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Wicked King Dick

WICKED KING DICK

A NOVEL BY MALACHI STONE

Published by Malachi Stone on Shakespir

 

 

 

©2011 by Malachi Stone

 

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission of the author. All the characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

 

 

 

For Maria

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

 

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

EPILOGUE

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

CONNECT WITH ME ONLINE

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONETHE CHILD PROTECTION ACT

 

We stared into television screens at Chet Huntley and squinted to foresee the future growth of quiescent milk teeth bones hidden within the soft pudding of our reflected faces. Some of us mistook David Brinkley for a visiting relative—a favorite uncle, perhaps, who chain-smoked cigarettes and told jokes about the government. We gazed at cathode ray pointillist pictures of Edward R. Murrow and guessed at the full transformation of our own childish countenances into the settled angular features of adulthood. We crawled on hands and knees until our noses pressed against the glass and peeked in, hoping to spy Huntley’s bony lap. We grew up with the luxury of television, and therefore cannot find it in our hearts to blame it for our own misdeeds. For where were we to be found other than in our father’s house?

We had to wait through Huntley Brinkley before the cartoons came on. On Huntley Brinkley they talked about Lamoomba and Casa Boo Boo, two Africans who lived in the Congo and fought with gorillas. My dad brought a joke home the guys were telling out at the factory: You know what Lamoomba said to Casa Boo Boo? Boy, that Eisenhower sure has a funny name.

From the age of five, I knew Eisenhower was a bastard and Nixon was a son of a bitch. Eisenhower lived in a white house and screwed the unions. You’d never catch my dad even once calling him “Ike.” Eisenhower was president, but Nixon was always skulking around in the background like a cartoon weasel, up to something, probably screwing the unions, too. Maybe Nixon lived in the white house along with Eisenhower, the way Uncle Bo and Aunt Lena’s son Robin still lived with them even though he was all grown up, in a scary room upstairs with real guns, hunting trophies, a set of weights and even a muskie head mounted over his bed. My dad cussed Eisenhower and Nixon every night after Huntley Brinkley, sometimes so loud it was hard for us kids to hear the cartoons—and for children ages five and three cartoons are a deadly serious business. It was his only sin, cussing, and one he managed to rein in once he got older, although the excess of passion from which the cusswords sprang did not go away, only went deep inside him and ultimately killed him. From my dad I knew the working man didn’t stand a chance with Eisenhower in the white house, and that if Eisenhower and Nixon got in again they’d have four more years to screw the unions sure as hell.

On Huntley Brinkley my baby sister Esther and I would hear exotic words like propaganda, which always made me think of a big snake. Maybe Nixon had a big propaganda snakehead mounted over his bed where Robin had his muskie head.

There was a guy named Stevenson my folks liked. Even though he was bald like Eisenhower, Stevenson wasn’t going to screw the unions. My mother had the TV on when the Democrats had their convention and nominated Stevenson. Seen through the snowy and herringboned interference there were seas of signs, like sails of ships in an unquiet harbor. My mother told me they all said “Stevenson” on them. Too many signs to count, all of them borne aloft by Democrats who wanted to stop Eisenhower and Nixon from screwing the unions, who felt exactly the same way about things as my mother and dad did. I could tell my mother was excited about the Democrats and their signs, because she actually had the TV on during the daytime long before Huntley Brinkley’s fifteen minutes. One chilly fall afternoon, after spending the day in the temporary first grade classroom down in the Advent Christian church basement learning to read about Alice and Jerry and their dog Jip, I brought home the Thanksgiving turkey I’d made out of an apple, two doornails and feathers, only to find that Stevenson had lost and Eisenhower and Nixon had gotten in again. Both of them stayed in until I was ten years old. Then my parents got excited about a guy named Kennedy who was running against Nixon. They wanted Kennedy to win even though he was a Catholic. My dad brought a joke home the boys were telling out at the factory, how if Kennedy got elected, the first thing he’d do would be to change what it said on the money from “In God We Trust” to “In the Pope We Hope.” My mom didn’t think it was so funny.

We watched Kennedy and Nixon debate on TV. Nixon looked like the guy in an ad for an electric shaver. Kennedy was smarter but talked strangely, saying things like “Cuber” and not saying his R’s right. He reminded me of a girl my age named Maggie Paderborn, who went to Catholic school and couldn’t say her R’s either. Maybe there was something peculiar about Catholics that they couldn’t say their R’s right.

After Kennedy won, my dad got so excited he wanted me to write a letter to him. He sat at the kitchen table with me one evening and practically dictated the letter himself.

 

 

Dear President-Elect Kennedy:

 

My name is Johnny Wolfe. I am a fifth-grade student at Brookview School in Somerset Illinois. I am writing to congratulate you on your recent election to the U.S. Presidency. Never forget that organized labor is the glue that binds this great nation together. Yours truly.

 

 

I sent my handwritten missive to sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue. Then one day, wonder of wonders, I received a letter in reply, on White House stationary with the Presidential seal embossed, and signed by John Fitzgerald Kennedy himself in royal blue fountain pen ink.

 

 

Dear Master Wolfe:

 

Thank you for your kind thoughts as expressed in your recent correspondence. It is indeed gratifying and reassuring that a young man of your generation would choose to take such an active interest in national politics. It is my fervent hope that my administration will continue to enjoy the confidence of our nation’s youth, as we endeavor to best represent the fine working men and women of this country, and that in the eight years to come we may count upon you and your family’s continuing support. Best wishes, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

 

 

When my dad came home from work he held Kennedy’s letter in his hand for a long time without speaking, before even setting down his dinner pail. Coming to himself at last, he reverently handed the letter back to me. “You probably want to have your teacher look at it tomorrow. But take good care of it,” he cautioned. “Someday you’ll be showing it to your grandchildren.”

After spending much of the evening tracing JFK’s signature with the tip of my index finger, I brought it in the original White House envelope to school where my teacher had me read it aloud to the class. On the playground Pete Fuchs—nicknamed Bugs for his uncanny resemblance to the cartoon bunny—claimed that such letters were signed by machine. Pete and his folks had been to Monticello where the prototype was on display. He said Kennedy sat there in the White House using the same machine invented by Thomas Jefferson and signed maybe half a dozen letters at a time, without even reading them.

I figured Pete was just jealous. Pete’s folks liked Ike. His mom and dad both worked in the office at Kaiser’s, where there was no job security and no union to protect them from Kenny Kaiser’s insane political whims. In the office it was “now you see them, now you don’t” and “here today, gone tomorrow,” according to Pete. Before workmen could install the big new sealed double-glass picture window in Pete’s house, some wise guy campaigning Chicago-style one dark October night pasted a big Kennedy for President poster inside—the kind you don’t get unless you make a big contribution, according to Pete. Next day the workmen came along, probably figured the owners for loyal Democrats, and permanently installed the window while Pete’s folks worked in the office at Kaiser’s.

There was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth at the Fuchs household when Pete’s folks got home and saw the Kennedy campaign poster featured in their new picture window in full view of the street. “What if Kenny drives by and sees it?” Pete’s mother wailed. “He’ll fire us both. We’ll lose the house for sure. Now see why I wanted you to become a lawyer, Hugh?”

Pete’s dad just kept repeating over and over, “Now, Dale,” and shaking his head regretfully as he stared at the back of the leering Kennedy poster quartered impermeably in his new picture window like a museum piece enshrined in a glass display case. Then he led Pete and me into his garage workroom where we helped him ripsaw a sheet of plywood to the general dimensions of the picture window and nail it up for protection against the brewing political shitstorm.

Dale Fuchs needn’t have worried. From what was later hypothesized as exhaustion from excessive campaigning for Nixon, Kenny Kaiser dropped dead that very night from a heart attack at the age of thirty-two. Huge Butt inherited Kaiser’s, and somehow or another the Kennedy poster came down along with the plywood at the Fuchs residence.

For as long as I could remember, my father had worked as a machinist on the day shift at Kaiser’s—Somerset’s only factory. Beginning in the early sixties, he began working on “government contracts” for nine and sometimes ten hours each weekday and eight on Saturday, a punishing overtime schedule he had maintained without complaint since Kaiser’s managed to land their first “government contract” and diversify their operation from the manufacture of chicken wire and farm implements. One farm implement in particular—the Kaiser Korn Picker—had supposedly revolutionized the field corn harvesting industry a generation before. Invented and patented by Kaiser’s founder H.B. Kaiser, a tinkering farmer ambitious to get out of farming, and passed down as a legacy to his sons, H.B. Kaiser Junior (known to all as “Huge Butt” for reasons too obvious to elaborate upon) and the late lamented Kenneth Butler Kaiser (“Kenny,” always spoken with a sneer by those who worked there), it jammed roughly half as many times as conventional corn pickers then on the market. Unfortunately, on those rare occasions when it did jam, it exhibited a disquieting proclivity to mangle the hands and forearms of its unfortunate operators. Moreover, the modern combine, for those farmers who could afford one—and more and more were finding that they could—was becoming the corn-harvesting implement of choice ever since the 1950’s. In the wake of competition and burgeoning product liability lawsuits, the Kaiser family had threatened to sell off their implement line to a foreign competitor and close Kaiser’s doors for good. My father, workplace cynic that he was, thought he recognized it as a ploy: “One more way to bullshit the union.”

Vietnam offered Kaiser’s other lucrative manufacturing opportunities. After 1963 you needed a badge and a good story to get in or out past the uniformed guards manning the gates of the eighteen-foot cyclone fence topped with razor ribbon—no Kaiser chicken wire here—encircling Kaiser’s like a military base. Army trucks transported the mysterious product of my father’s and others’ labors away to a classified location and a secret blood harvest.

In early 1963 my father had been yanked off the Kaiser Korn Picker line and given a security clearance by the “big shots” in the office—meaning out-of-town civilian or even military overseers, CIA or God-knows-what—to work on “government contracts.” Given his long seniority, he was one of the first in line for the specialized machinist training necessary in order for him to perform his secretive work. After that, he never again talked at the supper table about what he did at work, except to shake his head and mutter that Huge Butt “wasn’t in this for peanuts.”

What my father did talk about at the supper table was the Bible. The power of prayer. Faith that can move mountains. Crucifixion. Resurrection. Eternal life. Eternal damnation. About the time I hit puberty, my father decided that my sisters and I were “Bible-ignorant.” The remedy was as obvious as the disease. Postprandial scriptural readings and participatory discussions followed. Pretty stimulating discussions, actually. I still miss them, the way I still miss almost everything about those years. By July 1965 we were well into our second rollover of the New Testament. To me, it seemed to get better with every reading.

The least Christian thing I ever did before the age of twenty—and I must always qualify such remarks—was to slip a lit M-80 into the passenger compartment of one of Buck Rogers’ model airplanes—a Piper Cub he’d fastened to his car for a hood ornament. It was one of those oversized stick-framed planes you used to see, only Buck, with a model-maker’s fathomless patience, had dressed its wooden ribcage using real fabric instead of paper, and hand-painted it for the Civil Air patrol. Its enormous white propeller spun like the pinwheel atop a lunatic’s hat whenever Buck tooled his maroon 1940 Ford around town. Except for old Buck, only a wolf in a zoot suit would have driven such a car, but Buck did drive it, his head held high with a true eccentric’s quiet pride and dignity.

I can still picture Buck hunched over an old and scarred kitchen table in his walk-up garret of a one-room apartment, mixing paint in tiny jars and spraying it from an atomizer onto one of his planes over a handmade decal. The paint and glue, he’d explained to us with a consummate craftsman’s wide-eyed zeal, were made from banana oil. The tabletop bore the stains of an artist’s palette. He’d even shown us kids how he hand-cut his decals. He reminded me of a grown man cutting out paper dolls. Buck’s place was a mini-Smithsonian; an eclectic squadron of planes hovered in formation, suspended by wires from the high peeling and water-stained ceiling. Buck himself had to duck under the belly of an eight-foot wingspan Condor glider whenever he walked across the room, and he was not a tall man. Overhead, frozen in time and space, were barnstorming biplanes, a flying wing, twin Piper Cubs, a Heath Tomboy, even the Spirit of St. Louis with a naked celluloid Lucky Lindy—none of Buck’s pilots, crew or passengers ever wore clothing—forever bringing her in for a triumphant Parisian landing.

One night in July of my fifteenth year, in the company of other similarly-minded young men filled with the vandal spirit celebrating childhood’s end, I summoned enough courage to lift up the clear glass gondola hinged with canvas and slip the bomb inside—a real M-80, the military kind with the fuse coming out the side, rather than the end—where it could ride shotgun with Buck’s little naked celluloid pilot. It was 1965, only a year or so before M-80’s and cherry bombs would be outlawed by the Federal government under the “Child Protection Act”, and a full five years before that same government was to offer me an all-expenses-paid excursion to Vietnam.

My two confreres ran for cover, but I waited in full view, standing tall. The explosion of a real M-80 always stirred my heart in those years before I truly had had enough of such things. Or, more accurately, I craved the exquisitely visceral quiet of anticipation before the explosion and all hell breaking loose. Music to my ears, I could be counted upon to say to my friends after each such destructive foray. On that particular night in downtown Somerset, Illinois—deserted after nine PM but for a few predictable barflies—an impossibly loud concussion broke the summer night’s quietude and blew Buck’s plane to smithereens. Debris rose at least twenty feet into the air. Neighborhood dogs barked their perturbed objections to one another. What I remember most is the hissing, flaming remains of that little celluloid doll landing on the brick sidewalk between my feet. Within moments, all that was left was the darkened miniature silhouette of a seated man—the image of a leprechaun, for those who seek after such things. A soot leprechaun sitting on his toadstool throne. He looked a little bit like that old movie actor Guy Kibbee.

Lurking in the shadows of the mock orange bush where he’d taken cover, Stanley Schneider’s reedy voice worried through his adenoids.“You guys are gonna get in trouble. I bet My Mom heard it, clear up by her house.”

Stepping into view from the protection of the trunk of a Dutch elm tree, Pete Fuchs sneered, “I bet My Mom heard it, clear up by her house.”

“She’s prolly calling the cops right now,” Stanley whined. “Let’s get the H E double hockey-stick out of here.”

He ran so we chased him, Pete and me taking turns twishing the back of his brilliantined head and wiping our fingers on his shirt collar. We ran past the First Methodist church where my parents, sisters and I attended twice every week, and where Buck Rogers parked his loony car without fail to spend every single Saturday night at the movies. We crossed over the creek bridge where we barely paused in front of the Egyptian Theater before ducking inside.

The Egyptian Theater marquee cast a neon rainbow that filled the street across the creek from the darkened parsonage where our minister Reverend Vogler lived with his wife Mabel. Had they wakened from the explosion? The First Methodist Church stood stark and imposing, its white floodlit steeple towering over the houses in the neighborhood. My whole family attended there every Sunday service and every Wednesday evening prayer meeting. Until I stopped wearing it, my chain of perfect attendance pins had hung from my lapel like a banana republic general’s chest medals. The First Methodist Church trusted me with fire enough to make me an acolyte; there were whispers and rumors circulating among the older parishioners that in time I might hear the still, small voice of God calling me to become a minister myself some day.

I felt little hypocrisy, committing vandalism within sight of the church, but peer approval trumps virtually everything else in the hearts and minds of fifteen-year-old boys, acolyte or not. Tomorrow was Sunday; our hymns and prayers would rise up to God in a sober doxology and all would be forgiven if not forgotten.

“Let’s sneak in,” Pete urged. “Ahmad’s probably working.”

Ahmad Salahuddin, the Saudi Arabian foreign exchange student, worked nights part-time at the Egyptian while attending high school in the junior class. Swarthy, wiry, and five foot three, with all the pride and arrogance of a medieval prince of the desert, he got the job because he’d learned how to operate a professional motion picture projector from servants at the in-house movie theater of his father’s palace in Mecca. The old man was a shirttail—or burnoose-tail—relation to the royal family, the way I got it from Ahmad, so the authorities winked at the movie theater, which was something of a no-no under the Moslem religion—graven images or whatever.

The marquee lights blazed a double bill. “Nobody here selling tickets,” Pete shrugged with a sarcastic grin. “Must be a free show tonight.” The fat girl who virtually filled the glassed-in ticket booth every night like a fortune-telling female Buddha was nowhere to be seen. She was a fat girl not merely in 1965 terms. No, she was more like two guys in a fat girl suit—a fat girl for the ages. Even in this twenty-first century age of eating disorders and nutritional ambivalence, when the twin scourges of ever-abounding obesity and withering anorexia have long since put the carnival side shows out of business with their excesses and extremes, Theodora Heinz—“Teddy” to her friends and “Blob” to her many detractors—would still have qualified as a fat girl worthy of note. When on the job, she looked out from her corpulent prison with impassive elephant eyes, stoically enduring every insult.

We entered the lobby. No ticket-taking manager, only a collection of garish painted and chipped King Tut clones, and none of those were likely to give us away. Ferret-faced manager Dennis Diddlehaupt must have ducked out early for a beer at the Music Box. No candy stand woman either, which disappointed Pete, who fancied himself the ladies’ man thanks to the bored attentions of Nellie Barnes, the forty-something housewife who worked the concession stand for cigarette money and “to get out of doing the dishes,” so she claimed. Looking back, I’m sure an abusive husband had something to do with Nellie’s restlessness, and that the dried-on dirty dishes were waiting to greet her, along with a cuff or gut-punch, when she returned home after her shift.

Dennis Diddlehaupt weighed all of a hundred fifteen pounds after a Thanksgiving dinner. His whippet-thin frame barely filled out the maroon sport jacket he wore with side striped tight tuxedo pants to comprise his theater manager’s uniform. His skull-hugging crew cut must have necessitated biweekly trips to Thuringer Brothers or some similar scalping parlor. But what I remember most of all about Dennis Diddlehaupt was his matinee yell.

Whether it was a Tom & Jerry festival, a Three Stooges marathon, or anything else drawing an unruly young crowd that failed to come to order as soon as the lights went down, Dennis would let forth his famous yell, at the top of his lungs like Tarzan with his nuts caught in a crocodile’s jaws. “Quiet! Quiet!” It was a cartoon voice fit for an oversize mouth ridiculous in its proportions, and it sounded out over the din loud enough to startle even the rowdiest mob into embarrassed silence. Walking home after a show we would imitate it until we were hoarse. Only a true master like Mel Blanc could have replicated it: an overtuned piano string tense with impotent rage, almost womanly in its register, Dennis’s matinee yell was like a cross between Fay Wray and Sam Kinison.

Pete would hang around the Egyptian by the hour, lean against the concession case which offered lemon drops, red hots, Jujubes, Sno-caps, Raisinettes, Black Crows, Goobers, Chuckles, Mike & Ike’s, Necco wafers, Jujy Fruits, Milk Duds, Sugar Babies, Boston Baked Beans, and Smith Brothers cough drops cherry and black licorice, not to mention a full assortment of chewing gum, everything from Clark’s Teaberry to Bazooka to Black Jack, and share Parliament cigarettes with Nellie—“ladies’ cigarettes,” Schneider derisively called them—the only brand Nellie ever smoked. Now and then when he was feeling flush with funds Pete might even stick thirty cents in the Egyptian’s vending machine and buy her a pack. That same year the Surgeon General began requiring warning labels. I don’t think either Nellie or Pete paid any attention.

Pete’ tongue would extend a silly millimeter beyond the edges of his bottom teeth whenever he stood talking to Nellie. His face red as a love-struck farm boy’s, he lit cigarette after cigarette for her, gazing into her tired eyes as though for him they held all the fascination of twin Delphic oracles. If Nellie never actually encouraged him (she always stayed behind that candy counter rather than go looking for Pete’ attentions), she never discouraged him, either. Breaking her gaze only when someone wanted popcorn or candy, she would return at once to her inane conversation with Pete and his heavy-lidded, testosterone-fueled simper. She’d cock her wrist in an attitude of aristocratic grace, cigarette poised between index and middle finger just like you used to see in the magazine ads, waiting for Pete’ hand to shoot into his pants pocket and fish out his trusty Storm King lighter. As soon as he flipped the top, she’d balance the surgically white filter tip on the pout of her lower lip, waiting for Pete to flick the wick alive. In a move perfected by many evenings of practice, he would deftly sweep the tongue of flame across the tip until it caught ruby red with Nellie’s cheek-hollowing lightup drag. And she always said, “thank you,” in a husky movie-queen voice that seemed meant for adults only.

Nellie’s inventory of smoking tricks exceed in number all her other confections, and her entertainment value, at least for Pete, invariably overshadowed that of whatever movie they happened to be throwing onscreen for the week. An artful smoker long before she met Pete, Nellie had mastered straight and recycled French inhale, smoke rings all sizes off the lips or tongue, and a truly impressive repertoire of exhales: cone, tight stream, cork, ball snap, loogie dangle, and her signature, the single nostril. Pale wispy voice exhales from the furthest lobes of the lung. Double, even triple pumps. For all that, she wasn’t the kind of woman who blew smoke in your face. In fact, Nellie smoked with such economy there was never much danger of any second-hand exposure. If ever the skies around the candy stand darkened with blue cumulonimbus, you could bet it was Pete trying out one of his abortive smoking attempts to impress her. Most nights Pete was as much a lobby fixture as one of the retro-Egyptian sarcophagi.

