fun house stuff to me and maybe belongs more to an amusement park than a museum or art gallery. Contemplation doesn’t follow the confrontation no matter how jolting that may be. Maybe they’re mashugina? In any event, now that the mayor and the leading citizens have generously agreed to take over the scholarship competition, I guess because it drew some local and national attention, and make it an annual event, actually adding a few more categories to the grants, they can pick their own judges and do what they want. Traditional cityscapes, avant-garde experiments, whatever turns them on. It will be their call from now on. I just wanted to get this project off the ground. I’m not even sure why. After ten years of dealing art, a situation that came about by accident, I found that I had half a million dollars in the bank and, since my needs are small, nothing I could think of to spend it on. I suppose I could have expanded my business. Instead I did this. I’m not sure I know what art is anyway. Who does these days? A curator at the museum told me they call au courant endeavors ‘spaghetti.’ They throw it all at the wall and see what sticks. All I know is that what I like effects me deeply. But maybe it’s just a pawn in a game? And a big money one. In which case the three balls above my door are appropriate. I may know writing. I’m the classic caricatured Jewish bookworm. That art form only works if it says something. Your book ‘Leprechauns in the Attic,’ is a joy. That’s why I came to you. Your words, the people that inhabit the poetry of your Gallic-magical-realism world, with all its myths and folk lore, paradox, irony, joy, tragedy, mystery … the migration of the Irish Catholics from the potato famine to the present … the lace curtain years to the noveau riche … the ironies and satires of the American dream … are roses in a garden one doesn’t weed, because the wild growth is as much of a wonderment as the tended part is. This kid’s urban jungle has such flowers in it and those moments of magical truth.”
“Gee thanks, Michael.” Heather remembered thinking as she looked around at the blazing walls which threatened to explode. “An un-weeded garden.” Maybe she should use that quote for the back of her next book? Maybe she should use it for the title? My Un-weeded Garden by Heather McMahn. But there was a wild beauty in the Hispanic’s youth’s works. They were violent but poignant, filled with heart stabbing portraits of impoverished families in the backgrounds, trying to live their dreams, and sad-eyed children lost in bedlam. The poems were the same, touching and disturbing. If the aristocrats thought they were being tortured now, Heather mused as she watched them glance around furtively, wait until her winner, a seventeen year old African American girl seated in the first row with her invalid mother next to the mayor, dressed almost as a counterpoint to her gritty text in austere Sunday-go-to-meeting attire, a frail, timid creature, read her works.
“All bitter pills to swallow I’ll bet.” Michael had sympathized with her as she waded through the “short list” the panel had sent her – which wasn’t exactly short: fifty poets with five works each. It wasn’t that the works were difficult. They weren’t loaded with metaphors, symbolism or references that one had to ponder or decipher. They hit you like a sock in the jaw. They made you shiver and, if not cry, sometimes brought a tear to your eye.

I walk among the lost,
where chasms have no bridges,
over bottomless abysses.
I live alongside the longing.
I live among the yearning,
side by side with the struggling,
in the ghettos and the grottos
of misery and suffering.
I am that haunt you sense in the
mirror. I am you in despair.

or:

Hustle or muscle – that’s the
only way for the boys to get
by in the ghetto: deal, steal,
pimp, kill – each day the same
ole crime of being alive.
Bars without spaces to look
through surround you. That’s
because no one outside wants
to see your misery, hear your
cries … that deaf ear, blind eye,
as you slowly die.