It was only when she laughed one of her bawdy, knowing laughs that Nellie exhaled cotton candy clouds of white smoke big enough to be blown from the bellows of her heavy breasts.

“There must be a new pope,” Pete cracked after one such laugh, triggering a heartier one and, eventually, one of the strangest and most star-crossed courtships I can remember. He called it “lighting Nellie’s fags,” bragging of his relationship to us later. Schneider first called her “Banjo breasts,” because he was afraid to say the slang term for them, but the private moniker we all bestowed on her quickly became “Banjo Boobs” or occasionally, “Banjo Bazooms.”

In what seemed no time at all, Buck had replaced his car’s disintegrated figurehead with a Boeing 307 stratoliner bearing full Army regalia, as though Somerset’s own Howard Hughes believed the plane’s military decorations might ward off further attacks. As soon as we three saw the new plane where Buck had mounted it on the hood of his 1940 Hoopty that coasted grandly along Main Street, leading the cordon of antique vehicles in the Somerset Days parade, we knew instantly that that summer’s mission would be to earn it a Purple Heart.

“Naked, flaming bodies falling out of the night sky,” Pete suggested, a lascivious rasp in his voice. He knew what was in all of our minds that last fateful summer before jobs and schools would overtake us: a blast to end all blasts.

If smoking was verboten in my parents’ home and within sight of the high school, there was one last bastion where the filthy practice still flourished: Thuringer Brothers Barber Shop. Incorporated into a three-story brick building that probably could have qualified for status as a historical monument, Thuringer Brothers had always been there, at least in my childish memory. A bona fide revolving barber pole that really turned during business hours marked the exterior street entrance to the shop. The interior of the shop opened onto the waiting room of the Trailways Bus depot and the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel—Somerset’s finest. Many hours I spent staring down, in obedience to old Joe Thuringer’s gentle command reinforced by the urging light pressure of a thumb against my mastoid process while he expertly shaved my neck with a straight razor, at the ornate mosaic of tile organized in concentric circles around the two barber chairs, one on either side of a pedestal sink in the center of the room. Old Joe, the gentlest of men, chain-smoked Camel straights while he worked away, carving out the spare manly coiffures of laborers, truckers, and men of the land who frequented his establishment. It was in deference to his expertise, as well as my own shyness to the point of paralysis in the presence of adults, that I lowered my head for the twenty minutes or so it took Old Joe to perform his unique laying on of hands. Staring at the kaleidoscope tilework or studying the massive church-pew benches in the bus station waiting room, I always suspected, but never knew, that Old Joe’s reticence about anyone getting a bird’s eye view of his wart kept his customers’ faces turned floorward more than could have been a tonsorial necessity.

The wart was truly Grand Guignol. A wormlike appendage sprouting three wild hairs like a pawnbroker’s sign, it stood directly below Old Joe’s right eye at even latitude to his right nostril. Insinuating itself into the peripheral field of his vision, it must have appeared to him like an angry rutabaga about to poke him in the eye. Strangling thin in midshaft yet ruby red at the bulbous tip, it seemed to glow its own bizarre greeting whenever the afternoon sun hit it just right. If a resident oncologist should have somehow missed his bus to Chicago and wandered into Thuringer Brothers for a scalping, he surely would have derived professionally fascination from Old Joe’s wart. The same fanciful oncologist would have been professionally appalled at the two brothers’ abuse of tobacco. Never mind that Old Joe lived to nearly a century before dying of pneumonia in the care of Protestant—Somerset’s own dog-and-cat hospital, and being buried north of town, wart intact.

“Wonder if it was worth it to smoke,” my father muttered as a homely obituary to Old Joe when he brought home from the factory one evening the mournful news of Old Joe’s passing. Old Chuch Thuringer, the other Thuringer brother, managed to outlive my father, but that story will have to be told later.

I’d worn “the Butch”—a distinctly high-maintenance haircut—throughout the fifties and early sixties until age thirteen. “The Butch” necessitated at least monthly trips to Thuringer Brothers, carrying a dollar in my pocket each time. Extra if I needed to replenish my supply of “Butch Wax,” the totally superfluous pomade which bore the consistency and appearance of rose-scented and tinted Vaseline. Age thirteen being about the coming of age, when Old Joe no longer said, “Here’s a nickel, sonny; go get yourself some redskins,”—a five per cent reverse tip for good behavior—kicking back just enough for me to shove the coin into one of the peanuts machines by the magazine rack, catching and carrying the greasy jackpot in my brown hunter’s hat with the earflaps in winter, and in my front pants pocket the more temperate seasons of the year. The grease and red skins of the peanuts mixed well with the butch wax and chopped hairs in the hat. I’d invariably finish all the peanuts on the walk home along the railroad tracks, hidden behind the low mountains of coal piled along either side, as I rubbed my neck to explore the new-mown bristles. Follow those tracks a couple miles or so out of town and you’d come across the Fool’s Gold Mine under a trestle.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO – I DREAM OF MAGGIE

 

“Let’s hit Frostyland,” Schneider suggested that summer evening. “Frostyland” was the A&P store Kurt “Frosty” Gross’s father managed. “Frosty” because to even the casual observer, at five-foot five and two-hundred-ninety pounds Kurt Gross, a pink-pupilled albino, bore more than a passing resemblance to the much-beloved snowman of the same name. “I’ll lift us some booze, five-finger discount.”

“You know it always closes at eight o’clock, just like the coffee, you chickenshit,” Pete jeered. The obligatory half-hearted shoving match followed. Schneider’s finest hour had been at the A&P store when, showing off for us, he’d impulsively punctured the cellophane wrapping of a cut of meat with an extended index finger, withdrew it covered in gore, then convulsed us by saying, “Look, Mommie, baby brudder’s got a hole in his head.” From that evening on, Frostyland had been a mandatory stop whenever we thought of it on our nightly adolescent roamings—what Schneider’s mother called our “ramming around town.”

The Frostyland A&P had three checkouts, high molded ceilings with fans, five narrow aisles with either worn tile or wood floors that creaked and gave, and a pervasive redolence of breakfast melons and freshly ground coffee. Frostyland was a store in transition; one generation removed from the time when a clerk would retrieve your selections for you and groceries were delivered to your home by a kid on a bicycle, but still one generation before the advent of expansive aisles, fluorescent lights and a sit-down deli. Frostyland opened at seven and closed at eight. Big white letters above the side parking lot advertised ‘Self-Storage Lockers.’ More hot summer afternoons than I could count, my mother had sent me on errands to the cold-storage locker, bicycle basket overflowing with striped-cardboard freeze boxes of Swiss chard, spinach, asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb, and all the assorted bounty of a home garden sealed in plastic bags which had been placed in turn into those special A&P boxes to be ‘quick-frozen’ by the butcher on duty and placed into our family’s rented frozen food locker.

“Cheaper than buying a deep freeze,” my mother always observed, each time she handed me the thirty-five cent quick-freezing fee and sent me on my way. I’d push through the white enamel swinging doors labeled ‘Employees Only’ at the back of the store, turn a corner and encounter the butcher shop and its ambient aroma of woodshop marbled with bland hog fat gaminess. One or both butchers would be on duty: Forrest and Karl, the Laurel and Hardy of the meat market. Forrest’s huge frame matched his jovially booming voice—you expected him to burst into song, and he usually didn’t disappoint you, singing a few bars of ‘Hugging and Chalking’ or ‘Mairzy-doates’ or something foreign and operatic-sounding at the drop of a meat axe. Karl, the diminutive member of the team, rarely spoke, and when he did it was in a high, clipped but friendly tone.

That summer I began paying particular attention to the topless calendar hung high on the butcher shop wall, facing the cuts-of-beef chart on the wall opposite. At fifteen I could read without glasses the artist’s flourish of a signature on the lower left hand of the girlie pic: Biff Roayale. The calendar featured a dark-haired beauty with her arms behind her head, stretching as if roused from sleep by some indecent suggestion she found irresistibly tantalizing. How those twin dark sightless rising orbs drew the eye of adolescent male. My double-armload of freezer boxes sloshed around, heavy as breasts.

“Can I get these quick-frozen?”

Forrest was in a joshing mood, as always. “Young man wishes to inquire, may he get these quick-frozen? Karl, what do you advise?”

“Has he got four bits on him, is what I want to know.”

“Karl wants to know, have you got four bits? Management policy strictly requires you to have all four bits in question currently on your person in order to conclude your proposed business transaction.”

“I got two and, I guess, four-fifths of a bit on me. When did the price go up?”

“Karl, this young man candidly informs that he has only two bits and, he guesses, four-fifths of an additional bit presently in his possession. He’d like to inquire whether the price of quick-freezing recently underwent a sudden and unadvertised increase.”

“Not that I know of.”

Forrest feigned righteous indignation. “Why then, Karl, I’m surprised at you. Attempting to price-gouge this innocent young man by extorting from him the princely sum of fifteen cents.”

“That includes a lookin’ fee.” Karl had caught me gawking at the calendar again. My face burned.

Forrest’s tone was mock-reproving and gentle. “Karl’s right, son. We’re all of us men of the world, but as for Karl and me, having lived for a significantly longer span of years than you, and at great personal expense in the school of hard knocks having managed to amass considerable stores of homely wisdom during that time, allow us both to assure you that you will pay dearly for every last piece of feminine pulchritude you choose to enjoy in this life.”

“Every last piece,” Karl nodded in glum agreement, surveying a side of beef in mid-dissection.

“However, seeing as how a view of the portrait in question should offer no particular incremental value, especially when one considers that you have in fact studied it as carefully as would an art museum patron at each and every visit to our fair establishment all summer long and are therefore by now at least as jaded by the sight of it as Karl and I both are—regardless of the fact that it appears to be a genuine Biff Roayale artistic creation—now therefore on behalf of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, its officers, agents, shareholders, goldbrickers, broom-pushers and board of directors, by the authority vested in me I hereby waive payment and collection of what Karl in his own humble, down-home vernacular has labeled a ‘lookin’ fee.’” Forrest drew a deep breath into his bellows of a chest.

“Thirty-five cents, please,” Karl added, wiping his hands on a red shop rag.

On the way out, I treated myself to another long admiring look at the portrait.

“See how the eyes follow you?” Forrest observed. “That’s the mark of a true artist.”

“That ain’t all that follows you.”

“This young man is scarcely interested in your lewd impertinence, Karl. He’s manifestly an avid student of the arts.”

“Guess it runs in the family.”

Karl’s remark followed me home. What did he mean about something running in my family? Both men knew my mom and dad, but only casually. Karl and his wife Anita would interrupt a walk now and then if there were people sitting out in the yard in the cool of the evening at Grandma Broomstick’s, but he’d spend most of the time talking to my Uncle Bo.

One of the first stores in town to offer air-conditioning as a sales draw, Frostyland featured a decal of Willie the Kool penguin Bogarting a Kool filter cigarette beside a block of ice with the ungrammatical inscription, “Come on in, its KOOL inside.” Lest customers miss the point, there was also a tin kickplate sign affixed to the door jamb picturing Willie sporting a jaunty skimmer and a walking cane, reminding us: “KOOLS give you that clean, KOOL taste in your mouth.”

“Where else would they give it to you?” Pete wondered aloud. Pete had successfully five-finger discounted a pack of Kool filters from Frostyland one slow Saturday afternoon. Together we’d smoked them all down by Lake Somerset, deep-inhaling like the tough guys we sought to emulate, until our fingertips and faces buzzed; before we knew it all three of us were dizzy and sick. Fuchs even puked.

I could never quite look that KOOL penguin in the eye again. The malevolent glint in his seemed to hide a scarcely disguised contempt for me, as though he were about to echo my father’s understated words that same day after he found out I’d been smoking: “They don’t make those things for kids.” I’d walked around town for hours, my head swimming, body heavy from nausea, until I thought I could pass it off on my parents, both non-smoking Methodists. My father instantly detected the telltale stink of tobacco smoke on my clothing. It bought me a summer of 5 AM reveilles and a full dance card of yard chores, but I never smoked tobacco cigarettes again.

With Frostyland already closed at eight PM, the only other alternative was the Egyptian Theater. “I wonder what they feel like,” Schneider said in a strange, self-conscious voice as we entered the lobby that night. The sight of the darkened candy stand triggered such an association that we all three knew instantly who and what he meant.

“Some of us don’t have to wonder,” Pete said, cupping and hefting his hands at about the level a beer gut would break thirty years later.

“Bull cookies,” Schneider said.

“Don’t you mean ‘bullshit’?” To my own ear, my throaty adolescent voice echoed my father’s. I savored the temporary freedom of expression, unhindered by parents, stool-pigeon siblings, teachers, Sunday school or church.

“You never had the guts to try, Pete,” Schneider added.

“Walked her all the way out to her car last night. She said she wanted a little protection.” Pete said.

“Yeah, the kind of protection you get for a quarter out of the rubber machine in the guys’ john.” They didn’t call Schneider ‘the Don Rickles of the sophomore class’ for nothing.

“Shit, she fills the machines. Cobs us all we need for nothing. And she’s been needin’ plenty lately; ask the man who knows.”

Now the implausibility of Pete’s story was becoming truly insufferable for both Schneider and me. Still, a hidden part of me wanted desperately to believe it was real. Visions of forbidden romance flooded my brain. I decided to test Pete’s veracity.

“You think she’d put out for all of us?” I asked, going for nonchalant and surprised at the tension in my voice, hoping it wasn’t evident. I was wrong.

“You think she’d put out for all of us?” Pete whined in a head-wagging falsetto, stepping on the “all.” Then, resuming his normal voice: “Get your own broad. I got mine, and I don’t believe in sharing. No sloppy seconds for this guy.”

“Not even Roach Barnes, her husband?” Schneider mocked. “You’re sharing her with him, aren’t you? Unless you’re full of it, which of course, you are.”

“Yeah, how does it feel standing in line behind old Roach?” I added.

Pete turned to me with a malevolent sneer. “You were ready to take third place a second ago. You tell me.”

“They say old Roach killed a guy in Kentucky once,” Schneider offered, a good friend trying to keep peace among friends and take the heat off me. “There’s one crazy hillbilly I wouldn’t wanna mess with his wife.”

“Like you really could,” Pete said.

“I could do as much as you could. Farting away your whole allowance at thirty cents a pack buying Parliaments for some broad old enough to be my mother.” The f-word was so rare for Schneider that all of us were cued to his anger.

“Yeah, you’d rather date your own mother, I’ll bet.”

Schneider’s face reddened. “You think you know so much. Even I know Nellie smokes Pall Mall straights, not them pussy Parliament ladies’ cigarettes of yours she takes down in three drags each.”

“That ain’t all she takes down in three drags. Ask the man who knows.”

“Bullshit! Prove it.”

“I don’t have to prove it.”

“Prove it or I’ll pound you!” Schneider was really mad now, ready to fight. I decided to try for a distraction.

“‘Crest has been shown…’” No response. “C’mon, guys, ‘Crest has been shown…’”

“‘…to be an effective, decay-preventive dentifrice—’”

“‘—which can be of significant value—’”

“‘—when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene—’”

“‘—and regular professional care.’” I completed the calming roundelay I had started.

That last exchange gave us breathing room to consider whether Pete might not have been so full of it after all—at least not totally. But Roach Barnes was not a man to be crossed, especially by a lovesick fifteen-year-old with Casanova pretensions marred by a serious overbite. Roach—born Rochel Barnes, although no one ever dare to point out the gender ambiguity of his given name—worked at Kaiser’s, the same factory as my dad. Roach was the one who single-handedly lifted the tractor wheels off the assembly line and stacked them one by one onto pallets. It was his only job, and I guess he was good at it. Bullwork, my dad called it. The first time I heard him say it I thought he meant bulwark as in “A Bulwark never failing,” the classic English translation of the German hymn we sang every Sunday morning and sometimes on Wednesday nights, number twenty in the Methodist Hymnal, the hymn written by old Martin Luther himself, probably by candlelight with a quill pen on parchment, right before he threw the ink pot at the Devil. But my dad meant bullwork, as in circus strong man shoulder and back muscles, Arm & Hammer biceps, triceps, and sinews, forged together with an iron will and a surly temperament. Roach worked without gloves—too proud, the rumors went—so that his hands bore a crosshatch of Frankenstein keloid scars from the sharp steel’s lashlike cuts.

We slipped past the sarcophagi sentinels flanking the red-carpeted stairway to the projection room. Some inane teen romance was playing itself out on the screen.

Ahmad was playing with himself; too, we discovered when we stole into the booth. Ahmad stood with his back arched over the corner sink, left arm furiously working, while he peered at a desperate angle through the tiny, finger-smudged window at Sandra Dee. I said, “She’s hot, all right.”

Ahmad recoiled like he’d been stabbed in the gut, zipped up and in that clipped, nasal staccato English of his, explained, “Take a piss.”

“Spot any couples making out, Ahmad?”

“Heavy petting in back.” To the untrained ear, it sounded like ‘baby patty.’ “Center aisle.” Ahmad pointed with a flashlight like a priest shaking holy water. Nodding and smiling, he added, “You like to see? You sick.”

Sick or not, we did like to see. We stole out onto the creaky balcony and peered over the rail. Schneider’s bug eyes adjusted first, eyes oblate as eggs behind the thick glasses that would keep him out of the Army. He pointed down and silently leered to us.

Maggie Paderborn, her face upturned, mascaraed eyes closed tight out of passion that did not appear feigned, lounged not ten feet below, her skirt hiked up practically over her hip, long hair ratted and teased into a bouffant turban, limbs intertwined with those of some muscleman. Her date’s blond crew cut left his nearly naked parietal scalp gleaming like the lid of a mason jar in the reflected light of the movie screen. When he finally came up for air we ducked back, but not before recognizing Clete Winterholten, Senior letterman in three sports. Ahmad hit the changeover switch quick as a desert lizard; we heard the soft bump on the soundtrack, then banging of metal doors, releasing hinges, followed in short order by the whiz and spin of the hand cranked rewind. Through the porthole window we saw Ahmad busy at work—all assholes and elbows, as my dad might have said—juggling the big 35mm film reels with their shamrock cutout designs. Ahmad was reputed to be able to take a Simplex projector apart and put it back together again. Correctly.

Slap of aperture plates, hollow closing snick of projector housing doors, welding-machine zap and hum sounds of carbon arcs firing, then being trimmed. The show must go on.

Below us, the real show was just getting started. Maggie Paderborn: upperclassman bait, though only our age. Her apple breasts fully developed by her freshman year, combined with an avid interest in all things romantic and sexy, sealed her popularity. Not the biggest breasts in Somerset Township High School by any means. That dubious distinction went, by general acclamation, to Teddy’s best friend Bertha Gross. Teddy’s small—in number but not corpulence—circle of friends referred to her as ‘Teddy Bear’, or maybe it was ‘Teddy Bare’, after a particularly embarrassing swimsuit mishap at the municipal pool diving area that summer. Embarrassing and regrettable for all concerned. No, for strictly giant size, one had to award the booby prize to Frosty Gross’ big sister Bertha, although Teddy herself was not far behind in weight-related breast overdevelopment. Her crashing dirigibles had begun to rival Bertha’s waggling watermelons by sophomore year. Schneider could spend his entire lunch period perched on the bleachers, his mouth contorted into a hooting flask, repeating the jeering mantra with increasing pressure of speech: “Teddy with the big tits; Bertha with the big boobs.”

Maggie’s perfectly filled out the Liz Taylor blouse she was wearing for the evening, in an era where the trim, appealing form of a woman still drew wolf whistles rather than mindless violence. And those legs! Long and full, tightened and tautened by years of running after boys, then running with boys, then running ahead of boys. It was the swell of calf muscle when one of those gams met the other that caught and drew my eye into the vortex of her, once I’d summoned the courage to look again: that delectable swell of sun-burnished sheerness. It was worth the twenty-five cent admission to the Somerset Municipal Pool that summer merely to worship at the foot of Maggie’s lifeguard chair. Maggie wearing her big white straw picture hat, Foster Grant sunglasses just like in the commercials perched on the bridge of her cute nose tipped by zinc ointment, wearing nothing other than that rose red Catalina form-fitting bathing suit—the fall-back one she wore to work every day after the Concerned Mothers’ Club convinced the Somerset Jaycees to influence the pool manager to reluctantly nix the tiny Lolita bikini that had been her first choice for on-the-job attire. Only one tiny deformity marred her perfection: the second and third toes of her left foot were webbed. The sign of the mermaid, Frosty, who’d first noticed, called it. Maggie would sit there hour after hour, demurely covering her left foot with her right, until by midsummer a white insole tan line had formed over her left foot.

Maggie’s main job, other than to look gorgeous up there and torture us throughout that summer of our burgeoning adolescence, was to bawl out Frosty Gross and threaten to ban him from the pool every time he did one of his trademark cannonballs off the high board—which was often. Frosty’s technique served to rapidly displace awesome amounts of water in near-mushroom cloud proportions. We wondered at how profoundly to pain was Frosty’s ponderous ass, not to mention his porcine balls.