Not exactly “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” but effective nevertheless. They were sleeping together by then. It hadn’t taken long. Life comes at you quick. Ironic, since she had wanted no part of this obscure “art dealer’s” scholarship competition to begin with. Although the honorarium was generous. It seemed like a gimmick, some promotional stunt some “shylock” on the make cooked up. She turned Michael’s letter of request down with the warmest wishes for the competitions success, begging off due to prior commitments. Her excuse was valid. She was already swamped with similar requests, as well as those for readings, lectures, panel discussions from colleges and universities throughout the country. Since the university had published her book, which had received much praise and numerous awards, she was in big demand. Maybe for past women writers the field had neglected? Whatever, the dean, whom had gotten wind of the request for Michael’s contest, ultimately talked her into it. There was a lot of “Buzz around town” about the competition. He informed her. The presidents speech on his “agenda for academic excellence” had inspired the art dealer according to the papers. Obama had mentioned and thanked the generous small business benefactor from his home town Chi-town, the city of big shoulders and hearts and urged others, if they could, to follow this good citizen’s example, Involving herself in something that was garnering a fair amount of attention would be good for her book. The dean pointed out, as well as the university. The winners were going to appear on various television programs. “Maybe the judges too?” He mused. Hinting at a prospect no writer could refuse.
“One twin lives in New York and is a scientist.”
Michael was gone. Connie stood in his place by the door next to the security guard. He said he would slip out for a drink when the proceedings got going, brace himself for the ensuing commotion. “You know how I hate schmoozing.” He winced. “A couple of stiff ones in some quite place will get me through it.”
“The other resides in LA and is an artist.”
Heather couldn’t possibly guess what would show up at her office, when she finally caved into the dean. She still thought there was something fishy about the whole thing. No one shelled money out of their own pocket unless they expected a payback. She felt like she was being played – the students too. To start something that would get the attention of the president and local as well as national newscasts was pretty shrewd. Maybe some bonvivant wearing as ascot and a beret? Some flim flam man with a con artist grin? Some Hollywood wanna-be wearing shades, a toupee, and calling her and everyone else babe? What walked in was a magician, tall, dark, handsome. But, despite the high-style clothes and mesmerist’s ring, he didn’t seem like a guy who had something up his sleeve. Later, after she got to know him better (and Michael explained that he wore his glad rags and assorted accoutrements because he accidently discovered – Michael seemed to discover everything accidently – trying on garments and sundry ornaments from the pawnshop’s storage bin for fun, that the outlandish concoctions impressed his clients and helped sell paintings) that first impression of a mystical esthetic, slowly became altered. The dark devouring eyes, starving for truth, beauty, the meaning of life, not acquisitions, the biblical aquiline nose, sensuous lips, formed a semblance belonging more to someone lost and searching than a practitioner of the black arts and hocus pocus. At forty Michael’s face retained some kind of the wayward poster child persona of a wandering soul looking in a window, maybe, shadowy, haunting, searching for a doorway to get out of the cold. Which was understandable given his neglected childhood, which sounded like a tale Charles Dickens might have written. It would have made her want to adopt him even if she hadn’t already taken him for her lover. It was the main reason she hadn’t strangled him yet or turned him over to her construction worker brothers who would have given him a friendly warning of what would come if he ever gave their sister the runaround. Beware Black Widow, she mused, the fighting Irish was in her too.
“Where on earth did you get this bed Michael, a fire sale at the Cook County jail? You know with half a million dollars you could have gotten a pretty good mattress. At least one without lumps. I guess you never thought of that?”
“Not really. I suppose I’m used to it.”
“And your lovers?”
“They don’t seem to notice. Too preoccupied with other things. If you know what I mean?”
“Sure, get right on to the pleasure principle and avoid the pain. Well we better got at it. I’m on top.”
He proved to be a magician in bed, both his lumpy one and hers, as well as numerous others over the years, she came to learn. He seemed to run into old flames everywhere they went, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, amidst the glitter of their Gold Coast jaunts. “Michael! How good to see you! Robbing the cradle as usual? And you must be one of his artists. Fresh out of school are you? You’ll enjoy Michael. He’s a maestro. Don’t enjoy him too much, it will be over before you know it.”
So he was hocus pocus after all. Now you see him, now you don’t, according to the gossip that went around. A master of the vanishing act. Houdini with a hard-on? No his psychological problems, she came to observe, went deeper than that. He was an escape artist – from responsibility, commitment, from any domestic involvement, from realities of every kind, especially if they involved the ties that bind. Intimacy was not his forte. Empathy maybe, but not if it involved him other than existentially. He was afraid of it. She suspected that that was why he had suddenly gotten the urge to give away his money. It was a grand gesture, of course. He was kind hearted, nice in everyway. But the money was a trap. At forty he had to do something life changing with it – settle down, get married, raise a family. Become a real businessman. He had gotten into art as a lark. “I had this dead end, monotonous job as a supervisor in a medical records department, something my half brother – you met him, the surgeon – got for me. It was OK. At that age, I was an aspiring writer anyway. I still think I have one book in me. Then my father, unexpectedly, left me his little property when he died, which, since the neighborhood went so upscale, is worth a lot of money. A million dollars probably. All I had to do was maintain it and pay taxes. This being Chicago’s main art district, I went with the flow and to my amazement became fairly successful.”
What was amazing to Heather wasn’t his success as an art dealer but his total lack of introspection as a voracious reader and aspiring writer. He needed a shrink for a girlfriend not a PhD of poetry. Anyone could see that the art he was attracted to was exactly what he lacked in his personality – feeling, or a running commitment to it. He was caring, affectionate, loving, with someone, for a small amount of time, it seemed, then he drifted away, back to his lost soul state. A shadow on the loose with no one to claim it. Yet he was drawn by these compassionate renderings like a moth to a flame. He was a connoisseur of such haunting sentiments captured with paint. The artists he represented were magnificent. Their works were wonderments. They were moving, often disturbing. Each one captured profound truths in some way whether by fable, or the surreal, or the expressionistic, or representational, about being human. She loved hanging out there surrounded by them. The two of them together as if in some wondrous dream, which was why they usually ended up staying together there rather than her plush new condo with its view of the lake. Even the lumpy bed and his small, cozy living space in the back seemed an extension of the gallery’s nether world ambience. The walls were packed floor to ceiling with old, gilt framed black and white photographs of the building, the pawnshop, life along the surrounding streets, taken, judging by the clothes and cars, mostly in the late forties and fifties, and filled, she assumed, with family, friends, relations, many orthodox Jews, the men bearded, the women wearing extravagant hats. Rag or junk filled wagons rolled through many of the antique street scenes drawn by horses wearing funny hats.
“Back in the day,” Michael mused as they lay together and gazed at the photographs, “my mother owned the whole building. That is with her first husband. That’s their wedding portrait above the menorah. My mother, as you can see, was very beautiful. What you can’t see is that she was lame. She dragged her right foot after her until the end of her days. The groom was the same age as her father. He has a kind face and it was a good match, since he was a land lord and the owner of a pawnshop. It was the best one she could get with her foot. They lived right here behind the shop. They both worked at it. The rest of the brownstone comprised a small, seedy, backstreet hotel where street hookers would rent rooms by the hour to service their customers and down and out transients flopped for a couple of bucks. The whole neighborhood was seedy back then as you can tell from the pictures – the streets filled with honky tonk bars, strip joints, dives, greasy spoons, and pawnshops. Now, of course, it’s gentrified. You can find some of that old Chicago ambience near the YMCA along Chicago Avenue or by its intersection with Clark. At night it’s still something of a no man’s land, at least for a couple of blocks. My father entered the picture later. He’s that brute over there with the bushy eyebrows and thick curly hair. He was the son of a butcher in a village in Czechoslovakia. Most of the village, all of his family, was exterminated in the camps. He survived because at fourteen he was as big as a man, with a thick neck and huge hands and of course the stamina of youth which enabled him to get through a year and a half of that hell on earth. They put him to work on a labor crew and used his muscles for the Fuhrer. By the time the camps were liberated, he was dead inside. Their marriage was arranged by a broker as well. My mother was a new widow then with two children, my half brother and sister. She needed a man, and a big one at that, who could take care of business and with his fists if it came to that. The neighborhood was still bad. In some ways it was worse, or at least wilder. Glittering strips of gangster owned nightclubs were springing up everywhere, bringing swarms of revelers, along with pickpockets, muggers, drug dealers. Baby boomer teenagers, many from rough neighborhoods, roamed the streets in gangs. My father, a mallet man at the stockyards, that’s the guy who killed the cattle with a spiked sledge hammer as they were herded down the fenced off aisles, was out of work. The yards were rapidly closing down. Initially, he was brought to America by distant relatives. They tried to set him up as a kosher butcher. But that didn’t last long. He was a drunkard and a brawler. The camps, first Auschwitz then Buchenwald, had turned an amiable but somewhat slow witted boy into a monster. If looks could kill? You can see murder in his eyes in his wedding photograph and all the rest. It’s the only look he ever gave me, or my mother or anyone. It was frightful being around him, especially when he was drunk, which was often. Who can blame him after living surrounded by barbed wire and witnessing beatings, hangings, mass shootings and the human smoke billowing from the crematoriums. I hold nothing against him. They made the contract. He learned the business, collected the rents, scared off thugs and robbers probably simply with his presence. He helped raise, in his own way, the two kids. I came along next, unexpected and uninvited. They were middle aged by then. Bernie, the oldest, was Bar Mitzvah that year. Rhonda, as beautiful as my mother, was popular, a big hit at school with oodles of young boys after her even then. She married well. They both did well. No scars inflicted that I can tell. My parents seemed to have had little to do with each other. He had his whores, loose women, kept to himself. They lived together like work mates, survivors of a hard fate.
Maybe drunk one night he forced her? Who can sa? I never felt like a son to either of them. I was something unwanted. Maybe the product of a regretful rape?
My mother died of cancer when I was ten. My father converted all the flats into condominiums, including the one we all lived in and sold them to put Bernie and Rhonda through college. Bernie’s education, of course, went on and on and cost a small fortune. My father and I lived down here. I learned the business, worked my way through a useless BA at Circle campus, took the job my brother got for me. Sometime I’ll show you the root cellar. It’s a little storage space dug out under the basement. You get there through a trap door in the floor, covered over by that Persian rug. That was my room. The walls are cork-lined. That’s where I get all my glad rags from.”
As well as his “sad rags” – Heather lamented. That inability to keep a deep relationship. He told her later that he was often locked up down there by his father. Sometimes as a punishment or when his father wanted to party with his women or friends. He would come in late at night, glare at him and point at the trap door and then shove a heavy chest over it to make sure Michael wouldn’t go to the washroom and bother them. He peed in a can. Whatever else was his life she could only imagine. It was a lonely life, lived mostly through books, roaming the streets when he could. When he was older, he told her, he went to the museum a lot. What he liked about that experience, almost as much as the art, was being around the patrons, bright looking and well dressed. A relieving contrast to the sad souls who came into the pawnshop to hock their poor treasures. Heather flashed on the poem that made her pick her winner.