After every cannonball, Maggie’s stern gaze and crooked finger were all it took to summon Frosty. Somehow it seemed she knew his eyes would immediately focus on her, searching her expression for approval or disdain, as soon as he surfaced walrus-like from the latest roiling wake he’d stirred—that a blast from her whistle would be superfluous. Hand over hand he’d pull his pale manatee form up the ladder, torrents of pool water pouring out of his balloon trunks, and trudge over to Maggie’s lifeguard chair, where he’d stand like a supplicant and take another tongue-lashing and fifteen minutes out, then at his first chance head for the diving area and line up for the high board again.

“Jesus, Kurt, what do I keep telling you? Don’t you know there’s little kids out here that could get hurt?” Maggie was one of those Catholic girls who swore. Frosty made no response other than to rest his gaze somewhere about the level of Maggie’s perfectly pedicured feet, tanned to Samoan dark so as to set off the rose red polish that once had matched the swimsuit now faded from chlorinated pool water, frequent washings and the sun.

“What am I supposed to say to some little kid’s mom if he gets hurt from your horseplay?” She pointed to a paint-peeled sign hung nearby on the cyclone perimeter fence that listed, predictably enough, “No running, No dunking, No smoking, No spitting, No profanity, No balls”—the one that cracked us up, predictably—“No roughhousing,” and the residuary clause, Maggie’s most frequent resort: “No horseplay.”

Frosty didn’t hang his head in shame, but rather cocked his neck the better to pass his worshipful squinting gaze up over Maggie’s tawny and supple swimmer’s legs to the silver lifeguard’s whistle that hung between her goddess bosoms, then further upward to center on her cameo face, the tendrils of her hair escaping from the flowery bathing cap pool regulations required she wear under her sun hat.

“I’m gonna have to give you another fifteen minutes out of the pool, Kurt. You leave me no choice. And if this kind of thing keeps up, and you don’t show me any improvement, you’re gonna force me to go see the manager about barring you the entire rest of the summer. I mean it, Kurt. This shit has gotten serious. Dead serious. Do you want me to lose my job?”

A tinny radio top-ten broadcast reverberated over the water and the concrete decks. Dex Card of the crew cut and the narrow tie was calling it Number Nine on WLS’s Silver Dollar Survey. Herman’s Hermits and the frenetic beat of I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am. Frosty seemed to be gathering his nerve. Would he tell her off at last? If only we could hear him over the music. He moped at his own big Alley Oop feet and mumbled something, then peered up at her again, eyes crinkled into what appeared to be a hopeful expression. Maggie, seeming mildly bored and disgusted, said something to him under her breath and then made a great show of ignoring him while she checked the time on her waterproof watch.

“I did it,” Frosty exulted to us, mere moments into his disciplinary time-out.

“Did what?” Schneider asked.

“I asted her out.”

We were too impressed by his brass balls to laugh. Frosty Gross really did have brass balls to match his cast-iron ass. Frosty had actually asked the unattainable Maggie Paderborn for a date. He held the floor for our excited debriefing questions, like an impromptu press conference.

“Were you scared?”

“Not too. No, just like happy scared, like going on a ride or something. Like the first time I jumped off the high board.”

“Did she act like maybe she was really thinking about it, or’d she just haul off and shoot you down?”

Frosty pondered that one. “She was really thinking about it. I could tell.”

“Did you try and beat around the bush, or just pop it to her right away?”

“Hey, Frosty,” Pete asked, affecting a lewd confidential tone, “when you were right up there staring at her, you know, close-like?”

“Yeah?”

“Real close?”

“Yeah?”

“Didja see any hair? You know, at bush level?”

Fourteen minutes later, Frosty led us all to the high dive with a newly discovered bravado in his step. As he climbed the ladder above us and waited his turn, he sang—bellowed, rather, in his reedy, fat-manchild’s voice—improvised variations on a theme by Steven Foster: “I dream of Maggie ‘til I have to jaggy-jaggy.”

“Don’t you?” Frosty turned and chortled to us before taking three incredibly weightless and graceful steps from the butt of the diving board to the fulcrum, then one more light spring from the very tip, executing a perfect forward entry that cut the water’s surface like a knife. I gripped the handrails. My eyes met Maggie’s—hers equally astonished, the fiberglass high board still thwacking and rebounding. It took more than a few moments for her to regain enough composure to blow her whistle and holler, “Rest period. Everybody out of the pool. And I mean everybody.”

No rest period tonight. Maggie pushed Clete’s hand away and play-slapped it before reaching under her A-line powder-blue skirt, fumbling for something. Then, right before our eyes, she shed her panty hose and daintily tucked it into her purse like a pro. In moments, Clete’s wandering hand returned to find and unveil her dark pubic crest.

My hands sweat against the cold balcony rail, heart racing, mouth suddenly desert-dry. I feared even to breathe and give myself up; my blood rushed and pounded in my ears. I could not look away, the shock of this first encounter was so overpowering. My first naked woman. Second, actually, not counting my mother and sisters who obviously do not ever count in this form of life tabulation. Definitely Maggie that night became my first naked woman my own age, a dubious honor I am ashamed to admit she would go on to hold for the rest of my high school career.

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREEROMANS ONE, CHRISTIANS NOTHING

 

But my first ever was Mrs. Hahn. Darlene Hahn, lovely, lonely young carpenter’s wife, last stop on the paper route that at age fifteen represented my first job—a three-and a-half-mile trek, ending with Old Man Pratt’s across the street, then the Hahns, then home. The duplex where the Hahns lived was separated from our house by an empty lot. Hahns lived in the half nearest our house.

Thursdays were collection day. Collection day instilled in me a new and heady eagerness soon after Mrs. Hahn—Darlene, as she always insisted I call her—moved in and became part of my route. I’d literally skip up the dusty wooden steps to the duplex where she lived with her husband and baby son, the strap of my canvas bag of Chicago Daily News chafing at my collar, and knock gaily on the unlocked screen door. In moments, she’d come down the steps barefoot, heedless of the cracked and broken black rubber treads, her crimson-painted woman’s toes tantalizing me. She’d be wearing the same pink terrycloth robe though it might be four or even five in the afternoon. Every time she would insist that I come in, sit down and have a Coke. She’d always join me at her stainless steel and lime-green formica kitchen table that still bore the dirty dishes from the past two or three meals. The portable TV on the stand would invariably be tuned to Popeye the Sailor Man. Sooner or later her robe would yawn and I would be rewarded with a glimpse of a greater or lesser expanse of nursing breast, even an occasional tawny rising sun of areola. She’d look me in the eye whenever it happened, as though gauging any reaction in me. I never knew what she saw there, and she never let on it was deliberate. It was a little comedy we played each and every Thursday as regular as The Donna Reed Show. To this day I cannot hear the strains of Popeye’s hornpipe theme without becoming aroused.

“I fell for a navy man,” she’d warn Olive Oyl. “Look where it got me.” I’d force a laugh every time.

Many Thursdays throughout my route I would find myself repeating her name in rhythm to my breaths while pedaling my bike, sometimes in a loving and tender way, sometimes in mock reproval for an imagined petty indecency she’d suggested. Always with the accent on the second syllable of her name, drawing it out, savoring it. I wrote her name in elaborate curlicues and three-dimensional effect over and over in my notebook like a schoolgirl crush. I was fifteen; she appeared to be about twenty-four. When I was twenty-one, she would be thirty. When I was thirty-five, she would be forty-four, if she hadn’t died by then of old age. I pored over the photos of nursing brassieres in the Montgomery Ward catalog, with their functional pop-top design. No brassieres for Darlene, even though the terrycloth was sometimes stiff and dark with milky stains.

I had taken to calling her “my Darlene” in my daily reveries. Her head resting on the pillow of my fantasies, I’d caress her long chestnut hair released from its ponytail barrette to spread luxuriantly over the clean cool freshly laundered sheets my mother had provided. Darlene would draw her legs up and stare into the ceiling while she played with her engorged nursing nipples erect and firm as Playtex’s best, inviting me to do the same, even to suckle there. What would her milk taste like? Maple syrup? The real stuff, not Old Manse. For years my sister Ruthie had mispronounced it ‘Old Man’s syrup.’ Her misapprehension was thought too cute to correct, and besides, what the hell was an old manse, anyhow? In time we all took to calling it Old Man’s syrup.

Could I ask my Darlene for permission to explore her mysteries? How would I broach the subject? Just flat-out ask, or make a move physically, leaving the words out of it. In James Bond movies, the women always wanted it, and usually got it. Maybe I should start out by asking my Darlene whether she’d seen any James Bond movies. Schneider, Pete and I had seen all three, and Schneider even had the Goldfinger game, by Milton Bradley. He’d gotten it for Christmas.

We’d also read most of the books, purchased for fifty cents apiece and traded with each other until the pages were dog-eared. Each bore the author’s name above the title and the vertical label ‘A James Bond Thriller’ in bold type across the outer border of the front cover. Each also bore on the back cover the small, black-and-white self-satisfied portrait of the author Ian Fleming himself in a bow tie and shirtsleeves, holding a cigarette in his left hand while he pointed a revolver with his right. You couldn’t tell whether the cigarette was filter tip or straight. We all assumed it was straight, just like we assumed Fleming was straight. He wore a black face watch on his left wrist. For years, I wore a black face watch on my left wrist without consciously acknowledging that photo’s influence on me. That tiny yet deadly image numbered among the many subliminal influences that obsessed me to become a writer: visions of Fleming turning away from his typewriter just long enough to adjust his bow tie, light up a cigarette and point a revolver at somebody, cool as that. That photo convinced me that Fleming, like his debonair hero, could penetrate a woman with the same casual, guilt-free attitude as he might penetrate a man’s body with a bullet. We all knew Fleming was dead, but argued among ourselves whether he had died from cancer or a heart attack, and whether cigarettes had played a part. Schneider held to a theory that Russian agents had assassinated him. “They dip the filter tip in cyanide so it’s undetectable.”

The image of the writer as a tough guy with an itchy trigger finger reinforced itself within my adolescent brain through multiple exposures to jacket pics of Mickey Spillane, as well—The Mick in a broad-brimmed hat and flinty expression. I had to hide The Mick’s paperbacks under my mattress because of those racy covers. The summer of my fifteenth year, the rutting bimbos in the cover art began looking more and more like my fantasy Darlene: neck tendons tightening in ecstasy, breasts heaving and straining against revealing silk lingerie, long bed-tousled Breck shampoo hair.

Darlene found a use for me on the hottest afternoon that summer of 1965 and it wasn’t even collection day. My route nearly finished, I was crossing the brick street after closing the screen door on Old Man Pratt’s newspaper when I heard Darlene’s voice calling out to me.

“Hey, Johnny.”

I followed the sound of her voice and found her lying prone on the cellar doors just to the rear of the duplex. She wore an honest-to-God micro-bikini. Actually she wore only the bottom half; the strings of her top lay untied and draped on either side of her bronzed back. Her seven-transistor radio—pink plastic with yellow daisy appliqués positioned on a nearby concrete block—blared the latest bubble-gum anthem. She turned and smiled at me, blinking in the midafternoon sun. The unhaltered swell of her breasts was enough to bring on a nosebleed.

“Hi, Mrs. Hahn,” was all I could muster.

“Johnny,” she chided, in the same reproving tone I’d taken with her in my reveries, “it’s Darlene, ok? Darlene. I like to be on a first-name basis with a man before I let ‘im lotion up my back. Do the honors, Sweetie?”

I handed her the afternoon paper and threw aside my empty Chicago Daily News bag. She tossed me a tube of Coppertone. Unsure of the etiquette in such situations, I knelt beside her and squirted an ejaculation-sized dollop onto the creamy butterscotch expanse of her back.

“Ooh, that’s cold on me. Rub it in quick, ok, Hon?”

I cast a wary glance toward my parents’ kitchen window where my mother would no doubt be standing cooking supper. From my vantage point, the high weeds obscured our house nearly up to the eves. No nosy pedestrians on the street, either. Mr. Hahn’s truck not in the gravel driveway beside the cellar bulkhead where Mrs. Hahn now reclined so…so fetchingly. I reached over her with both hands and massaged in the slippery lotion with ever-widening circles, careful to avoid touching her where I most desired. I must have drawn such circles of avoidance that Darlene laughed her tinkly laugh and said, “They’re called breasts, Johnny. All women have them. Even your mother, I expect. Mine won’t burn your fingers if you rub some of this on them, too, you know.” She half-turned to face me with a teasing smile, then raised herself up from her waist, arching her back like every pinup model I’d ever seen or fantasized about in my whole life. Then she rolled over onto her back and stretched her arms over her head. “Like what you see, Johnny?”

The afternoon heat reflected off the weathered and chipped white paint of the cellar doors where Darlene lay like some lewd Madonna painted by a master. I fumbled and squeezed a huge dollop the size of a cum river down the glistening valley between her breasts. The radio began playing I Can’t Help Myself by the Four Tops. Darlene moaned and closed her eyes. I lowered my head and dipped my fingertips into the lotion, then tentatively swirled it around the base of each breast, circling ever higher into the dark vortices. They were much softer than I had imagined breasts would be—even though Darlene was nursing Freddy at the time—with an almost invisible web of the finest blue veins, most clearly visible where she still bore the fading pressure imprint of the cellar door boards’ texture. I searched my memory for the color of her nipples, close and huge in the sunlight. Burnt umber, like the crayon in the 64 Crayola box, only big as coasters. I knew I’d never be able to tell Pete and Schneider about this, to trump their bullshit stories with my own little slice of reality. Counter to everything commonly believed about adolescent boys, it was the sheer reality of it, and my embarrassment at my own nervousness that kept pinching me awake. Hey, stupid, this is not a wet dream or schoolboy’s fantasy. A real, live, full-grown naked neighbor woman wants you to rub her breasts in full view of the street.

“I’ll bet you never done this before, have you, Hon?”

What would James Bond say at this moment? Something droll with a sly sexual innuendo, like “Since you’re a betting woman, would you care to double down?” Or, “Not before cocktails.” And what would Mike Hammer say? Maybe “You’d lose that bet, Doll, and wind up a welcher. You know what they do to welchers in this town, don’t you, Doll?”

“Not much.”

“Not much? Well, listen to you, now.”

She kept looking me in the eye with a sly smirk on her face. I couldn’t meet her gaze, so I stared intently at my hands kneading away, until I inadvertently expressed a few pearly drops of milk from her. Freddy Hahn’s dinner bell must be ringing.

“Hey, not so hard, ok? I mean, no offense, but these are the only ones I got.”

“Oh, ok. Sorry.”

“That’s all right, Johnny. A young guy like you’s gotta learn sometime. Might just as well learn on me, right?”

Trying the lightest of caresses, I couldn’t have agreed more.

“There, now, see? Now you got it. That’s a whole lot better. You sure you haven’t been practicing on some little schoolgirl friend of yours?”

“Practice makes perfect.” James Bond would have nodded with approval.

“Oh, it does, does it?” She had barely—no pun intended—gotten the words out when we both heard the crunch and spin of gravel at the entrance to the duplex’s driveway. My heart hammered out his name: Mr. Hahn—Jasper G. Hahn on the paper route collection receipt book—returning home from work when the job finished early or else he decided not to stop off with the boys at Floyd & Mavis’ Music Box, where as the slogan goes, Our beer’s so cold you can’t drink it; Jasper G. Hahn, who from the looks of him could probably shoulder load after load of ceiling joists up an extension ladder all day long in the hot sun without minding; Jasper G. Hahn, lumber-toting, hammer-swinging, board-sawing, house-building carpentry savage; Jasper G. Hahn, coming home already, huge muscles probably glistening and straining at his denim work shirt, arm tattoos the same color as the tiny dark capillaries peeking from his wife’s bare breasts, about to park his beat-up pickup with the toolbox bed in his driveway and eat his supper and drink his beer from his own icebox and dance his woman around, ready to claim and fuck her after supper in the bed he paid for with his honest carpenter’s wages, then cut a few loud beer farts and kiss their newborn son goodnight; Jasper G. Hahn himself, about to catch the paper boy giving his Darlene a forbidden rubdown.

The truck stopped, engine idling at the foot of the drive. I heard Jasper’s booming voice yell, “Hey! You comin’ over to do mine?” Then a deep baritone laugh, fast and almost maniacal. A workingman’s laugh to be heard over the whine of the saw blade and the pounding of nails, not subdued for any kiss-ass office decorum, not giving a shit how he sounded. A laugh for the pure joy of being home after a hard day’s work, the laugh of a man knowing he is about to run his fingers over the hidden softnesses of Darlene and smell her perfumed newly-washed hair. He’d given me a ride once in his truck back from downtown one late afternoon. It was hot then too, and I could smell his armpits every time he turned a corner, saying ‘Armstrong power steering,’ and laughing his carefree carpenter’s laugh, a crew cut goodhearted Everyman doing the same work Jesus and Joseph had done before him.

My dad’s reply, barely audible, soft-spoken as always, yet neighborly: “Got enough to keep me busy, Jas. Johnny’ll be home any time, though. If you want, I could send him over to do yours.” What, my dad was home too? Where had the time gone?

Darlene grabbed up her bikini top, leaving her radio behind, and ran barefoot in a crouch through the grass, straps dangling, hands cupped over herself Eve-like to cover her nakedness, seeming almost to spit through her teeth the whispered words: “You better get your little ass outta here.”

Her husband was explaining to my dad: “Naw, I was just a’shittin’ ya. When you gonna git yourself one a’ them power jobs? Makes it a hell of a lot easier. Loan ya mine if ya want. Beats hell out a’ that pushmobile you’re trundlin’ around.”

“I’ll tell you something, Jas. It sounds funny, but if Johnny ever found out I borrowed yours to make the job easier on him, he’d never forgive me. Don’t tell him I said that.” I paused when I heard him say that, but regained enough of my senses to go crashing through the high weeds and out of sight as soon as the whishing and creaking sound of the old push mower resumed. Barely breathing, I could see movement behind me as Jasper’s truck pulled up even with the cellar door, heard him cut the engine, the creak and slam of the driver’s door—no seat belt—the slow, deliberate steps of his work boots on gravel, heard him holler ‘Darlene! What’s for supper?’ and her holler back—no intercoms for this family—“I’m in here feeding your son his at the moment. First come, first served.” Her Kentucky accent came out when she talked to Jasper, especially when she raised her voice.

Hiding in the tall weeds must be a natural skill of mine; it would later serve me well on this part of the globe we call home, and it served me well enough that afternoon. I waited there for what seemed like a good half hour, feeling guilty about what I’d done. Darlene’s radio played The Stones’ Satisfaction, Tom Jones’ rendition of What’s New Pussycat, then I Want Candy by the Strangeloves, followed by an entire playlist cycle. I heard the deejays change shift while I stood there concealed and waiting silently in the weeds.

Good old Protestant guilt doesn’t wash away like laundry day with confession like the Catholics. Catholics were all hypocrites, was the not-so-subliminal message we ate at the table like our daily bread. Maggie Paderborn was a Catholic. A typical Catholic, to my way of thinking back then, my prejudices ingrained and reinforced by my having been drafted into in the Halloween Window-Painting War between Protestants and Catholics, about which more later. Maggie probably fornicated her little heart out, then blatantly confessed it all, received her weekly absolution and went right back to her old tricks.

General confession—something I’d only heard about in catechism class two years earlier, supposedly a practice of the Early Church, the one all denominations claim to emulate—was totally out of the question. I would strip naked in church and do bumps and grinds before I’d ever stand up in Sunday worship service and announce that I’d lusted after a woman and touched her in a lustful way. No one in living memory at our church had ever availed himself of that particular means of guilt release. I was not going to be the first to introduce it locally; the humiliation upon my parents and sisters so unbearable I’d literally rather go to hell.

Protestants live with their guilt until it puts them through changes. They either rationalize it away or it changes them from the inside. Guilt is an unruly animal to a Protestant: a fox held to your Spartan bosom until it eats away your vitals. You must meet its demands to change your behavior in ways seemingly impossible in real life—repent, in other words—or else loosen your attitude to accommodate the sin in question, the way an untended lot accommodates weeds. And there was no way I was going to be able to give up lust at my age, although I considered doing just that as I posed motionless as a Ninja in the weed-grown lot—silent but for its busy insect sounds and the soft welcome rustle of the summer breeze. Kids built camps here, and campfires. Occasionally in dry seasons the whole thing caught fire; the Somerset fire department had to be summoned more than once to keep the entire neighborhood from going up. Maybe I’d stay here forever, trapped in this wilderness of adolescence between the nurture of my parents’ home and the forbidden fruit of the duplex.

What got me moving was another form of guilt: the guilt of hearing my father do my job mowing the lawn after he’d already worked a full arduous day shift at Kaiser’s, punching in at five-thirty AM. People condemn it for paralyzing the will, but guilt always gets short shrift as a motivator. As gingerly as possible, I cut the long way around and emerged from the weedy hobo jungle on a far corner of the empty lot, then circled so as to enter our back yard from the rear lot line, throwing everyone off my trail. Or so I thought. Brushing weed seed from my shoulders and hair, where it stuck to my palms from the Butch wax, I spotted Jasper G. Hahn himself standing there face-to-face too close to my dad, dangling my Chicago Daily News bag from the steely grip of his Bunyonesque carpenter’s hands.

“Lose something?” he bellowed as he swung it around his head like a lariat and threw it towards me.

I loped to where they were standing, then assumed the sheepish posture of the young male of the pack. “I wondered where I left that. I was off taking a walk around the neighborhood and—”

“Walk around the neighborhood?” my dad said, deadly quiet. “If you’ve got enough energy to walk around the neighborhood, why don’t you walk around the yard pushing this instead? Do some good.” He offered me the handle of the push mower. I saw he had attached the grass catcher, a sure sign he thought the grass too long for raking up the clippings later, or, God forbid, simply ignoring them. No, I would be pushing the mower with its increasingly bountiful loads of waste vegetation along its ribbon-narrow swath of lawn, shaving away by eighteen inches per swath the length and breadth of the back yard, dumping each load into a bushel basket saved over from last season’s apples and toting my inconvenient harvest to the compost heap my dad was creating, having read about it in some gardening magazine.

The grass-catcher, specially designed for use with a push mower, was a silvery flat-bottomed capacious thing with hooks that hung from the handles of the mower to support the weight of the grass clippings: waste that I’d soon be harvesting like a cash crop. Beaver and Wally could be seen using similar devices in the opening credits to Leave it to Beaver, smiling with brotherly enjoyment. Inwardly cursing the desperate idiot who’d first invented lawn-mowing (George Washington, according to apocryphal accounts, first did it with sheep—lawn-mowing, that is, at Mount Vernon—and an American named Elwood McGuire of Richmond, Indiana circa 1870 first designed a mechanical lawnmower that could be mass-produced. Fuck ’em both.) I began my tedious rounds as I heard Jasper G. Hahn’s jovial voice behind me, uttering what to me seemed a superfluous and unnecessary announcement: “There he goes.”

My dad had bisected the yard and followed up with parallel passes, covering a sizable area. I preferred tracing the outer perimeter of the whole lot and progressively shrinking down the remaining task, creating a cut pattern like mirrors held up to one another. The outer perimeter of the back yard could easily fill the grass catcher in one lap during summer grass-growing season. Somerset being a good place to live if you were a plant, this afternoon was no exception. In no time, grass windrows began to form on either side of the catcher, signaling time to empty it into the bushel basket. Chopped grass adhered to the sweat on my forearms like the short winnowed hairs plastered to my neck during my monthly visits to Thuringer Brothers.

I’d have my arms outside the barber cape because Thuringer Brothers was my only refuge: the only place I could read Playboy. June 1965. It was the same month General Nguyen Cao Ky at age thirty-four became premier of South Vietnam. (Ten years later he would move to Orange County, California and open a liquor store.) A twelve-page pictorial featured Ursula Andress. Old Joe, peering over my shoulder, offered his own appraisal, calling her “a fine-lookin’ woman.” I could smell the stale cigarette smoke on his breath.

Unhooking the grass catcher, I lifted it over the basket and dumped its contents, scooping the stray mounds of clippings with both hands. The June 1965 Playmate of the Month was named Hedy Scott.

On June 8, 1965 Johnson authorized his field commanders to commit American grounds troops to combat. July 27, 1965 found Operation Rolling Thunder rolling in high gear. Radio Hanoi reported eight U.S. aircraft shot down over North Vietnam that date, the very same day LBJ met with his National Security Council and committed open-ended ground troop deployments. The following day he announced he would increase U.S. ground troops serving in Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000. By the end of the year, 184,000 American ground troops would be deployed in South Vietnam. This after Johnson had urged in his 1964 campaign against Goldwater: “…we seek no wider war.” Time magazine would name General William C. Westmoreland its 1965 Man of the Year. Truman Capote’s Black-and-White Ball was still over one year away.

My all-time favorite had to be Miss June 1961, Heidi Becker.

The lawn-mowing task was nowhere near complete by suppertime. By then the July breeze had transformed into a wind that dried the perspiration from my brow, blew the trails of grass clippings and bore promise of an evening thunderstorm and a twenty-four hour reprieve from my labors. The western sky had grown dark and ominous by the time my mother called me to wash up at around six; my sisters Ruthie and Es were already seated with my dad at the table; my mother in position by the stove. I washed my hands and arms quickly at the kitchen sink and joined them. My place at the table was next to Ruthie’s, facing the Hahn’s side of the duplex. My dad said grace and we dug in. My dad never looked up from his plate. After supper, without a word, he reached for his black leather Revised Standard Bible where it lay, as always, on the kitchen stepstool, and began to read. He started right where he had left off the night before, at Romans Chapter One. He read in a soft unmodulated voice and perfect articulation. My dad was no idiot like Jasper G. Hahn or Dennis Diddlehaupt. Even at fifteen I could tell the difference. He could have done impressive things had he gone on to college instead of marrying my mother. My mother, as well, could have done great things had she not married my dad. By verse twenty-four tonight’s nightly reading got a little dicey.

“‘Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.’”

This last would have evoked a responsive ‘amen’ from some of the older and more vocal members of our church congregation had it been read aloud at Sunday service. My dad continued in an even voice that seemed to discourage intrusive questions from the merely curious:

“‘For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.’”

It would have been unheard of at this point to interrupt and ask a question, but I don’t think St. Paul was talking about extending the Right Hand of Fellowship. The wind whipped up and blew the curtains aside from the kitchen window where I sat facing the Hahn residence contemplating the sins of the Romans, which apparently had been many and varied. That same wayward wind blew apart the yellow plastic bathroom curtains at the duplex, revealing Darlene stepping into the shower. She turned and caught my eye just as the first clap of thunder struck. Galvanized by the sight, from that moment on I could no longer meditate on my dad’s reading. It was as though a distracting and powerful buzz had filled the room, a buzz meant only for me.

“‘And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct. They were filled with all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malignity, they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents,’—here my dad looked up at all three kids for emphasis—‘foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.’ I could smell the leather of the Bible’s cover in my father’s hands.

Ruthie giggled. At first I thought she had glimpsed Darlene the same as I had, but she’d merely been struck by what she perceived at age nine as a play on her own name. My dad looked up with disapproval. “I’m not going to do this anymore if you kids are going to laugh all the time,” he said. The wind gusted audibly, almost whipping the Hahn bathroom curtains off the rod. Darlene clearly had seen me seated at the table staring at her waiting for just that opportunity; she’d posed exactly like the calendar nude in the butcher shop, modestly covering her pubic area while squeezing her breasts together like melons. She shot me a come-hither look and a pouty kiss before the curtains again came together. Would she shower off the perspiration and lotion of our afternoon interlude, in order to be fresh for Jasper Hahn? Had they already been together that evening, and that’s why the shower? How many times had they done it already, before seven o’clock? My mind could not focus.

“Sorry,” Ruthie said, head bowed as though in prayer. “It made me think of a funny poem. The last line is ‘He drove on Ruthlessly.’ See, this guy hits a bump and his girlfriend’s name is Ruth and she’s riding shotgun—”

For my part I sat yearning for the wind to part those bathroom curtains just one more time. Perversely obliging wind, it soon granted my heart’s desire. My girlfriend’s name was Darlene, and like a witch she controlled the weather, or so I believed that night. A final teasing wind treated me to a snapshot gallery of her I carry in my mind to this day. She stood at the window, hands on hips, legs apart, proudly displaying her nudity for me, wearing nothing but a wedding ring and a smile. Just as the curtain fell closed, with a twisting flourish of her wrist she pointed an index finger to her dark pubic shrubbery. From beside me I heard the whooping scandalized intake of Ruthie’s breath. Eager and wide-eyed, she leaned to whisper something urgent to my mother, who got up flustered, closed the kitchen window and pulled down the shade without a word.

“What’s going on around here?” my dad asked us all.

“No sense letting the world know our business,” my mother muttered.

It was an unspoken assumption in our house that although politically Democratic and radically pro-labor, my parents shared a kind of prairie conservatism about all things sexual. No one ever spoke of the incident again, although it dominated my thoughts and fantasies that entire summer as a glorious set of images of mortal woman. I rubbed Darlene’s back, and her front, whenever she asked me to, and shared many an afternoon Coke to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man. Her seamless tan darkened as my unconsummated ardor grew. Within the space of a couple of weeks, Darlene had become less intimidating to me than Maggie Paderborn, a girl my own age. If not given up altogether to a base mind, at least I behaved foolishly. I rushed through my route so as to spend the efficiency bonus time with my Darlene. It seemed I always had to be touching her.

“You know your mouth hangs open like a dog’s whenever you do that,” she told me once, my hands stretched across the kitchen table to manipulate her tanned breasts like squeezing lemons through her gaping robe. Did nipples tan, or did the contrast lessen? I couldn’t be certain. Bluto was busy whaling the piss out of Popeye while Olive whined away unnoticed on the sidelines. What did those two guys see in that string bean, anyway? Years later, it occurred to me that maybe it was a latent homosexual, S&M kind of thing.

Each night the guilt would eat at me, and each day I had no recourse other than to ‘go in to her,’ as the Scriptures say. “Going in to her” consisted of lingering at the kitchen table drinking cokes and massaging Darlene’s breasts until sooner or later she made me quit it. It began and ended in earnest one collection day Thursday, when the touching had gone on much longer than usual. It was nearly three-thirty. The Edge of Night was almost due to fall, that knife-edge time zone of darkness that passes over the cheesy little city behind the opening title.

“A girl most generally gets a kiss before she lets a man go an’ do all the shit you been gettin’ away with lately,” she said. She let me kiss her then, for the first time. Her breath was like the Cokes we’d been drinking; I noticed a heady rum taste in hers. She let go a sigh that ran the length of me, then whispered, “You feel like laying down somewheres? I know I do.” The Kentucky drawl, once reserved for Jasper G. Hahn, she now shared with me. “Be a darlin’ and bring the tee vee on in with us, Hon? I kinda like this here one. Popeye tries to bring her that bokay, and then Bluto takes and plants him in the flower garden, where wouldn’t you know it he finds all them cans a’ spinach sproutin’ up.”

Dragging the thirty-foot extension cord like Marley’s chains in one hand, by the other I dutifully trundled the TV cart behind her, the white dot of the picture tube still glowing. She led me into the living room where sickroom shades were always kept drawn. The half-melted ice cubes in her drink tinkled as she scuffed along in her house slippers. No one in our home drank; it would be years before I realized, looking back on the incident, that she must have been sloshed at three-thirty in the afternoon; that that’s why what happened ever happened at all.

The musty old couch was closest, covered by a worn blanket, probably purple faded to brown. I found the outlet and soon the Sylvania portable came to life again, allowing for only a brief warm up. Setting her oversize rocks glass down almost reluctantly on a folding TV tray that stood perpetually in front of Jasper’s easy chair, she lay back and threw off her robe. No surprise there was nothing underneath. I could smell her woman’s scent right away; it mixed well with the rum aroma. Thereafter I would always associate the two.

She helped me undress; it was over in seconds—the time it took Popeye to quaff a can of spinach—almost before I even entered her. Just enough time to complete the sin I felt in my heart. She never took her eyes off the TV screen, and laughed once, I hope at Popeye.

Afterwards, I sat glumly beside her watching Popeye in black-and-white, not touching her. Afraid to touch her. Our bare asses sank deeper and deeper into the unprotected broken-down couch, heedless of our genital drool. She kissed me again, a big, soft rum-flavored tongue kiss. “It’s on accounta ‘cause you’re still so young an’ all,” she consoled me. “An’ inexperienced. But don’t you worry none. We’ll keep practicin’ an’ practicin’ ‘til your tallywhacker can wear like iron. You’ll get the hang of it before long.” Her face brightened. “Hey, you hear that? I made a funny. ‘The hang of it.’ Wait, I made two funnies. ‘Before long.’ Get it? Hey!” Her voice loud, like one drunk trying to rouse another. “C’mon, laugh! I made two funnies an’ you didn’t even laugh.” Snorting, she laughed immoderately enough for both of us, then elbowed me in the ribs, almost knocking me off the couch. “Wanna rassle?”

At first I thought she was kidding. Still naked, she rolled off the couch onto the dusty hardwood floor and fell to her knees. “C’mon,” she teased. I stretched out my arms, trying to rise up from the depths of the ruined couch. She leaped behind me. Her right arm crossed my chest like a steel band pulling me to the floor, her fingers digging into my armpit as if going for a lung. I fell backward with somersault velocity, her bended knee against my solar plexus knocking the wind out of me. She straddled my midsection; her dark pubic brush, moistened from action, basted my abdomen. Darlene must have watched a lot of pro wrestling, because she hollered, “Mad Dog Vachon” as a kind of victory war whoop. She clamped the Crusher claw on my left nipple. I yelped and, before I knew it, did the same to her, squeezing out a few drops of little Freddy’s dinner in the process.

Darlene was one wrestler who could dish it out but couldn’t take it. She ended the impromptu match by forfeit, screaming “Fucker!” Gathering her robe, she retrieved her drink and stalked into the kitchen. I sheepishly put my clothes back on, afraid to face her post-coital wrath. It was at least twenty minutes before I summoned enough courage to join her there. The Edge of Night was almost over.

The Bacardi bottle stood open like a centerpiece on the kitchen table beside the green glass quart Coca Cola bottle, both nearly empty. Darlene’s horse tank glass had been over-refilled with what in classier circles they call a Cuba Libre. Studiously ignoring my presence, she stalked the drink like a cat, steadied her chin on her crossed wrists, then noisily slurped it down to a manageable level. She leaned back, licked her lips and concentrated on picking up the drink, spilling some on her robe where it joined other disregarded stains. Looking up with menacing half-closed lids as though eyeing me for the first time, she said in a flat, contemptuous tone, “Guess you figger it’s okay to fight dirty, long as it’s with a woman.”

“Never thought much about it, I guess.”

“Never thought much about it,” she sneered. “Never thought much about much, I guess.” Taking a big swig, she tilted her head back and swallowed audibly. “I guess. You guess. Be my guest. Hey, before you get any big ideas about me, paper boy, I don’t screw every prick in the street.” She nodded for emphasis, as though to assure herself of her own prudent selectivity. “And another thing. It takes quite a few of these to get me to do what we just done. Quite a few.”

“I can see that.”

“What the fuck’s at sposed to mean? Asshole. Hair-trigger quick-cumming asshole. You lasted about as long as one a’ my farts, you little fart.”

“No offense, Darlene.”

“Fuck that Darlene shit, too. You call me anything from now on, you call me Mrs. Hahn. Or better yet, call me Ma’am. From now on, it’s Yes Ma’am, No Ma’am. Please and thank you, Ma’am.” Darlene took a big slug from her tumbler and gulped audibly. “An’ jes’ between us, you oughta consider yourself one lucky little prick. Truth is, you weren’t so hot. I’ve had better. Better, bigger and longer-lastin’. My husband, for one, can go all night, he wants to. An’ he allays wants to.” Darlene nodded again as if to convince herself of the verity of that last statement. Her face brightened with a drunkard’s slyness. “I got me an idea,” she smirked. Scooting her chair away from the table, almost tipping backward in the process, she slid down and spread her legs, deliberately stamped first one bare heel, then the other on the floor and tossed open her robe. “C’mere and eat my pussy, paper boy. Come on, eat me. Say ‘Yes, Ma’am’ while you eat my pussy, paper boy.” She was yelling loud enough, I feared, to be heard across the empty lot and through my mother’s kitchen window, my mother’s hands no doubt kneading bread crumbs into the hamburger meat for our supper, it being a Thursday.

“Don’t want to.”

“Don’t want to, huh? I don’t give a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut what you don’t want. You hear? What say I tell Jasper all about the special tip I done give the paper boy? Think he’d like knowin’ all about it? All the juicy details? He’d fuckin’ kill you dead, paper boy. You think he wouldn’t? Just you try ‘im. He’ll fuckin’ kill you dead.”

Having had no experience in the ways of women, particularly the deadly combination of women and alcohol, I had no idea whether the fearsome scene unfolding out of control in Darlene’s kitchen could be regarded as typical post-mating behavior in the human female. Therefore, I ran, not forgetting my paper bag this time. Darlene roared, “Dead paper boy,” over and over, even after the screen door slammed behind me. I sailed off on my bike without even bothering with the kickstand.

I skipped the Hahn residence altogether on Friday. Saturday morning at five AM my unaccustomed eyes popped open from some nightmare involving unmanning and dismemberment at the hands of none other than Jasper G. Hahn. I dressed quietly, slipped through the empty lot and delivered the Friday afternoon paper I’d withheld from fear of romantic reprisal. I encountered the milkman coming as I was going. We nodded without speaking, acknowledging one another’s dogged dedication, one delivery professional to another. Within a year, we’d both be out of a job. Me, because I quit to become a projectionist when Ahmad, that Saudi Arabian prince of the desert, returned to the land of his fathers. Him, because home delivery of milk ceased when the local dairy—Sleepy-Bye Farms—shut down for good, strangled by federal regulation and supermarket competition.

Saturday afternoon I crept up the wooden treads of the duplex porch and slid the weekend paper as silently as possible through the mail slot, hanging it there so it wouldn’t fall with a loud plop. I had nearly made good my escape when Darlene emerged, wearing a pale green summer shift, picture hat and white gloves. I saw her shoes first: white flat numbers. When I looked up into her face, expecting rage, I saw only sweetness.

“Ain’t you even gonna say hi?” she asked.

“Hi.”

She slacked her jaw and affected a glum monotone. “Hi,” she imitated, then smiled and spun around, arms extended and fingers poised in a catalog model’s attitude. “So how do I look?”

“Great.”

“Thank you,” she singsonged like a southern belle accustomed to acknowledging compliments. “Jasper’s takin’ me to the tractor pull over at the fairgrounds. Hey, I missed you yesterday, Johnny. I’ll tell you what, Jasper’s gotta have his sports page soon’s he gets home from work or he’s grouchy as a ol’ bear.”

Jasper himself appeared, in jeans and short-sleeve checked shirt. “Ain’t you, Hon?”

“Ain’t I what?”

“Ain’t you jes’ a ol’ bear les’n you git your sports page soon’s you git off from work?”

“You’re liable to git all dirt in that there.”

“You’re right, Sugar. I’ll go fetch me a scarf instead.” She soon emerged bareheaded with a silky red one grasped lightly in her fingertips. Jasper ran his arm around her waist with proprietary mien. Then, without a word other than a brief nod to me, he squired her into the pickup and out of sight.

Not a word, not even a hint of a gesture or furtive expression to acknowledge what had gone on just two short days ago. Did she even remember it? Or was she hiding her wounded dignity behind feigned alcohol amnesia? I was never to learn the truth. When after a month’s celibacy I was invited in by her once more, and dared reach for her in the accustomed way, she grabbed my hand and slapped my fingers. Not hard, but firmly and with unmistakable finality.

 

 

CHAPTER FOURBWIDE OF FWANKENSTEIN

 

All of that was summer, 1965. The Halloween Window-Painting War between Protestants and Catholics had begun almost five years earlier, on an October weekend in 1960. The Somerset Jaycees Club in anticipation of Halloween ran newspaper ads and school announcements inviting the fourth, fifth and sixth grade school students downtown where they provided us with tempora paints, brushes and sundry art supplies to decorate store windows with impromptu Halloween designs, with the promise of free doughnuts and cider after cleanup. Winners of the window judging would receive free passes, courtesy of Dennis Diddlehaupt and the Egyptian Theater, to the week’s double-bill thrillers: The Hypnotic Eye and 13 Ghosts—a twenty-five cent value to the individual bearer, not redeemable for cash. Frosty stubbornly insisted on pronouncing the title of the former as “The Hyptonic Eye.” Heedless of these incentives, we were drawn by the sheer hell of defacing with impunity and in broad daylight windows of stores and other establishments like Gamble’s, Sears & Roebuck, the Haute Couture, Heineman’s Shoes—featuring Redwing and Florsheim—Floyd & Mavis’s Music Box Tavern, Thuringer Brothers, Frick’s Five and Ten, and Albrecht’s Drug—where you could still sit down at the lunch counter, buy a Green River for a dime, and nurse it all afternoon. Even Floyd and Mavis’s got into the holiday spirit, although their windows were already opaque due to the Hamm’s Beer sylvan panorama, the land of sky blue waters shielding the rumdums from public scrutiny and scorn.

The Jaycees’ idea was a good one in theory—give the kids a safety valve to let out all that Halloween vandal spirit in a harmless and community-boosting way that was good for business. Plans had been proposed to expand it to Thanksgiving and eventually to every major holiday. The result, which spelled the demise of the entire holiday window-decorating program, was The Halloween Window-Painting War between Protestants and Catholics.

The Jaycees, in their optimistic excess of civic pride, fatally overestimated the ecumenical spirit in the average sixties preteen. Invitations went out to both public grade schools—Lincoln and Washington—and also to Somerset’s only parochial grade school, Our Lady of Lourdes, pronounced OurLadyaLourdes. The Dixie cups filled with tempora paint were hardly distributed before the first skirmish broke out in front of Sears & Roebuck. Fuchs started it trying to impress one particular Catholic girl in a red coat.