Dead of winter, shadowing down
streets as black as any nightmare,
although it wasn’t even time for supper.
“I got dizzy, Sweetie.”
“I knows Mama.”
She came home from school and found
Her mother on the floor. Her baby
brother and sister stood there by her,
scared. They had gotten home first,
tried to lift her. Impossible when the
dead weight of the curse was on her.
They couldn’t find her pills. They
brought her blankets and pillows.
“Where’s your purse Mama?”
“I ain’t got no money, Honey.”
Her mother looked ashen, like the
Embers of coal burned.
“I needs to get your medicine.”
“I ain’t got no more. I was going
to the drugstore.”
Her purse was on the floor, right
next to her, covered by the blanket.
There were no more pills in the vile
she kept tucked away at its bottom.
“I get you a refill.” She pocketed the
container. “You two sup on that lunch
meat wrapped up in the fridge.” She told
her siblings. “Get Mama some tea. I
bring you back some candy.”
By now every predator was out there,
prowling through the icy dark: rapists,
muggers, gangbangers, killers. She
pulled on her winter coat, cap, mittens.

The contest was an ordeal. Michael’s stories were an ordeal. They made her reflect on her own youthful years. One summer in her teen-hood made her shudder. How arrogant they were, all of them, she and her friends, so full of themselves in their privileged lives and pretenses. Her parents were affluent. She grew up in a big house on the North Shore. Nothing was denied her, or her siblings or any of their friends. There was travel, country clubs in which to swim and play the summers away, private schools, mentors, tutors, Barnard eventually, shopping sprees with her friends in the plush suburban malls or along Chicago’s beyond upscale “Magnificent Mile,” concerts, museums. When she was sixteen she and a few of her school-mates formed a fun trio and billed themselves “The Ghetto Girls>” They dressed funky, sang rap songs which she cooked up lampooning the north shore, the gold coast and making parallels to their “sisters” in the slums. They sang at weddings, parties, dances, the country club once, anywhere they could stand in front of a band. They were so cute, clever. They were a big hit that summer. They didn’t mean anything bad by it. What were they thinking? How embarrassing to have as a memory now. What was that Categorical Imperative by Kant? “…whatever we do or say or think should be a moral imperative for all humanity … our slightest whim or action … a transcendental law for all time …”
“Still identical in body and soul,” Heather gave her winner a smile signaling that she was finishing so take a deep breath because you are up next, “although what each does is often mistaken for an opposite pursuit,” she wanted to tie in the art and science aspect of the scholarships, “the twins still balance and in turn lift one another to get a glimpse of that star.”
Of course it behooved her to thank everyone, after the applause finished, for attending the first of an ongoing commitment to Chicago’s inner city high school students – their graciousness and generosity; while at the same time reflecting that they wouldn’t have to drag themselves out in the snow, sit sweating in an overheated cellar and shell out dough, if they simply paid their employees, in all those enterprises and factories they owned, a better wage so they could take care of themselves; or maybe just pay their fair share of the taxes so the government could handle it.

All around him in the night, like icicles dangling from the winter sky, towers rose, sleek with glass and reflections of the nebulous. Strolling below, amidst the parks, gardens, walks, fountains, the quaint Victorian mansions and smug old brownstones – most of which had been converted into pricey eateries, watering holes and Gold Coast Condos – began to assume an illusion of fairyland as a heavenly lake effect snow descended on Chicago and flakes as big as dove feathers transformed the spires and gables into enchanted castles.
Michael glanced at his Midas watch and slipped into the posh, park nightclub. Within, tourists, travelers, amiable neighborhood residents were sipping cocktails and watching the magic show from the ornate French windows as they listened to the piano echo the dream outside with its mellow notes.