“Sears and Roebucks can sell you a whole house, ready-made,” he announced with the air of authority borne of overheard adult conversation. “Good solid house, too. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.”

“Can not. You’re full of it, kid.” The hoarse voice of Dave Unruh, whom I knew as second Sousaphone player from band, called Fuchs out. Fuchs appeared to balk at first, sizing up Unruh’s burly frame. I already knew Dave from one casual instrument-exchanging encounter before a concert. “Hey, kid, lemme try your horn.” I handed him my cornet—actually my great-grandfather’s, a family heirloom dating back to actual circus band performances—and he responded in kind by letting me try out his Sousaphone (mistakenly referred to as a tuba by the untutored.) You have to wear a Sousaphone in order to play it, and there is some weight to it, so it’s not for pipsqueaks. Ten is near the outside age for unflinching contact with the secondhand warmth and unfamiliar male saliva of a recently used mouthpiece—particularly the lunchmeat-seasoned goblet mouthpiece of Unruh’s Sousaphone. I puckered up and blew, but succeeded in producing only nervous flatulence, dark crackling and atonal moanings. Unruh for his part regaled the band room for many minutes with brass whinnies and snorts blown from my captive cornet, until the uniformed bandleader Mr. Schultz managed to restore order and return each of us our respective instruments.

Unruh was the kind of kid who’d never drain the spit valve of his Sousaphone unless sternly and publicly ordered to do so by Mr. Shultz, after the crackling and bubbling had become audible as a rhythmic counterpoint. Then Unruh would hold the Sousaphone up and release the valve with a flourish, grossing out the girls in the clarinet and flute sections with the horse piss relieving onto the risers.

“You’re full of it, kid.” Fuchs, doughty window-painter, had decided to hold his ground. The girl he had been showing off for turned aside from her plate-glass canvas, distracted from the task of whitewashing inside the outline of what she most likely intended to represent a ghost, but which equally resembled a gravestone in the making. The girl’s red coat had big white buttons down the front, and was buttoned closed around her, perhaps to conceal her parochial school uniform of white blouse and navy pleated skirt. She had a red hair ribbon, too, matching her coat, at least to my untrained eye. She’d been careful not to get any paint on the coat, or even on her hands, which were pale from the cold, and delicate. I had been watching those hands, considering that I might offer my black paint and my services to provide horrifying facial features to her ghost-in-progress, or the letters R.I.P. on her tombstone.

“What’s your name, anyway?” Unruh demanded of Fuchs, taking a bold step forward and hefting his Dixie Cup of orange paint as though it were a rock he was about to throw.

“What’s it to ya, kid?” Fuchs put on a game face, but the quaver in his voice belied his fear. Taking care to carry my black paint with me, I moved shoulder-to-shoulder beside Fuchs the meek.

“What’s it to ya, kid?” Unruh repeated in a mocking singsong.

“He’s my friend, Unruh. Name’s Pete.”

“Your friend, huh? Your friend’s full of it, Wolfe. Peter, peter pumpkin eater. You like peeder so much, Wolfe, I’ll show you mine.”

In those days a girl witnessing such an exchange wasn’t considered decent unless she gave forth with an outraged vocal gasp. The girl in the red coat obliged, championing her maidenhood.

Unruh leered at her. “Whaddaya think about that, Mags?

“Shut up, Unwuh.” In those days, Maggie Paderborn—for indeed it was she of the red coat and freestyle ghost—bore the shame of rhotacism: difficulty pronouncing her R’s to the point she might have been mistaken for a proper Bostonian unaccountably stranded in Somerset, Illinois. It was a triumph of speech therapy that by the time Maggie entered high school she had utterly mastered this most regal of consonants. The speech therapist was so impressed with her own personal Eliza Doolittle’s progress that she continued working until Maggie’s proficiency over all of the myriad diphthongs, triphthongs, fricatives, ligatures and laterals had her speaking the King’s English. And to think it all began by pretending that her teeth were railroad tracks and her tongue was the train.

“Your Pope is Peter,” Fuchs said under his breath.

This time Maggie was truly too shocked to utter a polite gasp. Instead, she counseled softly, “You bettew shut up, kid. You wanna go to Hell?”

But Fuchs was on a roll. “At least us Protestants don’t have to listen to some old guy tellin’ us to eat fish on Friday just because he wears red long johns and speaks Italian.” I could hear Fuchs’ father’s voice in every shouted word. Fuchs and his family were Methodists like us. He and I both had been weaned on anti-Catholic propaganda. Both of us also attended Baptist Kids Klub every Tuesday after school, where among other activities we were challenged to be the first to look up and read aloud a Bible verse called out by the teacher book, chapter and verse. We’re not talking John 3:16 here, either. Those who had not internalized the order of the Old Testament Minor Prophets and the lesser Epistles could eat our dust in the near page-tearing frenzy of the competition. According to my Dad and anyone else I’d ever heard express an opinion on the subject, the Catholics were “bible-ignorant” by comparison to us Methodists.

“You bettew not be talkin’ about the Holy Fathew.” This last from Maggie.

“Least I ain’t no prostitute like you, kid,” Unruh taunted. “Far as I’m concerned, you’re both heathens, you and your buddy both. Heathen prostitutes. I was you, I’d get off this street and go on up there with the rest of the prostitutes, you know what’s good for ya. The windows on this street are reserved for OurLadyaLourdes kids. Beat it before I decorate both you heathen prostitutes for Halloween.”

“We got as much right to be here as you Catholics do,” I observed, venturing an opinion that, while no doubt legally correct under First Amendment principles, did nothing to resolve the pending dispute.

Fuchs, irrationally emboldened by my presence and that of other Protestant kids who by now had been drawn away from their half-completed window decorating by the raised voices and flaring tempers, defended his challenged faith with a zealous torrent of anti-popish sentiment: “Whyn’t you try and make us go, ‘Our Lady of Lards?’ Must be a big fat lady to eat up all that lard. That what they mean by ‘’Round yon virgin’? At least us Protestants don’t worship idols like you catlickers. Big fat fish-eating idol-worshippers. You like fish? Perch.” With that, Fuchs gave Unruh the middle finger.

That did it. Unruh was no bully, but Fuchs had thrown down the gauntlet of sacrilege. Great yawning schisms separating the world’s major faiths have sprung from less intemperate and ill-considered remarks. Unruh’s paint-throwing arm began to move with unmistakable first-strike intent. I lunged to block it. A sweeping arc of jack o’lantern orange paint flew through the air, sprinkling a few drops over Fuchs and me but dappling Maggie’s coat, hair and face. Maggie, shaking with rage, reached inside herself for the worst epithet she could think of. She screamed it, over and over, reddened face clashing with the orange paint.

“You damn niggew, Unwuh! You damn niggew!”

Fuchs grabbed my black paint and flung it full in Unruh’s face. Unruh wiped his eyes, blinked twice, and puffed air through his lips. Somebody in the crowd jeered, “Hey, look, a Catholic nigger.” Somebody else hollered, “Stoog-ES! Stoog-ES!” The crowd picked up the chant, invoking the vandal trio: Stoog-ES! Stoog-ES!” In no time, every kid within earshot was chasing some other kid with a cup of paint ready to throw. Then another voice called out, “C’mon, let’s wreck their windows.” ‘Their’ clearly meant those decorated by the other religious sect. Doughnuts, cider and free movie passes never seemed farther out of reach. The crowd divided itself in two like an amoeba. Each iconoclast mob shrieked and screamed down the main streets of the business district, flinging and smearing paint all over the competing faith’s window decorations, which proved much quicker and easier to deface than create.

The whole mob scene overtook Dennis Diddlehaupt, who’d been tapped by the Jaycees as sole overseer of the event. Untimely summoned from the dark womb of the Music Box—where the beer’s so cold you can’t drink it—Dennis, blinking into the late afternoon sun, faced the advancing mobs and with a showdown stance like Gary Cooper in High Noon straddled the imaginary center line of Main Street, drew breath down deep into his diaphragm and summoned the most appalling, the most preternaturally fearsome Banshee scream of his managerial career, shrieking the very same words he uttered in every matinee yell, the only words his beer-fogged brain could invoke at the top of his Tareyton-stained lungs:

“Quiet! Quiet!”

That Voice. Echoing down the broad expanse of sidewalk, reverberating off the storefront cornices and pilasters bearing impossibly old dates of construction like tombstones, That Voice was Gabriel’s trumpet compelling us to order.

“Now you kids are gonna clean every one a’ these windows or I’ll tell your parents,” Dennis ordered us as he handed out squeegees and buckets. “Maybe even the police. So get squeegee’in.”

Squeegee we did, the water droplets cold on our bare hands, our animosities temporarily forgotten for fear of Dennis Diddlehaupt, doubly an authority figure: he managed the Egyptian Theater and he was an adult. Even Maggie had to help, after Dennis managed to wipe the orange paint off her face and the worst of it out of her hair and the fabric of her coat with a hastily borrowed bar rag—a fresh one not yet soaked with the establishment’s trademark undrinkably cold beer. She stood next to me in front of Sears & Roebuck, shamefaced and quiet while we traded off using the squeegee the Jaycees had provided courtesy of Gamble’s and the bar rag courtesy of Dennis Diddlehaupt with special thanks to Floyd and Mavis’s. Once I inadvertently touched her fingertips in handing off the squeegee. They were snowball-packing cold and mottled red and blue, heralding the bad circulation that would plague her in later years.

“Whyn’t you let me finish up? Your hands must be froze solid.”

“I’m ok, kid,” she said, but soon obliged, slipping her hands into the pockets of her coat after inspecting them for paint residue. Soon I had the window clear enough to see the television tube tester just inside the door.

Borrowing a bit of the old Fuchs bravado myself, I ventured to say, “I know how to use that tester. Tested a lot of tubes on it, some good, some bad.”

Maggie drew one hand out of her coat pocket and wiped her nose with it, leaving a crescent moon wisp of orange paint like half a moustache. I laughed.

“What’s so damn funny, kid?” A Catholic girl who cussed. The forbidden fruit. An attraction born of rivalries older than the Montagues and the Capulets. So help me, in that moment I knew I was in love with Maggie Paderborn. By way of an answer, I pointed to her image in the store window. She whooped and tried to cover her lip when she saw it.

“Find me some moah owange paint, kid. Come on, I need moah owange.” Like Darlene Hahn, Maggie’s speech thickened whenever she became distracted. I found a missed dollop of orange hanging from her coattail and pointed it out to her. She dabbed from it with an index fingertip. Then, studying her image like a woman at the cosmetics counter, she painted in both sides of a big orange handlebar moustache. She smiled and mugged, modeling it for me.

“Hewena Wubenstein, eat your heawt out.”

“How old is Helena Rubenstein, anyway? From the TV commercials, she looks like she’s about a hundred. Those hands of hers when she comes out and signs her name in lipstick look like Bride of Frankenstein signing her name in blood.” These were the most words I could remember speaking to a girl up to that point in my life other than my mother or sisters, ever.

“Have you seen Bwide of Fwankenstein, kid? What is youw name, anyway? I dowanna keep having to call you ‘kid.’”

“It’s Johnny, and yeah, I’ve seen it,” I lied. Actually I had lusted to see Bride of Frankenstein after reading everything I could about it from well-hidden back issues of Fuch’s collection of monster magazines—the pre-adolescent’s Playboy. Well-hidden—at Fuch’s house, under Fuch’s mattress, actually—because my Dad and Mom did not approve of such things, which they considered sorcery and the occult. At any rate, I knew more than enough to fake it when the subject of conversation was Bride of Frankenstein, and fake it I did, regaling Maggie with vivid descriptions of Drs. Pretorius and Frankenstein in the crypt, of lightning and smoke, unrequited love and yearning of dead flesh for dead flesh. After all, what greater star-crossed lovers are there in American popular culture than Frank and his virgin Bride?

“Poow Bwide of Fwankenstein. Wunduh if she was a viwgin on huh wedding night?” Shooting me a sheepish, naughty-girl look on her face as she said it. I smirked and bashfully rolled my eyes, not quite sure at ten what she meant. “I suppose Doctow Fwankenstein could dig up a dead body of a viwgin and use it, huh?”

“Hey, I bet you could use something like that tube tester and make a Frankenstein movie. Wanna take a look?”

“We bettuh wait fow, you know, that guy that holluhs. I don’t wanna get in any mow twouble.”

So I passed the time explaining to Maggie how the tube-tester works, though I think she would have preferred more tales of Frankenstein. I explained how you consult the chart to find the right plug-in to accommodate the tube you’re testing, push a button and watch the needle to see whether it moves into the “good” range or whether you’ve got what my Dad the amateur TV repairman called a “crow.” Some were obvious, e.g., broken filaments or blackened burnout smudges on the inside of the vacuum tube. It was the others that needed to be tested. If one of these were a ‘crow,’ I would have been entrusted with a dollar or two to buy another one, which Sears & Roebuck usually kept in stock. If they had to order it, there would be no television at our house for a day or two. Nobody thought of traveling out of town for something as inessential as a vacuum tube.

In truth I did come from a long line of amateur TV repairmen. My Dad and uncle, my great-uncle and even my grandfather on my Dad’s side, all took the backs off television sets with doughty self-reliance; none shrank in the least from pulling out tubes and soldering wires, cussing at us kids when we acted up or when the job proved more nettlesome than anticipated, which it invariably did. Once the back was off and the television was pulled away from the wall, the adult males would stand around like consulting shade-tree mechanics conferring with one another.

“Hope it ain’t the picture tube,” my Dad or one of the others would say. ‘Picture tube’ was a terminal diagnosis: the dreaded demise of the cathode ray tube. “Cost more to fix it than it’s worth.” All the more true because the old Philco we spent watching during the decade spanning from 1955 to 1965 had been purchased used from a relative for ten dollars.

I think my Dad always secretly hoped it was the picture tube, ever since he and my Uncle Bob hauled a bad picture tube out to the dump and pitched rocks at it until it exploded. My Uncle Bob was a quasi-professional television repairman, meaning after work he was agreeable to making house calls to third parties, a graduate of a magazine correspondence course holding himself out as an expert in the field of television repair. He even had a sign out front and occasionally ran an ad in the classifieds: Bob Wolfe Radio and Television Service. Free estimates. My cousins’ basement was filled with television carcasses in various stages of dissection: DuMonts, RCA Victors, Westinghouses, Admirals, Philcos, Ambassadors, Motorolas, Raytheons, Coronados, and even a Sonora—one that looked like an old-fashioned free-standing art-deco radio cabinet with a mirror screen that tilted out of the top. Uncle Bob’s basement really did resemble Frankenstein’s lab, with the scalpel-like tools, the glowing green oscilloscope, the Simpson VO meter searching for signs of life, the schematic texts piled open like medical tomes, and all the mysterious electronic equipment strewn around. Uncle Bob had a tube tester of his own, but my Dad never used it. It was less sibling rivalry than the fact that Uncle Bob and Aunt Dody lived twelve miles away—a weekend trip—and the convenience of Sears & Roebuck, the only place my Dad ever bought his tubes: Silvertone, in the distinctive dark-red box. Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back.

My Uncle Bob’s basement shop was the one place cousin Rondo was forbidden to play ‘In and Out the Windows,’ the running, weaving game that was his single obsession, as he proved beyond peradventure one summer evening while everyone sat out around the picnic tables or in folding chairs under the big shade trees in the yard behind the old house Grandma Frieda Besenstiel shared with her son and daughter-in-law Bo and Lena Stiel. Grandma Broomstick never forgave Uncle Bo for paying a lawyer good money to legally change his family name by performing a Besen amputation. It was the money wasted that bothered Grandma Broomstick more than the name itself, which after all meant Shaft, which is exactly what Grandma Broomstick thought the lawyer had given Uncle Bo; still, Shaft was probably better than Besenstiel, which meant Broomstick in German, hence the nickname Grandma Broomstick.

Nobody talked about why my great-great-grandparents came over from Germany, but whispered rumors hinted at draft evasion and a logical aversion to chest-high flying cannonballs. My great-grandfather old Heinrich Besenstiel wasn’t talking; he’d died in the flu epidemic of 1917, leaving Grandma Broomstick a widow at age thirty-seven to finish raising Bo and four others alone. That task long since complete, Grandma Broomstick watched and listened as Rondo ran and sang—at the top of his lungs, later gasping for breath—a solo performance of “in and out the windows,” weaving a seemingly never-ending skein between, in, around and through the gaps in the overgrown lilac bushes that marked the lot line bordering Old Man Pratt’s place. The late afternoon sun went down; the sky turned the purple shade of lilac to complement the tiny blossoms which showered down on Rondo like a hero’s confetti, still persevering in his dizzying figure-eight after figure-eight run and now-hoarse singsong repetitions of “in and out the windows.”

Uncle Bo was telling my Dad: “My old man told me you can always tell a German cemetery by the lilac bushes.”

“That’s right,” Grandma Broomstick agreed. “Beautiful lilac bushes all around. You can still see some of the older ones out at Eternal Rest, over by the fence close to his grave there. Trunks big as trees, but still those bushes bloom pretty as a picture every April, right up ‘til frost. Hundred-year-old lilac bushes. Some older, maybe.” Her voice, which had gone up into almost a whoop at the word ‘beautiful,’ now took on a reproving tone as she witnessed Rondo’s dizzying one-man track meet. “I know one little boy that’s gonna wind up all mosquito-bit if he don’t stay outen them bushes.”

Aunt Dody called out in a plaintive tone laced with the torpor of a late-summer evening: “Ronny, Honey. Don’t you think you should stop it, Dear? There’s nasty old skeeters that come out at night in the bushes, Honey.” Rondo’s choruses and weaving marathon continued without interruption, oblivious to Aunt Dody and the nasty old skeeters; he was ignoring her, as he usually did. The boldness of Rondo’s disobedience as well as its impunity continually astonished Ruthie, Esther and I.

“Do lilac bushes live longer than people, Grandma Broomstick?” It was Ruthie’s question.

“Sometimes, Ruthie. You just never can tell with lilac bushes. Or with people, for that matter. God took Grandpa Henry home when he was just forty-five, you know.”

“That’s old,” Ruthie marveled.

The adults all chortled with indulgence, although I tended to share my sister’s opinion at that age.

“Forty-five’s not old, Ruthie,” Uncle Bo chimed in. “Why, your Aunt Lena’s already forty-eight. She can remember going to the nickelodeon, can’t you, Leenie? Remember William S. Hart?”

“Thanks a lot.” Aunt Lena, always good-natured under Uncle Bo’s joshing. “But it was Rudy Valentino, if you please, and shows cost a dime. My, but he was a handsome man.”

“Talk about your dying young. What was he, not even thirty when the Angel a’ Death paid him a call?” Did I detect a nervous hint of jealousy in Uncle Bo, fearful of being cuckolded in spirit by Valentino’s shade?

“Twenty-six,” Aunt Lena replied, wistful as Pola Negri. Aunt Lena scandalized her female contemporaries by watching television in the daytime. She never missed Queen for a Day, Art Linkletter, Liberace, The Secret Storm or any of her other ‘stories’—black-and-white soap operas viewed loyally since the 1950’s when they were fifteen minutes long. My mother whispered it was why her house was so cluttered and dirty, sink so full of dishes, kitchen so dirty the cockroaches treated it like home on the range.

“Old Chuch Thuringer says that that’s how you tell you’re gettin’ old,” Uncle Bo mused.

“What’s that?” my dad asked him.

“When you start liking to go to the cemetery. My old man never got old enough to find that out, I guess. But old Chuch, he remembers, and I kinda do, too, when I think about how it was in the old days. Sundays after church you wouldn’t think nothing about going out to the cemetery and spending the whole afternoon there. It was like a social occasion. Sometimes the family’d bring a picnic basket, spread blankets and eat out there under the big shade trees where us kids could run around, maybe get up a baseball game. We never minded it. Now that he’s getting old, Old Chuch says he likes going to the cemetery. Why do you think that is?”

“Because all his friends are there?” my dad said.

Uncle Bo slapped the arm of his folding chair. “That’s it,” he said. “All e’s friends are there. He says he even talks to them graves now and then, and by God if some of ‘em don’t talk back to ‘im.” He raised his eyebrows at me, inviting a challenge. “Some of his old friends actually say things to him.”

“Like what, Uncle Bo?” Children were seen and not heard in these adult conversations, but Uncle Bo indulged me.

“Well, like for instance, you’re too young to remember Old Rudy Messer. Not the Rudy Messer that’s mayor now; his Pa. Time was he run a milk wagon before he started what’s now Sleepy-Bye Farms, got rich as Croesus and bought up all them houses over in the third ward. He was near a century old when he died. But Old Chuch knew him, used to work for him, ride around in the back of Old Rudy’s wagon and heist milk cans back when Old Chuch was just a kid. He hardly got paid a penny; that was Old Rudy for ya.”

“He was a dirty old man,” Grandma Broomstick grimaced.