“Now you know what it means to be alone.”

The North Shore Chanteuse was wailing her tales of sorrow like some god forsaken angel as he found a small table in a corner, ordered a drink, and waited for the jeweler who would meet him soon.

“A broken heart
A dream that fell apart”

The track lights above the golden voiced beauty glimmered like moon glow. Seated atop a black piano, her intonations, breathless, tragic, her sultry figure smothered under cascades of silvery hair that that fell like rain across her shoulders, as she whispered her dark melodies of love and rapture, while women wept and men sat mesmerized sand Michael wondered again, as he wondered when he was dating her, how such a cold, stone hearted, bitch could capture and deliver such soul shattering loveliness? Go figure artists!
A homeless family, bundled in rags and carting bags, shuffled through the park searching for somewhere to settle for the night, a small stone bridge over a stream maby which they could use as a shelter, or if they really got lucky a park maintenance shack for which they could easily jimmy the lock. They trudged through the drifts into the darkness and disappeared into the falling snow and frozen unknown.
Meshugina. Michael brooded. Reality was crazy, always had been, always would be. “The poor are always with us.” Some luminary noted. So are the oppressed. So are the luminaries come to think of it. He was broke, wiped out, kaput. He lifted his drink in a silent salute to his father, to all the persecuted Jews over all the ages and to all others who had been enslaved, cleansed, exterminated, tortured, abused, wherever they were, had been, would be, forever and amen. It was for them he had given up his money, all the oppressed of humanity. At least that was his notion. He had looked into a madman’s eyes since childhood – his father’s eyes, pondered that grim expression, those numbers scrawled on his arm. He felt ashamed of himself. Why? He couldn’t say. The survivor syndrome? Because he became wealthy easily? What did the world look like to the lumbering village boy after the hell he lived in those camps? He always wondered. Each face a phantom version of a human face? Each figure ghostly? Every street a shaft of smoke and mirrors? Every moment inimical? He had to make that grand gesture. He had to make it also for the poor souls who came to the pawnshop everyday to pawn what they held dearly. Thank god no one was after Jews anymore, he reflected, except investment bankers and luxury car dealers. They were safe here and most everywhere. Those persecution days were finally over. They were safe in Israel, too, on the whole. Despite their relentless enemies on all sides. They took care of each other. On his fortieth birthday he decided to give away his money, sell the gallery and move there. For forty years he had lived like a ghost in a dream, not a real person, certainly not his own. He wasn’t even sure what that could be. He had no friends as a kid. He had to hurry home and help his father, who became more wasted every year, take care of the shop. He had no family to speak of – his half brother and sister were all but out of the house when he was born and soon they were gone. College, marriage, their busy lives went on separate from his own. When they did get together, on holidays or other occasions, he never felt comfortable. He didn’t fit in. Religion had ended when his mother died. Hus father hated god. He wouldn’t set foot in a synagogue. Who could blame him? How else would one feel about the grand master of it all after what he’d been through, what he’d seen? Michael was an atheist. The mysteries of existence belonged to and were solved by science. The revelations they came up with were far more amazing than the visions of old time mystics. We are all orphans, lost or abandoned in a land at once dangerous and enchanted. All we have is one another to rely on. We are our own angels and demons. Prayer is a shelter made of wind, salvation earth bound, sermons words and images that are heart found not handed down. Not that he wasn’t moved by cantor’s voices, the ceremonies and services, the poetry in the prayers, the candles, rituals, the rabbis thoughtful proverbs. He was, of course, moved by all passionate expressions of the inner world and its longings. What he yearned for was that Sabbath sense of sacredness and spiritually, everyday in a secular way and that feeling of mutual identity in a community. He was a genetic Jew. No one would take him for anything else. It was written all over his face, embedded in his being. He thought if he moved to Israel he might find a home, inner peace. America was a giddy Disneyland with showbiz on the one end and make believe on the other, glued together by greed – most of his brethren no exception. He needed something real after his life in a shadow world, some shared community that was meaningful. Even the art world, which he had enjoyed being part of for many years, was going sour on him. The current big guns were shrouded in the mystique of investment manipulations. There was no literary world. No one read outside academics. Everyone was glued to the boob tube or arcade style computer games. There was little left, especially in politics, that wasn’t bogus. When he was young America was number one at everything – science, culture, education. Now they were at, or heading toward, the bottom. The students ranked lower than any westernized country on test scores, while they were firing teachers and cutting down on grants and programs! The outlook for the future was pretty gloomy. He wasn’t lonely. Maybe existentially. It had been a long time ago that he roamed the streets of Chicago with his hands in his pockets, head down, wishing he had a friend. There had been too many women to fill his time since then. But with them there was always something missing. Maybe something in him? If so, that was at an end.
“Sorry I’m late.” Zubrowsky, the jeweler, suddenly appeared at the table looking like a Jewish polar bear. He was covered, head to foot, with snow. His glasses were fogged. His red nose dripped. He stomped his boots on the carpet, slapped his fir hat against his leg. “I couldn’t get a cab. Buses passed me like sardine cans with engines. I had to walk the whole way. They announced on the radio a blizzard for Chicago. People are fleeing the city. I don’t know how I’ll get home if it doesn’t calm down. I almost couldn’t find this place. I walked in circles. The world got erased.”
“Good god Zub.” Michael stood and helped him out of his coat. It was really coming down now, just in the last few minutes. He hadn’t noticed. In the windows was a white out. Swirling flakes filled the air. “Have a drink, warm up. You should have called me. We could have put it off.”
“Put it off? Rush you said! A rush job! Life and death!”
“Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic.” Michael smiled. “Just seemed like tonight would be the perfect time. But have a seat. Relax. Let’s see it!”
Zubrowsky sat and took a velvet box out of his suit jacket, Grouche Marxed his busy eyebrows and laid it on the table.
“Well open it. Don’t just stare at it. It’s a big step, I know, but they won’t biter you.”