“Old Chuch tells the story that Old Rudy’d keep the cover off the milk can going from house to house, just ‘cause he was too lazy to put it on and take it off with every delivery. It was probably about August, and there was flies and more flies all over the mouth of that there milk can.”

“He was a dirty old man,” Grandma Broomstick repeated.

“Old Rudy had a mangy old hound dog that always rode along with him in the wagon, and one day the old dog goes over by that open milk can and lifts he’s leg—”

Gasps of horror and whoops of shock went up from the women. The men laughed booming laughs into the night air.

“Course Old Rudy sees the whole thing happen. He looks over at Old Chuch, shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘Oh, well, we’ll strain it twice.’”

“He was a dirty old man.”

“‘Oh, well, we’ll strain it twice,’” Uncle Bo repeated, looking around him for encouragement.

Once the laughter had subsided, I urged again, “What’d Old Chuch hear, Uncle Bo?”

“Oh, yeah, I almost forgot that part of my story. The way Old Chuch tells it, he was standing there looking at Old Rudy’s grave, and he hears Old Rudy’s voice plain as day saying, “What in the hell are you doing here?”

A shiver went through the listeners, even though they’d all probably heard the story many times before. Nobody loved a good ghost story, or a séance, or a Ouija board, or table-tipping, more than my German relatives did.

“What did Old Chuch say?” I asked. Uncle Bo hesitated. Maybe nobody had ever asked for that part of the story before.

“He said, ‘I come to see you, Rudy. I come to see you.’” The last tenderly, as though not expecting or requiring any further answer. We heard the cicadas loud as maracas from the trees. Lightning bugs glittered their evening show of twinkling phosphorus fire from the lilac bushes where Rondo continued to labor.

“In and out the windows. In and out the windows.”

“Uh-huh. Well, all’s I know is there’s a little boy I know whose mommie’s gonna need a lot a’ Bactine tonight. He’ll be crying for the Bactine ‘cause of all the mosquito bites he’ll have all over him. And if he scratches them, they’ll bleed.”

Ice cubes tinkled impatiently in Aunt Dody’s grape Kool-Aid glass at this jeremiad. Aunt Lena always mixed it double-strength and almost syrupy. “Ronny, Honey, why don’t you stop it for tonight? All right, Hon?”

“In and out the windows. In and out the windows. In and out the windows.”

“Those mosquitos‘ll bite clean through your clothes,” Grandma Broomstick warned. “Some of ‘em carry yellow fever and polio, every kind of pestilence.”

“Ronny’s had his polio shot and a booster,” Aunt Dody said, with just a hint of evening coolness. “All my kids have had their polio shots.”

“Well, I hope you got plenty’a Bactine in the medicine chest at home. And calamine lotion. Bactine’s better.”

“Ronny! Come over here by Mommie. That’s enough playing for one night, don’t you think? You’ve proved to everybody how you set the world’s record for that silly little game of yours.” She looked around her to the other adults for support, but was ignored.

“In and out the windows. In and out the windows. In and out the windows.”

“Bactine. Or calamine lotion.” Grandma Broomstick shook her head, adding: “Bactine ain’t cheap, either.”

“Whaddaya have to do to get a drink around here?” My nine-year-old cousin Franky, competing for attention with his elder brother, was playing his comedy drunk act in earnest, slurring his words, waggling his head, staggering and slopping his grape Kool-aid in the mown grass. My mother said that Franky had perfected his drunk act by observing Aunt Dody’s brothers in action. Franky attempted to engage a tree in conversation, extended his drink-free arm to lean against a nonexistent lamppost and fell down, kicking his legs out.

“Shumbody get the number a’ that truck,” Franky slurred. “I think I shprained my shacroil—my shacrolil—my ass hurts!”

“Franky!” Sometimes I feared my Aunt Dody might die of embarrassment for her sons’ public misbehavior. But theirs was a jovial disobedience, an extrovert’s cry for applause, for early entry into the world of adulthood, whereas mine was a secret, skulking wildness, a hyena’s sullen appetites hungry for dark concealment. In later years I would attempt to excuse it by reference to my seduction at fifteen by Darlene Hahn, but in my heart I knew the darkness had lurked in me long before, was part of me as long as I could remember. I would run from that darkness for half a century before finding my escape. And that escape, closer to me than I was even to myself, would call for a martyrdom all its own.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIVECALENDAR ART AND PICTURE TUBES

 

“That Franky can act so darn drunk,” Grandma Broomstick observed with distaste, just loud enough to be overheard by Aunt Dody.

“Some of the old ones get a warning,” Uncle Bo said. “I heard tell this old fella stops by Thuringer’s one afternoon, walks right up to the calendar, takes out a red pen and circles a date a couple weeks away, see? And the only thing he said was: ‘The little men come up on the front porch last night.’ He didn’t say nothin’ else. But when that day come around, I’ll be switched if that old fella didn’t drop dead. That very day he circled on that damned calendar. Ask Old Joe, he’ll tell you. Still got the calendar to prove it. Says he’ll never give it up, it ain’t for sale at any price. And you know Old Joe, he’d sell his ass and shit through his ribs for card-playin’ money.”

I wondered whether Uncle Bo was referring to the Thuringer Brothers’ calendar displaying TN Thompson’s comely young wench in black stockings and tight fifties lingerie, looking over her shoulder as she doffs sunglasses, bearing the double-entendre caption: “A Nice Little Lass.” I wouldn’t have sold it, either.

My cousins and I had explored Uncle Bo’s bedroom and discovered prodigal examples of collected calendar artwork he thought he had squirreled away from Aunt Lena’s slovenly housekeeping: there was a bra-bursting maiden lost in contemplating a thick yardstick, as well as such provocative titles as Lucky Dog, Slip Offshore, Quick Delivery, It’s Your Move, Watch Me Swing my Baton, They’re Easy to Handle, Lookout Bee-hind, and the ever-memorable A Complete Bust. My cousin Tammy discovered my boy-cousins Rondo, Franky and me in mid-gawk, calendar art spread across Uncle Bo and Aunt Lena’s bed, favored us with the obligatory modesty gasp and exclaimed: “Bare-naked ladies! I’m telling!” It took the better part of an afternoon’s cajoling, bribes and threats to keep her quiet.

The one place we kids were not allowed to venture, and hence the place that held all the more fascination for us, was “The Shop,” Uncle Bo’s private, padlocked domain. Even my dad would have to ask permission whenever he wanted to borrow an esoteric carpentry or plumbing tool from Uncle Bo, who would keep my dad waiting at the back porch while he trotted down the huge rolling expanse of back yard to the rotting shed which smelled of paint and mouldering sawdust, unlock the padlock—to which he held the one and only key—and return with the exact tool needed, be it a miter box, apse, jigsaw, router or pipe threader. Even the windows of The Shop afforded no view of its interior, obscured as they were by shelves of paint, shingles, lumber and tools. Uncle Bo had been a freelance carpenter, barn and homebuilder, but now worked at Kaiser’s in the carpenter shop. When I was a child growing up in Somerset, if my Uncle Bo weren’t sitting in the yard in good weather, or playing cards in the house, or watching a circus or Arthur Godfrey on television, he’d be in The Shop, alone, door barred from the inside. Aunt Lena respected his privacy and warned us kids there’d be hell to pay if we became bold enough to disturb him at his mysterious labors.

“Aw, bullshit, Pa.” Robin Stiel rose to contradict his father. Despite, or perhaps because of, his gender-ambiguous name, Robin seemed to have been standing at the head of the line when they gave out testosterone. Steeped in all things manly and wild, a hunter, fisherman, stalker and skinner of squirrels, rabbits, and deer, he bore an expert’s fondness for knives, traps and firearms. I had at his invitation once braved watching him skin a squirrel in the musty brick basement lit only by a bare exposed bulb, rudely undressing the animal of its pelt until the headless meat was all that remained, hanging from a hook on a chain. He made a great show of washing the blood off his hunting knife with water from a spigot, then carefully wiping it dry and rehoning it against a whetstone before returning it to its leather sheath.

Uncle Bo and Aunt Lena allowed Robin to drink beer at home, as a kind of noble social experiment, hypothesizing that if he could drink at home, drinking would lose all its forbidden-fruit mystique and Robin would soon tire of alcohol. Now at seventeen, Uncle Bo and Aunt Lena’s baby boy sat drinking Budweiser from a longnecked bottle and contradicting his forbear. “I heard tell Old Chuch Thuringer says that whole calendar story’s a crock.”

“Hell, Old Chuch Thuringer weren’t even there,” Uncle Bo protested.

“You weren’t there either, Pa. Matter of fact, nobody that ever tells that goddamn story was there to see it.”

“Oooooh!” Grandma Broomstick said, her inflection like a siren rising into the night.

“In and out the windows. In and out the windows. In and out the windows.”

“Will somebody tell that damn kid to knock it off?” Robin bellowed. “He’s making my head hurt.”

“They don’t make that stuff for kids,” my dad said quietly, but loud enough for Robin get the point. I had seen Uncle Bo challenge his son to wrestle, the two of them writhing and grappling on the living room floor, staging takedowns that knocked centenary dust off the floor joists and rattled the old windowpanes, trying out moves they’d seen exhibited on television by Gorgeous George, Killer Kowalski, and Dick the Bruiser. But Robin knew better than to challenge my dad, or even to meet his steady gaze. Abandoned at an early age by an alcoholic father, my dad hated drinking in any form.

“Hey, kid. Rondo. Yeah, you. C’mere.”

Incredibly, Rondo immediately ceased his in and out the windows whirling dervish frenzy and appeared mute and meek by Robin’s side.

“I ever show you my muskie head?”

Rondo shook his, still speechless and panting from exertion.

“C’mon, then. I caught it ‘way up north a’ here in Wisconsin, had a taxidermist mount the head. Got it hanging over my bed now. It’s what they call a trophy. You like fish?”

Rondo nodded eagerly.

Robin showed Rondo the tip of his middle finger and said, “Well, perch,” deriding him with a snorting, wheezing beer-laugh.

“Robin!” Uncle Bo was mad as hell. “You watch your mouth around these kids! You think you’re too old for me to take you down and paddle your ass, you got another think comin’.”

Robin’s voice became quieter in minimal deference to his dad. “C’mon, Johnnie, you wanna see my muskie, too?” So the three of us entered the kitchen by the back door, past the heaping dishes with the dried-on residue of many unplanned menus, up the stairs, through a Christian door painted cream enamel and up the steep stuffy enclosed staircase to Robin’s room. He flipped on the light.

The muskie’s gray decapitated serpent head mounted on a walnut plaque kept somber watch over Robin’s room. A clock had been mounted on the plaque two inches below the game fish’s chin, making me think of Captain Hook’s crocodile. The scaleless skin had a shellac cast to it. It looked like one of those bullheads—only bigger and with teeth—that were about all you could still catch in the man-made algae-choked pond that was Lake Somerset.

“Toyed with that one for half an hour before reeling him in. It was damn near the end of the season; the walleyes was runnin, fish prid near jumpin’ in the boat. That’s when you look for your muskies. Muskies love walleyes as much as people do. Damn, but this here ol’ sucker was a challenge. ‘The Old Man of the Lake,’ the old-timers called him. A muskellunge hog. Forty-nine pounds and change.” Robin sighed with satisfaction. “He’s mine now.”

“What’d you use, doughballs?”

Robin cuffed Rondo on the back of the neck and said, “Fuck no, I didn’t use doughballs. You wanna catch fish, you gotta use worms, boy. Worms plus my own creation, that is. My own secret deadly weapon.”

We were afraid to ask him what that was, but Robin obliged us anyway by sliding an olive-drab tackle box out from under his bed, opening it and almost reverently bringing out a gaudy red and yellow lure in his cupped hands. “Deep-diving crankbait. Maximum action, minimum return speed. Those fucking muskies are lookin’ to fatten themselves up for the long winter. The first time I saw that fuckin’ bobber move, I wasn’t sure I seen anything at all. Just blip. Blip. But then he swallows the hook and that bobber and crankbait go screaming down toward the bottom of the lake, burning line off my reel. I whip the rod up like this just to make sure I set the hook, then I lay with him, see? Don’t give him too much slack or too little, either. The last goddam thing I wanna do is give him the chance to bust that sixty-pound test line. Let him wear himself out first. I dowanna use the club on him, either, tryin’ to get him into the net. One wrong swing and there goes your trophy value. Finally, he’s exhausted. He knows the last long fight is over. I get the waders on and approach ‘im, in waist-high water colder’n a bitch. One big swoop of the net, like this here, and he’s mine. Don’t touch that, goddamn it!”

I had been going for a fingertip touch of the six sawteeth. Robin’s scream froze me in mid-reach. I edged closer to Rondo. Robin flopped down on his dark, deer scene bedspread and gaped upward toward his muskie. “Pa painted in most of the markings,” he said.

“You mean this ain’t even the real head?”

“Well, no, not exactly. You want a fish head this size stinking up your room? Well, do you?”

Rondo and I agreed neither one of us did.

“You ever smelled one of these getting’ ripe, you’d never wanna smell another one. Stink? All they mount is the skin, anyway, over a wood head, and then paint it so’s it looks real. Hell of it is, even the skin rots over time. This here’s an exact replica, like a plaster a’ Paris mold. Lasts forever. Like I said, Pa painted it down at the shop. He’s good at that sort of thing. Ma says it’s ‘cause he’s always had the patience for it.” Admiration crept into Robin’s voice. Rondo and I gazed at the muskie’s eternal death mask with a newfound awe at Uncle Bo’s craftsmanship. We’d both assumed the head to be real.

Back in the yard, I told Rondo, “I bet they could use formaldehyde or something and preserve the head.” Rondo nodded, but I could tell he longed for the disequilibrium of the row of lilac bushes and “in and out the windows.” Sure enough, he ran headlong toward the lot line and soon gave forth with the familiar chorus, to a descant of groans from the adults. But this time, we heard the loud report of a gasoline engine and saw plumes of white rising like smoke above the trees half a block down.

“It’s the sprayer!” Aunt Lena cried. “Shut all the windows!” The Lion’s Club mosquito sprayer, mounted on a flatbed truck bearing the Somerset Lion’s Club’s painted plywood logo, fogged first one side of the street, then the other with its oil-based poison atmosphere of DDT and atomized diesel fuel. My parents sprinted ahead of the slow-moving truck across the street to our bungalow. Soon on both sides of Meadows Avenue one could hear windows slamming shut against the toxic mist, which even now rolled through the lilac bushes and into Grandma Broomstick’s back yard like a destroying angel, driving Rondo before it. It would be at least two years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would cause a stir, and yet two years more before Carson herself was to die of cancer.

Everyone went inside after the sprayer passed. The women congregated in one room, the men in another. Well uncled, amply aunted and more than comfortably cousined, I chose to join the men in the living room. Uncle Bo’s television set stood apart from its usual place, its back off and works exposed. The men formed a semicircle around it. Uncle Bo and my dad studied a schematic drawing and went down the list of tubes.

“I think I may have the tube you need out in the truck,” Uncle Bob said. Over protests from Uncle Bo, he went out to search, returning a few minutes later with not one, but a carton of tubes and his toolbox. Uncle Bo would not permit him to lay hands on the set itself without paying him for his services, so it was Uncle Bo himself who plugged tube after tube into sockets, pulling and replacing tubes until no one could be expected to remember which one went where.

“Plug it in,” Uncle Bo ordered Robin softly, after he had finished.

“You kids like the Three Stooges?” Robin asked my cousins and me. All three of us nodded obediently.

“Well you’re gonna see one of ‘em now,” Robin said, pointing to his father. “He’ll be running around here in circles with his hair all electric and fire shooting out his ass.” Nevertheless, he plugged in the television.

Nothing. Only darkness behind the green plastic polarized sheet that was advertised to impart color properties to the picture. Shades of Winky Dink and You.

“I’ll be go to hell,” Uncle Bo mused.

“Maybe it’s the picture tube,” Robin said.

“Picture tube, kiss my ass. It’s gotta be one of these here tubes not down in the socket proper.” Uncle Bo reached inside the hot set and jiggled one of the dark tubes.

“Which one you like best?” Robin persisted, combing his Vitalis-slicked pompadour and flexing his shoulders well-muscled by frequent resort to the weight bench in the basement. “Curly? Larry? Shemp? ”

“Curly!” Rondo, Franky and I chorused.

“See anything?” Uncle Bo asked my dad.

“Not yet.”

“How ‘bout now?”

“Nope. Nothing.”

Uncle Bo shifted position and tried one final adjustment. This time the set crackled and white dot widened into a picture. The Gillette Friday Night Fights. We kids hummed the familiar Gillette Blue Blades theme song: Look sharp, Feel sharp, Be sharp, and the alternate sponsor What’ll you have—Pabst Blue Ribbon. The lights went off; we all scrimmaged for seats near as possible to ringside and stared at the blue-green glow, mottled with rainbow prism colors from the polarizer. Aunt Lena presently brought my cousins and me each a dish of vanilla ice cream with a maraschino cherry concealed inside, black like a bloody eyeball in the television’s unnatural light. Rondo told us they were indeed eyeballs, whereupon neither Franky nor I chose to eat ours. Rondo gobbled them all, calling them “marciano” cherries.

 

 

One October night under the full moon, my dad and Uncle Bob decided to give Rondo (christened Ronald but nicknamed for his resemblance to the late acromegalic actor Rondo ‘The Creeper’ Hatton) and me an actual demonstration of what we’d been lectured about so many times before: how dangerous picture tubes can be to the eyesight, how easily they can explode, and therefore why we shouldn’t ever “tear around in the house.” My Uncle Bob had come into possession of a picture tube that was certifiably defunct and had been abandoned reluctantly into his hands by the bereaved owner of the doomed set it came from.

“I don’t want it setting around the shop taking up space,” Uncle Bob reasoned.

The picture tube in question sat on the workbench between the two men, a blind electronic eye plucked out for good and all.

My dad’s expression became boyishly mischievous. “Let’s take it out to the dump and blow it up.”

So the four of us piled into the cab of the pickup and drove off toward the city dump, the picture tube riding in the truck bed behind us like some strange nuclear device. My mother and aunt remonstrated unsuccessfully with both men to leave the children at home. Television was dangerous, not only because of its content (the story, probably apocryphal, of the little boy creeping up on his younger sister with a hammer because he’d seen it on the Three Stooges; the other story, probably equally apocryphal, of the little boy tearing around the house who slipped and fell headfirst through the plate glass face of the television and into the picture tube, causing an explosion and inflicting horrible disfiguring—and blinding, depending upon the source—permanent and tragic injuries upon himself. It was decided the cautionary value of the lesson vastly exceeded any immediate safety concerns, and anyway, Rondo and I each had a father and an uncle to look out for us once we got to the dump.

The dump smelled perpetually of burning garbage. As a boy, I liked the indecent smell. I still enjoy the heady memory of it. Thick black plumes of smoke rose into the night and across the face of the moon from glowing smoldering fires like untended Druid sacrifices atop the highest open, unregulated heaps. Uncle Bob sped along the humpbacked gravel road toward the gate.

“Hope it don’t blow up before we get it there.”

“Make a hell of a mess in the truck,” Uncle Bob agreed.

My dad and Uncle Bob sternly charged Rondo and me to stay in the truck cab with the windows rolled up while they slid the picture tube the length of the truck bed and over the tailgate, gingerly as the bomb squad. Then they lugged it between them a distance of about a hundred yards out and set it facing us on a rusted fifty-five gallon drum. Both men trotted eagerly back toward the truck and searched around for good-sized rocks to throw. When Rondo and I exited the cab, no one objected. It was an iron-man moment for all of us.

It was agreed that Uncle Bob, as possessor of the picture tube, would take the first pitch. “Hope you kids like fireworks,” he said. He wound up and let fly a fist-sized rock. I cringed with excitement and anticipation, not daring to stop my ears for the ground-shaking eye-popping explosion that was sure to follow, according to all I’d ever been taught to believe. Uncle Bob’s rock glanced off with a barely audible ‘tink.’

My father, the Modern Prometheus, determined to release the terrible genie from its prison, selected a fair-sized rock and stepped up to the makeshift pitcher’s mound of charred rubbish. He took his time rolling up his faded blue worksleeves. His arms and chest weren’t muscle-bound like Jasper Hahn’s, but sleeker, like an athlete’s. Maintaining a stance with all the drama—to Rondo and me—of an Olympic discus-thrower, he seemed to stare at the picture tube one last time as if in judgment for all the hours of snow, diagonal lines, and vertiginous vertical roll—not to mention banal, mind-insulting content—it and its Cyclops brothers had inflicted upon him. He stared for the length of a word from our sponsors, then pitched a fastball the picture tube never saw coming.

The rock found its mark, but the resulting ‘explosion’ proved to be a poor tinkling, mournful thing, like shattering a favorite Christmas ornament. Proud of my dad’s deadly aim, I lusted for more percussive power, more smoke, for twisted metal and shattering glass. It would be years before I’d find it.

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTHE LACE CURTAIN JAIL

 

For my first year at college I enrolled as an Undecided Freshman and wound up majoring in Beth Trajan. Beth Trajan seemed everything that Maggie Paderborn was not: a wickedly intelligent, liberated, arrogant and intensely desirable girl—woman, Beth would invariably correct me—from the Northern Suburbs. Beth wore only jeans and sweatshirts or jeans and t-shirts on campus, and nothing at all in our feverish couplings in my dorm room. Beth had a will as indomitable as the Viet Cong. Beth hated Nixon, so I hated Nixon. Beth opposed the war in Vietnam, so I opposed the war in Vietnam. Beth, a language major, read and studied The Population Bomb, so I read and studied The Population Bomb. Beth despised her parents, so I despised her parents, too. Beth believed that uninhibited sex liberated the soul; I couldn’t have agreed more. But the main dominating undeniable fact that doomed me to love Beth Trajan was that she had chosen me. Me, out of all the mid-length haired, denim-clad dorm-dwelling Undecided Freshmen swarming over the Northern Illinois University campus like temporarily liberated lab rats. Beth Trajan had chosen me as sex-partner, soulmate, and radical yes-man.

There were minor peccadilloes that did take some getting used to. For one, Beth did not believe in either deodorants or antiperspirants, for reasons of health and protecting the ozone layer; nor did she believe in frequent showering which, she warned, exposed one’s lungs, breasts, skin, testes and prostate, as the case might be, to a needless excess of chlorine gas.

“Why risk it?” she’d inquire with a straight face and direct gaze whenever I’d suggest, in the most diplomatically way possible, that showered cleanliness is next to godliness. “Chlorine gas plus heat equals chloroform, a deadly carcinogen. I don’t know about you, man, but I like my tits just the way they are, and I want to keep them that way, thank you very much.” To my way of thinking, a bit more wineskin heft and fullness would have been in order, but I held my tongue out of gratitude and the cheap thrill an eighteen-year-old finds in the novelty of hearing his girlfriend use four-letter words to describe her secondary sex characteristics. And, as I continually congratulated myself, I did have one tough girlfriend.

“My spirit is clean, man. Remember how I told you about that time I did a whole blotter of acid the summer after high school? My soul went out of my body and descended into like the garbage pit of the world, you know, where all the souls go who are trapped there by their own attitudes, their own hypocrisies, cowardices, and silences in the face of injustice. I realized that being clean on the outside is like a whited sepulcher, and that these trapped beings were like, all Young Republicans and Up with People assholes, you know, all clean and powdered and pimple-creamed and made up on the outside, but on the inside, whoa! I could actually see inside their hearts. Every heart was, like, totally full of bourgeois shit, racism and class hatred. You know, acquisitiveness and rape the earth kind of mentality, and if it takes a war on the other side of the world to do it, well, then, fuckin’ A.”

My eyes would fall as always to her olive drab FTA t-shirt, worn braless, where I’d stare as if searching for a suitable rebuttal between the frank outlines of her smallish breasts. The third or fourth showerless day one did have to brace oneself against being drawn up short by the oniony fetor—a smell like gamy baloney, which grew the more intense the more passionate the encounter—of her unshaven armpits. An anthropology prof of mine once opined in class that Australopithecus afarensis’s survival as a species may have had less to do with superior intelligence than with nose kryptonite body odor so foul as to rule out our ancient ancestors as desirable prey. Whatever its evolutionary origins, even in combination with scented candles, incense, funny cigarettes and olfactory fatigue, a few hours’ ‘visitation’ would render the atmosphere in my dorm room oppressive to the more sensitive, e.g., my computer-assigned roommate, who fled the startling pungency to cohabit almost exclusively with his own girlfriend in other quarters.

Another quirk of Beth’s was to refrain from washing her hair as a means of political protest, often for weeks a la Sylvia Plath or, on one occasion, even months at a time. After the 1968 Nixon election, her tannin-dark greasy tresses began a subtle peat bog evolution, thickening into dense ropes of silted vine and twisted roots long submerged, exuding the humus smell of new-turned soil or of a summer creekbed where stagnant water has pooled.

“So I realized that I could just discard all of that bourgeois shit in my own heart and leave it down there in the garbage pit with all those Nixon’s the One jagoffs and come up clean. I’ve been clean ever since. Pure in heart, pure in spirit. The body is only a vessel for the soul, man. You dig?”

“What about ‘Love thy neighbor?’” I protested, meek as a lamb.

“You need some lovin, man?” Beth’s bright eyes danced, belying her severe nun’s face behind those half-lens granny spectacles she wore to read. “That what you need, Wolfy? Why didn’t you say so?” Off came the granny glasses, the t-shirt and the rest. And what do you know; I did need some lovin’. Love was a drug for me in college, my drug of choice, and my pusher was Beth Trajan. Her undisguised body odor became for me a crude aphrodisiac, a pheromone attuned to my nose alone. After loving came cuddling and shallow sleep for both of us intertwined on the narrow twin mattress. I dreamed of being weightless; the mattress transformed itself into a magic carpet flying high over an immense auditorium where an angry screaming mob of Nixon’s the One jagoffs and Up With People assholes, their hearts all full of shit, clamored as one for me to be drafted.

“Time to make the march, Wolfy,” Beth was saying, fully awake, all dressed in denim and drab, tying her Nixon-natural hair with a bandanna.

“Is this march really necessary?” I groaned from the torpor of half-sleep.

“Is this war really necessary? Can’t let the bastards think we’re giving up.”

“But what about the Nixon Doctrine? Nixon says he’s going to pursue Vietnamization. Kissinger’s been having secret peace talks in Paris. They’re going to de-escalate.”

“Right, Wolfy. The war is over. Just not the killing.”

So off we went to join the other rag-tag denim-garbed revolutionaries outside the ROTC building.

Army ROTC: “Jarhead cadets with their little toy rifles and their spit-shined shoes marching up and down with cobs up their asses.” Beth would rave on and on by the hour about what fascist dupes they all were, volunteering for the chance to be commissioned second lieutenants and send poor blacks and poor whites to their deaths in a pointless and immoral war.

“I think ‘jarhead’ means a marine,” I tried gently correcting her.

“Army, Marines, they’re all a bunch of fascist pigs.”

I took up my sign like a cross—it read something unimaginative like “U.S. out of Vietnam”—and commenced circling the building, joining in chants led by Beth on her bullhorn. We couldn’t say, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” anymore, so the chants became “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win!” and “One, two, three, four, we don’t want no racist war!” ‘Racist’ alternated with ‘fucking.’ We shouted, “Hell, no, we won’t go!” “Make Love, not War!” (my own personal favorite) and, to show solidarity with our black brothers, “Power to the People, Right on!” It was only when Beth improvised “Burn, ROTC, Burn!” that two nervous campus cops stepped forward.

“All right, Miss. You’ve all had your fun. Now move along.”

Beth jerked her bullhorn hand away from the cop’s tentative grasp. ‘“Miss’? ‘Miss’? Did I hear you call me ‘Miss,’ Pig?”

One thing about Beth Trajan, she really knew how to provoke a confrontation. Maybe it came from years of living in a dysfunctional family. Two uniformed ROTC cadets stepped forward from the scattered crowd of curious onlookers. Beth addressed the taller of the two, a blond, acne-ravaged red-faced farm boy. “Hooah, soldier boy! Never get rich by diggin’ a ditch, right, lieutenant?” She leaned over and deliberately spat a loogie onto the gleaming toe of one of his already spit-shined shoes. The young cadet stared down in disgust and astonishment at her bubbling political statement. His companion lunged at Beth, snarling, “You dirty stinking hippie bitch!”

I couldn’t help myself. I leaped into the fray. You know what they say about a sudden adrenaline rush in a crisis giving you superhuman strength? They’re full of shit. Spit-shine let fly with a body-punch that knocked me flat on my ass; it was only the adventitious positioning of my elbows that prevented me whacking the back of my head on the concrete sidewalk. I realized too late that cadet training must have included daily calisthenics and free weights. A summer spent lounging around the house interspersed with routine yard chores and frequent lemonade breaks followed by a midterm of indolence, incense, freestyle hits from the bong and Beth’s ministrations hadn’t exactly hardened me for hand-to-hand combat. The other cadet’s rude insult rang in my ears: “You dirty stinking hippie bitch.”

Strange time to remember an old joke: Two Mexicans get in a fight. First Mexican tells the cops, “He called my seester a dirty steenking bitch. She ain’t dirty.”

I did remember one other thing: a jiu-jitsu move I’d learned from a booklet I’d sent away for in response to a comic book ad and in anticipation of fending off high school bullies. I’d built a mannequin opponent and practiced the maneuver by the hour in my bedroom until it had become second nature—practiced until my mother must have questioned my gender identity—but never attempted it on an actual human being before. Oncoming foe with arm raised, as with a club. Dodge left, extend right arm under foe’s arms and across his chest. Fall to left knee, with right knee form a sawhorse angle. Let foe’s momentum spin him around until he falls backwards over sawhorse. I stood up and gave Spit Shine the finger. “Hey Tarzan, climb this!”

 

 

Spit Shine looked positively eager to engage me once more. He broke into an accelerating run, raising his right fist again. Ducking the fist he’d aimed for my jaw, I slid my right arm under his armpit and across his chest full of medals. It took all my sex-sapped strength and all his righteously indignant forward impetus, but the move actually worked: I had him down on the ground.

What I’d failed to recall from the booklet was, what to do with your foe once he’s down? So I wailed away with my fists, screaming, “Leave her alone, asshole!” over and over until the cops pulled me off him. So beauteous was the radiance of Beth’s awestruck gaze of admiration and gratitude I barely heard one of the cops asking Spit Shine whether he wanted to press charges, mumbling something about mandatory expulsion.

“Fuck Yes!” Spit Shine replied, beaming. And that’s how I wound up in the DeKalb County jail.

 

 

Everything stank of the latrine. Inmate population about eighty percent black, remarkable in a town virtually pure Caucasian except for the University. Remembered bits of conversation with know-it-alls regarding blacks and their preferences: “they’ll” leave you alone if you’re a student; “they” like long hair and beards; “they” respect campus radicals. The first chow line a mountainous black gentleman cut ahead of me—slamming me into the bars in the process—before giving forth with an impromptu a cappela rendition of Hey There, Lonely Girl in a pretty good falsetto.

No need to push. Plenty of dry baloney sandwiches for everybody. Hard to eat with the puke and latrine smells bleeding through the disinfectant. But where was Beth with my bail? Dear Mom and Dad, Ruthie and Es: Feelin’ so lowdown in DeKalb County jail, ain’t no one to make my bail, big ol’ darkies commencin’ to wail, lost my head over a piece a’ tail.

One night passed, then a day, then another night. The evening’s repast of beanie weenie was more beanie than weenie. Big number ten cans of generic pork and beans barely warm, wedded with the occasional sliced hot dog on a tin compartment plate. And such small portions! The big black gentleman—whose name was Lawrence, by the way—reached his slobbery fork over and skewered a particularly choice morsel of hot dog from my plate, indifferent as that.

My radical compadres having failed to post my bond, the day of my initial court appearance rolled around, and I was outfitted in what amounted to black-and-white striped fleece pajamas in honor of the trip—standard couture for prisoners being transported. Six of us were each handcuffed in front, locked in ankle restraints, and then chained together single-file. I brought up the rear. The jail-issue drawstring pants I wore no longer had a functioning drawstring; I was swimming in them. The Lace Curtain Jail, so named during prohibition after Helena Dolder, Illinois’ only woman sheriff at the time, made her son Fritz chief deputy and put him up in a bedroom at the jail decorated with lace curtains.

The weather was so nice we decided to walk. Our destination was the DeKalb County Courthouse, a turn-of-the-century structure in Sycamore, Illinois. The courthouse building is of stone like a prison, with gargantuan fluted columns. Once I had been required to memorize the three types of capitals: Ionic, Doric and Corinthian, but these seemed to be some bastardized Midwestern hybrid of all three.

Shuffling down the stone corridor I first felt the breeze and heard the opening snickers and hoots behind me from the gauntlet of deadbeats, squatters, railers, brawlers, welchers, liars, stool pigeons, whiners, jagoffs (Chicago cityspeak for jackoffs), crybabies, loafers and gofers, maggots and faggots summoned to court that morning. The only deputy, at the front of the line and oblivious to my plight, seated us in the front row of the jury box. Out popped a bailiff from a heavy walnut door, followed swiftly by a tiny judge with robes flapping like a baby starling.

“All rise,” the bailiff intoned, his nose a shining avocado-textured marvel of red cobwebs. The judge took his seat on the bench, making him appear almost average height, but with the tiny white head seeming out of proportion. He looked like one of the old guys who got their hair cut at Thuringer Brothers. And he was staring straight at me. Or, more precisely, at my fully exposed and shame-shrunken penis and testicles, which moments ago had proven woefully inadequate as a hangar to hold my pants up. Lawrence’s soft voice wheezed a disdainful laugh: “Dude ain’t got no dick at all.”

I spread my knees trying to hold the elusive fabric against the flow of gravity. Bending forward, I dragged the cuffs over the waistband, hoping I could still somehow catch the waistband with my thumbs and pull my jail drawers up. I must have looked for all the world like a convict masturbating. Somewhere in the back a woman tittered. I hated her. It was hot in the courtroom for November, so much so that the one window air conditioner roared with the futility of the task of cooling the immense high-ceilinged sanctuary of justice, complete with stained-glass windows. A ten-point stained-glass star adorned the dome over our heads. One’s thoughts wandered to echoes of Lincoln and Douglas debating on the courthouse steps, to the ghosts of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan. The place smelled like an old library or a museum.

The judge stared down over the bench at me with opprobrium. “Will someone please pull that man’s pants up? This is a court of law, not a Turkish bath.”

The deputy sprang into action, circled the jury box, reached in and grabbed a handful of striped material and jerked upwards, until the waist felt about chest-high, hissing, “What the hell you think you’re doin’, long hair?” The indignity already seemed more than that to which I had subjected the ROTC officer, but I let that observation pass without comment.

“Bring the prisoner forward,” the judge commanded. The deputy fumbled for a key and unlocked the chain linking my cuffs with Lawrence’s, sneering, “Now you’re gonna get it.” There was a three-foot line of white tape about a yard away from the bench, presumably to prevent murderers and other maniacs from successfully lunging at the judge. I hit my mark like a veteran of the boards. Beth chose that moment to enter the courtroom, flanked by two fellow radical freaks: Shauna O’Farrell and Danny “Arlo” LaVine, the latter wearing a road poet’s broadbrimmed hat so as to maximize whatever natural resemblance he shared with his nicknamesake. The three edged forward through the crowd.

“Wendell, restore order,” the judge instructed the bailiff as soon as he spotted the three outsiders. Something about their dress and demeanor instantly set them apart, spelled insubordination and anarchy to the judge’s fine-honed distant early warning detectors. His predecessors had probably so viewed members of the Driscoll Gang. Shauna’s t-shirt bore what initially appeared to be a work of op art, a peculiar trompe-l’oeil effect where seeming random lines and shapes proceed impudently to coalesce into first a vaguely paramecium shape rounded with guard hairs, then realigning themselves and leaping forth in the unmistakably rude image of wide-open labia minora and majora before one’s wondering and wandering eyes. Arlo sported a Trojans t-shirt under his trademark buckskin vest.

“Find a seat in front,” Wendell shouted, a patronage bulldog waiting for his pension so that he could at last drink all day in peace. All three freaks sat together behind me and to my left in the front row of the spectators’ section.

Wendell hollered, “And take off that hat.” Not since grade school had I heard anyone being ordered to remove his hat. Arlo laconically obliged, shaking his head and unfurling his luxuriant hair, long tresses falling to below his clavicles. Wendell grimaced with disgust. His own haircut looked identical to the one featured in a framed pen drawing that had hung above the top rack of Vitalis, Fitch, Stephan’s, Jeris, Woodbury and Wildroot bottles in Thuringer Brothers for as long as I could remember.

Spotting me watching my friends, he barked, “Turn and face the Court.” I chose to disobey, and continued to gaze at Beth, who had selected a particular t-shirt for the occasion: a satiric takeoff on the familiar Mr. Peanut advertisements featuring a taut-headed Mr. Penis doffing his hat without being told. When the t-shirt’s significance registered on Wendell, he became flustered and added, “And take off that t-shirt.” Beth shrugged.

“I said turn and face the Court,” Wendell growled. This time I did, afraid he might bite. Behind me I heard a rising cacophony of sound. Women excitedly clucking and gasping through pursed lips, men grunting and laughing, one or two high-pitched nervous squeals and an indignant elderly huff of: “Oh, for pity’s sake!”

“Deputy, seize that young woman! She is in direct contempt of this Court!”

Wendell, flustered, his blazing face turning a darker shade of lobster, shambled over to Beth and stood with his uniformed arms at his sides, averting his eyes and complaining, “Cover those up right now. You’re acting like an animal.”

“You told me to take it off, pig!” Beth sneered, raising her arms above her head in mock surrender and in the process waggling her tiny bare breasts undefended in his averted face, rosebud nipples erect with confrontation. “I’m just following orders!” I knew then that Wendell’s first one of the day was going to be a triple.

Not to be outdone, Shauna joined Beth in topless protest, shedding her splayed-beaver t-shirt and crossing her arms, less from false modesty than a desire to buoy up her plentiful soft-as-jellyfish charms for optimal exposure, twiddling her fingers at shoulder level like a thalidomide baby. Arlo topped everybody when he dropped trou, did an about-face, touched his toes and mooned the judge.

The crowd was out of control by this time, women stalking out while men freely left their seats for a closer mouth-gaping look at Beth and Shauna, who by now had lost all of their laundry and were swaying closed-eyed in a silent Woodstock trance ballet. Coffee-jonesed and lacking sleep and a shower, I hated the men for enjoying the sight of my nude girlfriend like freeloading country-bumpkin assholes at the county fair poking their heads under the girlie show tent flap. Hadn’t mandatory perfect attendance at earth rallies, peace rallies, feminist rallies, free-speech rallies, anti-war marches, anti-Johnson marches, anti-Nixon marches, abortion-repeal marches, ERA marches, sit-ins in solidarity with the Black panthers, candlelight vigils for slain Black Panthers, shoulder-to-shoulder with Chicago ghetto blacks whom I dared never admit finding a little scary, sing-in’s to protest gender-segregated want ads in the DeKalb Chronicle, smoke-in’s by the lagoon, save the whales, save the dolphins, save the snail darter, save the SDS, the fact that I had or would read both Seize the Time and Sexual Politics cover-to-cover, not to mention endless cross-legged discussions comparing the relative ideological merits of Flo Kennedy and Ti-Grace Atkinson earned me the more-or-less exclusive right to admire Beth in a state of deshabille?

The crowd of men pressed closer—leucocytes in a feeding frenzy gathering in for the kill around two enticing foreign microbes. Perhaps what drives the body’s whole immune system is nothing more than a strange mating dance where microphages, macrophages, and lymphocytes crowd and swarm around each tasty new pathogenic morsel and love it to death. All I could taste was the blood-metallic urgent tang of danger on my tongue, but the ladies just kept on dancing. That Wendell and the nameless deputy from the Lace Curtain Jail could not restore order had to be obvious to everyone by now. Seeming to sense that undeniable fact, some of the more aggressive macrophages pulled their hands out of their pockets and started reaching for tits. With that, Arlo jacked up his pants and swam against the crowd for the door. Beth and Shauna followed, clutching their clothes, pursued by the whole accumulation of neutrophils dying of disappointment. Beth paused at the courtroom doors only long enough to turn and offer the judge and his assemblage a raised-fist Power to the People salute before sprinting down the winding staircase to freedom. The furuncle ruptured and the harmful bacteria fled, never to be apprehended or charged. The DeKalb Chronicle’s Sunday supplement headline read: Disorder in the Court—Bra Burners Provoke Near-riot.

Order more or less restored by the mass exodus of men from the courtroom, the judge turned again to me. “What’s your name, son?”

“Johnny Wolfe, sir.”

“You refer to me as ‘Your Honor,” son. Not ‘sir.’ You’re not in the Army. Not yet, that is. Not quite yet.” The judge seemed to share a private joke at that with Wendell and the jail deputy.

“Johnny Wolfe, then. Your Honor.”

“Just what in the hell did you think you were doing a moment ago? By the way, did you happen to recognize any of the three young hooligans who instigated the contumacious disturbance in here this morning? I assume you know to whom I’m referring?”

“Yes, sir, I mean, Your Honor. That is, I know who you’re talking about, but I don’t know them,” I lied.

“Don’t know them, or can’t identify them?”

“Both, Your Honor, sir.”

“Or won’t identify them?” The judge adopted a curmudgeon’s chary grimace and held it for a count of thirty. From my angle, he looked like a shrinky-dink version of Lionel Barrymore. Finally he said, “Very well, then. But if I ever find out that you have misrepresented any of these facts to the court, young man, things will go very hard with you. Very hard indeed.”