The diamond rings were dazzling. They made Michael’s hands tremble as he studied them under the light of the table candle. Legend had it that the stones belonged to a giant ring, owned by a very prominent woman who had to give them up during the Great Depression, which Michael had Zubrowsky reset into an engagement ring and wedding band. He had been astonished to have found them still in his father’s hoardings. Maybe he was saving them for his old age? Maybe with his heavy drinking, black outs, and foggy thinking, he had simply forgotten about them. They were worth a small fortune.
“God they’re beautiful!” Michael marveled.
“So tonight it is you pop the question?” Zubrowsky sipped his drink, pleased at the reaction to his handiwork. “There’s two ways to do it. There’s the Gentile way and the Jewish way. The Gentile get down on one knee, takes the woman’s hand and asks her for it. If she accepts he slips on her finger the ring with a kiss. If she says no he bows politely and goes. The Jewish was is exactly the same only the ring is shown before he asks anything. More impact, get it? Hedging your bet. I’m just kidding, Michael! I’m making a joke! But in your case maybe you should think about it. It would put a little oomph into the proposition. Why take chances? Ice like that you might convince her. I’m just kidding again! Well Mazel Tov.” He drained his drink. “I’m off. Keep in touch. I’ll mail you the bill. No charge for the delivery. A little extra maybe for the doctor when he treats me for frostbite and pneumonia. Send me an invite! Goodnight!’
It was a big step. Michael’s heart pounded as he turned the sparkling box this way and that, watching its multicolored diamonds catch fire under the flickering flame in all their facets. He kept picturing Heather wearing them and how they would sparkle on her hand in classrooms, at lectures, out to dinner, the theater, whatever. Of course she was always smiling in his imagination but actually Michael was afraid she wouldn’t even like them. They were sort of over the top – more than a bit ostentatious. She didn’t wear much jewelry, make up or showy clothes either. Her tastes were simpler, what you would call prim and proper. She got that from her mother and grandmother and beyond that probably from ancestral Irish how to act-like-a lady instructions. Prim and proper, that was Heather, except, of course, for her hair which, no matter what she did with it, made her look like she had just stuck her finger into an electric socket.
“Shocking, say it, shocking!” She’d scream getting dressed for a night out and glaring at her reflection in the mirror while she dragged a brush through its tangles, the bristles of which Michael wasn’t sure he’d use on a horse’s mane.
“Your hair is becoming.”
“Becoming? Oh really? For what, a clown’s fright wig, or the lead singer in an Irish rebel band? My hair is exploding!”
“Your hair is very sexy.”
“Then why don’t you ever run your fingers through it?”
“Don’t I?”
He supposed he could try. He was afraid they might get stuck and it would be awkward trying to pull them out.
“I’m sure I do all the time. You don’t notice. How could I resist?”
“That’s it!” Heather slammed her brush on the dresser. “I’ve had it! I’m shaving my head and buying a wig! Don’t your orthodox kinswomen all wear them to cover their heads? Bet that would turn you on! You’d be a Chagall figure flying upside down!”
“You turn me on. Your hair turns me on. Everything about you sends me swooning. Look I’ll run my fingers through it.”
“Back off! Don’t touch it! I’ve just spent the last hour trying to comb it!”
He’d bet her family would like the rings. They would be impressed. They weren’t very impressed by him – a middle-aged Jewish art dealer who lived in a cellar. He was probably even more unsuitable than the other unsuitable suitors; tweedy English professors, dialectic materialists, organic language deconstructionists, Heather had brought home over the years.
“Look Michael,” Heather had briefed him before she sprang him on them, “my father and brothers are basically beer swilling, sports minded, dwarf-tossers. Never mind the country clubs they belong to and the flashy cars they drive. Do you play golf? It doesn’t matter. We’ll talk about the scholarship you’re sponsoring. After all, that’s how we got together. My mother will find it romantic, and noble. My father is an ardent democrat. You know he and Richie are buddies; as was my grandfather and Richard the elder. They’ve worked on big contracts for the city, and will do more. They’re friends now with Emanuel. We’ll steer the conversation toward politics – the Tea Party, Birthers, Republicans in general, Sarah, Fox news. He won’t even notice you’re not Irish. There’s nothing to be anxious about. Just don’t tell them you gave away your last penny. Or any money.”
So courting was ever easy? Her parents were nice. Her father was a stand up guy. So were her brothers. There would be no problem there. They all knew he loved Heather and that she loved him. They were made for each other. She had moxie. He had hutspa, sort of. They were both mashugina. “Why don’t you call your next book ‘Leprechauns In The Bed?’ Michael kidded. “Meaning?” “Meaning Ms. Prim and Proper acts pixilated when she gets under the covers. “Complaining?” “Hardly – exclaiming!” They read together, discussed books, liked the same movies, music, enjoyed the company of each other like some old married couple instead of one that had just gotten together. It had been like that from the first instant, as if their relationship was a reincarnation, each moment a reenactment of sometime ancient, their togetherness something intense. “Michael we scare me.” Heather would shudder after some heated love making. “I know what you mean.” Heart pounding, Michael stared at the spinning ceiling. “True love’s a man scary thing.”
Israel was over. He could have a life here with Heather. He couldn’t imagine any other. That crazy gesture of giving away his money had brought him everything he had missed in his life and longed for. It was all like some biblical proverb. Just last night he had gotten an offer from Muriel Strand to be the new director for the Strand Foundation’s charitable division. “Our current head is a crook,” she told him. “skimming money and cooking the books. I need someone honest.” The salary for that position, he imagined, must be staggering and made his head spin. She wanted to celebrate the occasion with a night of fun and games. Bouncing around in bed with the platinum-haired socialite bombshell was quite a temptation but Michael had resisted. He confided to her that he was proposing to Heather. She laughed and said: “Michael being honest to the core can be a bore. We only demand fidelity from our directors in money matters. But that’s a good sign. I’ll really know my money is in good hands when you sign all those dotted lines. A woman scorned is hell to deal with but you took that risk. I doubly impressed.”
He snapped the box shut and looked at his watch. He had better get back. Zub was right. Chicago was getting hit by a blizzard. He’d never get a cab. It was a good eight blocks to the gallery. By the time he got there he’d look like a snowman or a dybuk come back from the dead.

“Snow White in a glass casket was what I had been aiming at with my Surrealistic portrait of the Dead Zone’s crack racket, trying to symbolize the lost soul in the black hole of the ghetto, and the living-death-quest of hopelessness all around us. But the chaos of contours I created in the fairytale beauty’s features, after I started slashing paint on the canvas, and the undulating rhythms of brush strokes with which I concocted her coffin, had her come out of my backstreet fable as an angel wearing a death mask of sable, asleep on a billiard table. So maybe ‘Dust’ was the thrust of my journey into oblivion in a game you can’t win, because a drug is a drug and there’s plenty of ‘Dust’ in the hood. Besides, while Picasso said that what one paints is what counts and not what one intended to accomplish, he also said that if you know exactly what you’re going to do there’s no point in going through it. Life lives as it does, I guess, and you go with the flow. I’m no Picasso, let’s face it, but neither is anyone else working now. Kiefer, Richter, Viola, the late, great Munoz are my heroes, but still no Picassos. From the past Goya is the best.”
Heather wondered, anxiously, where Michael could be, as she stood amidst the handful of benefactors who had remained, despite the storm, to listen to Jose expound upon his paintings. He had sold three. Michael should have been there. Connie, of course, handled the sales expertly but she was getting nervous too. You could tell she was being overwhelmed. The guests had begun to slip out during her winner’s recital and were all but gone by the time the pale Russian came to his science demonstration. The cellar’s tiny windows looked like Whirlpool washing machines, the snow swirling, blowing, drifting in them.
“It was the dead of winter, like now, when I did this one.” Jose rambled on, the sales, like steroids, pumping through his veins. “I looked out at the falling snow from my ghetto studio at the ragged figures roaming the streets below, dragging themselves through the drifts – bag ladies, homeless families, dead-enders. There were more each day as the recession swept the country. Rolex watches, wedding rings, good luck charms were filling the pawnshop windows as the ghetto became a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ like Jessie Jackson always shoots for but not in that way. So I thought: ‘hey, fairy tales can come true and it can happen to you.’ And I put down a little sketch of Hansel and Gretel and then I went loco.”
Heather looked at her watch. Maybe Michael left a trail of breadcrumbs? She couldn’t get him on his cell phone. Lucky for him, if she did she’d blow out his eardrum. “I loved your reading!” The face-lifted, bust-expanded, lippo-suctioned, dyed haired, salon-tanned, Grande Dame squealed at her as she was leaving. “It was so compelling! Is that from your new book “Bats In My Belfry?” “No. And the book is entitled ‘Leprechauns In The Attic.’” How charming! I’ll have my maid pick it up! Tell Michael I’ll see him Monday. Tell him not to be tardy! I guess we can’t tell a book by its cover can we?” She studied Heather with a bemused scrutiny before she said goodnight to Connie.
What the hell did that mean?
The radiators were rattling, the steam hissing. The lights started blinking. But it wasn’t a power out, it was Connie trying to get everyone’s attention. The security guard stood next to her, arms folded, smiling.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the weather service just announced that we are in for the biggest blizzard since nineteen sixty-seven. Remember that one? We thank you for attending, but I think we all have just a small window of opportunity, at this point, to get safely to our destinations. We bid you goodnight and safe passage. Leon will help you to your cars. Your drivers are here. Careful with the steps, they’re treacherous!”
Where the hell was Michael? Heather looked at her watch again as the tycoons finished their drinks and exchanged goodbye handshakes and the snow swirled through the open door where the smiling guard stood waiting to escort the guests to their cars.

“How Much?”
“Where did you get these?”
“How much?”
“I gotta know. I got to know how to go.”
“I found them on a body in the alley. It’s out there in the snow. How much?”
“I don’t know.”
The watch was solid gold. The diamond eye-blinder was worth a small fortune. They had to change, be rearranged. The watch melted down maybe. They would lose their value. That was a shame.
“A lot. I’ll let you know. You got lucky. Cash too?”
“Some. Enough for a little fun.”
“Have fun. A week, maybe two. And then both of our dreams will come true.”

“Michael?”
Heather woke up when she heard the door slam. She had fallen asleep on the couch with a drink in her hand. The last of many. Michael stood in the gallery, shivering. He looked like a snowman.
“I never thought I’d make it home.” He slapped his hat on his coat and tried to brush off the snow. “You should see it outside. My cell phone died. First it was wonderland. Then it was no-mans-land. I thought I’d break my neck getting the cat. How’d things go?”
“Are you drunk? Do you know what I’ve been through? I spent the last hour calling hospital emergency room! Where in the hell were you?”
“In an alley mostly. I heard this cat yowling. You couldn’t see your on hand if you held it in front of your face. The snow is falling that hard. But the cat was someplace high up. I climbed on top of this dumpster. I could hear it somewhere above the rain gutter. There’s this old, boarded up building down the block.. I think that’s where I was. I couldn’t reach over it so I found this window covered with grating and managed to pull myself on the ledge. I still wasn’t high enough. There was a fire escape ladder another window over so I edged my way on to that. I was soaked with sweat. I climbed the rungs but they led to a dead end. There was a chimney I had to get around. I knew the cat was on the other side of that, hunkered down out of the wind.
“Michael where’s the cat?”
“In my pocket.” He reached down into his topcoat and pulled out a yellow and white striped kitten. “It was one, two, three after that, more or less.” He handed it over to Heather. “I edged along the gutter holding onto the chimney, precariously. I snatched it up and put it in my coat but we couldn’t get back to the ladder. The wind was blowing too hard. I couldn’t even see the ladder. Eventually I found the dumpster and swung down onto that.”
“We better feed it.” The cat purred in her arms as she scratched it. “There’s a bottle of milk left over from the event.”
“OK. Let me get out of these things. Will you marry me?”
“OK. But look Michael I had this dream. You’re not wearing that goofy watch anymore or that crazy hypnotist’s ring.”
“OK. I have something else for you. It’s in my pocket. I hope the cat didn’t do anything on top of it.”

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