Whether it was the excitement and guilty anticipation of punishment, Beth and Shauna’s unintentionally erotic exhibition or the long-unrequited urge to urinate, I began to feel an unbidden yet familiar growth process rising between my legs. They say the fear of humiliation is closely linked in brain chemistry to the desire for humiliation. That plus the walk from the jury box and the effects of gravity over friction caused my pants to choose that exact moment in time to drop, exposing a discourteous burgeoning whanger for His Honor’s approbation. Whatever else it got me, I had finally earned Lawrence’s respect: he snickered and cheered, “All right!” stamping his shackled feet in the jury box.

Lionel Barrymore of the bench did a world-class slow burn before responding: “Young man, I could find you guilty on the spot of public indecency and/or direct contempt of this Court and sentence you to up to six months in the county jail. The penalty for public indecency in the State of Illinois is up to one year in the county jail. However, to sentence you to the maximum might require delays such as scheduling a jury trial and appointing a public defender. If I urge the State’s Attorney to charge you with public indecency, rest assured you will have the right to a trial by jury, at which you will have the right to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”

It sounded to me like he considered it a foregone conclusion but I began nodding with each sentence he uttered. He read as though he were ticking them off a cheat sheet.

“You will have the right to an attorney and, if you cannot afford one, to have an attorney appointed to assist you without charge. At trial, you will have the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses and to subpoena witnesses to testify in your behalf. Do you understand the admonitions I am giving you?”

I nodded.

“You must answer audibly for the court reporter.”

The court reporter, a portly lady of about sixty-five, here uttered an involuntary huff at her mere mention.

“Yes, Your Honor.” I nodded more forcefully, so that my member almost imperceptibly began to join in with its own pensive nod.

“And pull that man’s pants up, Wendell.”

“But, Your Honor…” Wendell balked at this latest perceived indignity.

“Wendell. Do your duty. I’ve already suffered three eloped contemnors from my courtroom this morning. I will not abide a fourth.”

So Wendell swaggered forward dragging his feet, disdainfully grasped the sagging waistband of my jail-issue accoutrements, pulled it well wide of my eloping contemnor, and brought the pants up to my navel with what was intended as a snap, but what the ruined elastic reduced to a flutter. My erection appeared even bigger and more intimidating draped in those loose-fitting striped stretch fabric pants. I half-expected the judge to order Wendell to pull them back down.

“Moreover, you will have the right to refrain from testifying if you choose not to do so, and the prosecutor may not comment on any such refusal or argue it in the presence of the jury. You will have the right to appeal an adverse verdict and to have an attorney appointed to assist you in that appeal if you cannot afford one. Do you understand all these rights as I have explained them to you?”

“Yes, Your Honor. But may I say something?”

“You may. But perhaps you are unfamiliar with the truism: ‘He who represents himself has a fool for a client’?” The judge beamed as though hearing it himself for the first time.

“Well, Judge, Your Honor, I just want to say that the whole thing was an accident. They issued me these clothes that don’t fit and the elastic’s shot and there’s no drawstring to hold them up and the underwear they handed me was about twelve sizes too big and felt like canvas and stained to boot, and they wouldn’t let me wear my own, so—”

“I see,” the Judge interrupted, the soul of sarcasm. He leaned back in his wing-backed leather-bound chair, still looking at me. “I’m going to do you an inestimable favor, young man. I’m going to educate you, as it is obvious to me that the University has failed you in its higher mission. I’m going to instill in you some insight into character and duty, to make you aware of a phenomenon that it has been my displeasure to observe all too frequently over the course of my thirty-odd years on the bench—a common characteristic that can readily be observed in every criminal defendant, in every scofflaw, in every deadbeat and in every drunkard it has been my misfortune to have stand before me day after day, year after year in this courtroom. The common plea is this: ‘Everything is somebody else’s fault.’”

I cringed. Then I realized that the more he wanted to chew, the more lenient he might prove to be after all.

“‘I came from a broken home and so I’m a philanderer. My family was poor and so I steal. Life dealt me a losing hand and so I’m a loser. My job was too hard so I quit. My boss, teacher, spouse, you name it, didn’t understand me so I beat them up. I’m an alcoholic’—there’s the biggest one, all-time winner of the popularity contest in the excuse department, year after year—an all-purpose defense. ‘I missed my court date because I thought it was next week. I didn’t pay my fines because I thought the clerk would write and remind me. I thought the light was green. I thought the girl was eighteen. I thought, I thought, I thought.’ Do you know, can you possibly appreciate the exquisite irony a judge like me finds in the simple two-word phrase ‘I thought’ when it represents a patent and transparent falsehood, or when it falls from the lips of so many for whom the assertion itself constitutes a practical impossibility?” The judge shook his tiny head with resignation.

“So as to you, Mr., …Mr., ah, Wolfe, is it?” He hesitated, finally looking down at my file where it sat on top of a respectable stack of manila folders recounting the misdeeds of other miscreants, “I am not impressed at all with your excuses. And I am further convinced, after having carefully reviewed the police report of the underlying disgraceful behavior that resulted in your arrest and brought you here as a defendant, as well as my observations of your demeanor in my courtroom today, that all of your misconduct shows every likelihood of having directly and proximately resulted from your infatuation with a female. In all probability an injudicious, impulsive and reckless infatuation I might add, although that would seem to be radiantly apparent in view of your current circumstances. I am almost but not entirely certain that the young woman who forms the object of your infatuation is the same one who shamefully committed an open, egregious and insolent breach of the decorum and dignity of this Court this very morning. The cute brunette one, I mean, the one with the glasses. It seemed to me that I noticed the two of you exchanging what I would characterize as ‘knowing glances.’ However, as there remains a scintilla of uncertainty regarding this latter finding of fact, I cannot disregard my sworn duty to uphold the law and Constitution. I therefore give you the benefit of the doubt as to your connivance and complicity in this morning’s lamentable ignominy.”

Was he trying to impress the court reporter that he could swallow the dictionary and puke it back up for her? I pictured the two of them in chambers, her sidling up to him asking spellings for this and that. Then the clinch. But the judge had more sage advice for me, it seemed.

“You are going to find, Mr. Wolfe, that you will have to pay dearly for every last piece of feminine pulchritude you choose to enjoy in this life. Every last piece.” The phrase reverberated in my head like some déjà vu flashback. “As evidence of the high price you might be required to pay is the fact that you are currently charged before this court with offenses carrying penalties up to and including penitentiary time.”

Goodbye, white cross, black beauties, all-nighters and final exams; goodbye, Boone’s Farm Wild Mountain-fueled evening blow jobs by the lagoon; goodbye hot chloroform showers and Right Guard fluorocarbon spray can deodorant; goodbye Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, Steppenwolf, Jim Morrison, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Stones, Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin; goodbye twenty-dollar lids of home-grown; goodbye Beth Trajan. Was I like Emily in Our Town? Had my life up until now been too wonderful to realize?

The judge started talking faster, suddenly in a hurry as though embarrassed by the words he was about to say, and hoping they might pass unnoticed by the electorate: “I hereby find you guilty of direct contempt of this Court and sentence you to serve the term of six months in the county jail, credit for time served, balance of sentence suspended. Now, Mr. Wolfe, you have a decision to make. I have the power to refer this matter over to the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s office for preferral of charges against you for public indecency, and I am prepared to arraign you on the original aggravated battery charge. I have already given you most of the requisite admonitions. However, if you will plead guilty today to the charge of public indecency, a Class ‘A’ misdemeanor, I will sentence you to a second term of six months’ imprisonment in county jail to run concurrently, also reduced to time served. Finally, and this is so I will not have to see you again in my courtroom on any of these charges, I will sentence you to a term of non-reporting probation on the pending charge of aggravated battery, which is a felony, but upon which I shall sentence you leniently, tantamount to the usual penalty for a misdemeanor or simple battery, for the purpose of this plea bargain only. All sentences of imprisonment to run concurrently, all sentences suspended except for time served.”

The judge here slowed his delivery. “I’m doing you an enormous favor, Mr. Wolfe, mainly because I sense in you a promising, albeit presently misguided, intelligence.”

After a compliment like that, who wouldn’t have leaped at the judge’s deal and pled guilty? I certainly did, if only to get out of those jail rags and back with Beth. The judge then rattled off something about motions and appeal rights, but I wasn’t listening. My thoughts had wandered to Beth’s arms and Beth’s charms.

“Oh, and there’s just one more condition imposed, Mr. Wolfe,” the judge added, almost as an afterthought.

“What’s that, Your Honor?”

“Get a haircut.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVENSTICKING AROUND FOR THE FIREWORKS

 

 

The paperwork took only a few minutes; the bored clerk stamped the orders in triplicate with third world indifference, handing me the faint goldenrod carbon of each. The haircut took even less time; I found a Sycamore, Illinois counterpart to Thuringer Brothers, peeked in, met the idle barber’s eager glance but elected to wait for a more propitious time. As the judge would have said, “I thought” no one would bother to check whether I’d complied.

The walk back to DeKalb from Sycamore is a long one; “I thought” I needed it to clear my head. Along the way “I thought” about Beth Trajan. “I thought” how odd it seemed, how much an unreality, a “bad trip” to use the jargon of the era, that I should find myself on a Friday before noon trudging back to the dormitory in my Cat Stevens hat and denim clothes from three days ago, the contents of my pockets from three days ago, my wallet with eight dollars, driver’s license, social security card, draft card and college ID, my room key and the key to my parents’ house, and of course folded-up copies of my latest acquisition: my court papers. “I thought” no one in my family would ever know about this ignominious episode in my life, just as “I thought” no one in my family knew anything about Beth Trajan and our radical, drug-driven escapades.

I made downtown DeKalb at about one, the dorm twenty minutes later. Stevenson South’s familiar cigarette smoke and cafeteria aroma welcome hit me in the face like a bar towel as soon as I opened the tower door. Crossing the lobby, I checked the mailbox. My mother had written; her letters arrived faithfully every Friday. I barely responded once every midterm, usually with a plea for money. Unable to bear news from home, I shamefacedly stuffed the letter in my pocket opposite the court papers and made for the elevator to the eighth floor.

An overpowering perfume of incense filled the hall with sandalwood and myrrh. As soon as my key rattled in the lock, I heard anxious muffled sounds inside. The door dragged when I opened it; a wet rolled-up towel. An azure haze of smoke obscured the three befogged occupants of my room: Beth, Shauna and Arlo, passing the bong around. Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos personified. The Stones’ Street Fightin’ Man blasted from Beth’s stereo speakers so loud the floor vibrated.

Beth said, “Heeeey! Home from gaol and back to the streets. Right on!” Arlo unsteadily rose to his feet, lumbered over and gave me a freak brothers handshake, then a bear hug. Seated in the lotus position on my mattress, Panama Red-eyed Shauna beamed at me. Beth ran and jumped into my arms, hanging from my neck and shoulders and drawing her legs tight around my back. “Missed you Baby. You miss me?”

I kissed her, tasting the bitterness of the smoke on her tongue, then set her down on the twin bed opposite mine. “Like, bail would have been nice, you know?”

“Awwww, cool out, Wolfy. I made the rounds, but everybody was, like, tap city, you dig?”

“Tap city,” Arlo croaked without exhaling, eddies of smoke twirling out of his nostrils and the corners of his girlish mouth. Arlo’s laissez-faire quest for a B.S. degree had managed to narrow the seven liberal arts—the philosopher’s curriculum—to one: a poly sci course he usually cut.

“What about your folks?”

As soon as I said it, I knew it was stupid. Beth stared at me, incredulous. “You expect me to go to Roger and Donna? Ask them for bread, man?” Roger and Donna were Beth’s much-maligned parents, who lived in a suburb as far north of Chicago as you could move and still be rich and cool, a suburb off the lake with rolled lawns, maids, gardeners, mutually restrictive covenants and ‘Forest’ in its name. Roger Trajan was scion of a family that made its pile owning a factory now into manufacture of something called “bag powder canisters” essential to the Vietnam War effort. Beth considered it blood money, and therefore refused to ask for or accept financial help from her parents other than her room and board, car insurance, tuition and fees, clothing allowance and monthly stipend that she considered her daughterly due.

“Take a hit, man.”

“All I’m going to hit is the shower,” I said, turning down Shauna’s invitation, her bong hand outstretched.

“Hey, we showed those pigs, didn’t we Momma?” Beth made a Power to the People salute and a slow rendition of that freak brothers Keep on Truckin’ walk. Zap Comix, Rip Off Comix, Dr. Atomic Comix, Feds & Heads Comix, R. Crumb, Frank Frazetta, Victor Moscosso, Gilbert Shelton and Vaughn Bode all were important elements in Beth’s cultural life. I grabbed my gym bag, some clean clothes and headed down the hall for the communal shower room. Beth called after me.

“Three minutes, no more, ok? And don’t inhale, Baby. That chloroform is some bad shit.”

“So is THC.”

That brought her out into the hall after me. I kept walking, feeling her eyes on my back, sorry they weren’t teary from missing me. I couldn’t stay mad at her for even this long, but wanted to pretend to be mad so she knew how I felt. I’d wanted her ever since we’d kissed in the room. Hell, I’d wanted her every day and night in the Lace Curtain Jail. I’d wanted her all the while Lawrence was helping himself to my beanie weenie. And I wanted her now most of all.

She followed me into the shower room where a longhaired bearded shirtless young man twisted before one of the sink mirrors, examining the pimples on his back. The yellow tiles and fluorescent lighting made them appear lab-stained purple.

“I understand. Jail’s no fun, huh? I dig. I do dig, you know.”

“The Jesuits have a saying: ‘The devil you dig is never as bad as the devil you don’t dig.’”

“You turning Catholic on us, Wolfy?”

“I’m saying you don’t dig until you’ve really been there.”

“You’re underestimating the faculty of imagination. Plus I have been there. Remember last term?”

“A field trip to Joliet-Stateville penitentiary with your Intro to Sociology class doesn’t qualify you as experienced,” I said, flashing on the Hendrix poster she’d pinned to the bare wall in my room when she’d moved in—Are You Experienced? “Besides, all the men there did was ogle and hit on the women, you told me. It was mainly a good way to get your ego stroked, if you ask me.”

“What’s happening with your ego, Wolfy? Need some stroking yourself, maybe?”

The longhaired young man gave up and left with his pimples. Maybe he’d heard her and gotten the point. For the time being, we had the shower room to ourselves. In honor of my homecoming, Beth managed to overlook her aversion to chlorine and showered with me, even her hair. Roger and Donna’s prodigal daughter and I made head-swirling love embracing there in the shower. How I loved her! Afterwards, she turned down so much as one spritz of my deodorant, and looked on with disdain while I sprayed my pits. I loved watching her towel off, bracing herself with one foot on the bench, then towel drying and shaking out that mane of newly washed hair. She wore my robe and a towel turban back to the room. Consigning my jail-contaminated clothes to the bathroom garbage, I strode down the hall and re-entered my room naked. Nobody noticed. Arlo was trying to explain some abstruse theory of stoned physics to Shauna, and she was trying to get what he was rapping about.

“Like, the Universe is only what it is in this moment of Time. By the time I say those words, and the time it takes the synapses of your brain to grasp what I just said, that Universe is gone and an entire new Universe takes its place in a flash. It’s like points on a graph—between every two points there’s a third, and so on to infinity.”

Shauna, rapt and stoned, nodded. “Infinity. Yeah, man.”

“So, like, these new Universes are going by faster than frames in a movie, because the Time between each frame is nonexistent because it’s infinitely small, dig? But at the same time there’s a whole Universe in between those other two Universes that go by for an infinitely short—can’t say Time, because it doesn’t exist, right? There’s no room for it to exist because there’s a Universe at that point, and another Universe next to it, and a third Universe between the two of them, and on and on. So, like, there’s no such thing as Time, you dig? It’s an illusion.”

Shauna said, “Wow!” with infinite calm as though the Space-Time Continuum had slowed to pick up another passenger. Arlo Einstein had just unlocked the secrets of the cosmos for her. Then out of her incipient smoke paranoia a corollary emerged.

“Who would stand to benefit the most from conning and deceiving the People that Time exists, even though we both know it really doesn’t?” When Arlo didn’t immediately rise to her point, she explained, wide-eyed with discovery: “The Bosses, right? Right?”

“Yeah, so?” Arlo, slow and querulous. He knew Shauna’s politics and her exceptional susceptibility to drug paranoia and smoke terrors.

“So. Like, social conditioning makes everybody believe that there is such a thing as Time, from the cradle to the grave. The one o’clock feeding, the three o’clock feeding, the five o’clock feeding. Diaper change, diaper change, diaper change. Nine to five jobs, eight to six jobs, four to twelve jobs, seven to seven jobs. What do they all have in common? Come in one minute late and you’re fired, that’s what. Ten o’clock class, eleven o’clock class, one o’clock class, don’t be late or we’ll mark you tardy. And they’re always showing you clocks. Clocks are everywhere, you ever notice that? We aren’t born with a natural sense of Time, because Time isn’t natural at all: we have to have it drummed and drilled into us. Remember how hard it was to learn how to tell time in school? But they still made us learn it, didn’t they? They still made us learn it.” Shauna shook her head sadly with the bitter realization of it all.

“But who controls social conditioning? The Bosses, see? And why?”

“I—I don’t know, man.”

“Because why does a worker sell his labor in the first instance? Leisure time, that’s why. It’s because he believes that while he’s on the job doing mind-numbing, soul-killing work that makes his Boss rich, he can put his mind on automatic pilot and ignore the horrors of exploitation as long as he thinks there’s an end to it. The five o’clock whistle blows and he goes home to enjoy what he perceives as his Leisure Time, which doesn’t exist either, according to your theory, right?”

“Right.” Arlo stroked his invisible beard thoughtfully. You could tell he was beginning to suspect that Shauna was onto something here. “So Time’s a big jack job perpetrated by the Bosses to subjugate the Masses? That’s heavy, man. Heavy.”

“Right on. It’s a righteous rip-off. Because while the worker thinks he’s home enjoying his leisure time, he’s really still stuck in some stinking factory. In a sense.”

“He’s stone deluded. Hypnotized.” I was reasonably sure Arlo had never seen the inside of a factory or performed any other job, for that matter.

“Everything the Bosses do is calculated to exploit the Masses,” Beth agreed. “The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to let some fascist ROTC pig put Wolfy here in gaol without doing anything about it?”

“I pled guilty.”

“You WHAT!?” Beth’s outrage colored her face more than the smoke or our recent activities.

“The judge offered me a plea bargain, I guess it was, and I took it. I couldn’t spend even one more hour in that jail. All I have to do is report to my probation officer once, they said.”

“YOU aren’t going to report to any of those pigs.”

“Beth—”

“No! Don’t you see what’s happening here? By pleading guilty you’re implicitly granting legitimacy to their corrupt political system. You’re allowing yourself to become a lackey collaborator. Look at the Chicago Seven. They didn’t kowtow to the military-industrial complex. They stood up for their rights as human beings and made a farce of the trial. They know the whole world is watching. Do you know what a golden opportunity you just lost for the Movement? For all of us?”

“I didn’t notice you sticking around for the fireworks.”

“That’s different. That was just a little street theater diversion, brought indoors. And you could have escaped with us.”

“Yeah, right. With me wearing leg irons, handcuffs and striped pajamas. Plus they have my name and address from the file.”

“Names and addresses can be changed.”

“Like, how? I’m a sophomore chem major in college here. How’m I supposed to show up one day and say, howdy, my name’s Running Bear, I live in the park, I have no social security number or student ID, but I’m here to take my final exams?”

“So instead you’re going to sell out, take your funky little college chem B.S. degree and go whistling off to work for a guy like Roger?”

“You work for Roger?” Shauna, her paranoia now going full-blast, let her voice tweak ever higher in panic. “What are you going to do to us, man? Bust us for smoking? What did you put in this bowl? I SAW YOUR FUCKING HANDS GO IN THIS BOWL, ASSHOLE! Don’t deny it!”

“Be cool, Shauna. Be cool.”

“He works for Roger! He put something in there to rot our brains! Look at his fucking teeth, man.”

“What about his teeth, Babe?”

“He has teeth like a fucking wolf. THAT’S WHY THEY CALL HIM WOLFE!”

“His name is Wolfe. Johnny Wolfe.”

“Bullshit! That’s just what he wants he wants us to think!”

“What’s he gonna do, eat us?” Arlo chuckled. In response, Shauna screamed in absolute terror, a Fay Wray leather-lunged siren of a scream.

“Shit, she’s gonna bring down the R.A.,” I said.

“What’s he gonna do, eat us?” Beth laughed. She loved getting in authority’s face and snapping its balls with a rolled-up towel. Roger and Donna Trajan’s prodigal daughter. Oh, how I loved her!

The bad news kept leaking out: photos of the My Lai massacre plastered all over Life magazine’s December 5, 1969 issue; ugly rumors of bombing runs on Laos and Cambodia. Then one fine April 1970 day I was called down to the front desk to sign for a registered letter. Official NIU stationary from the Dean of Students. I scanned it, my heart racing, picking up only a few key phrases. Regret to inform you. University Rules of Conduct. Striking or threatening to strike another student absolutely prohibited. Crimes of moral turpitude. State court proceedings. Guilty plea to felony irrefutable proof. Dispense with the need for an academic administrative hearing. Vacate all state-supported premises without delay. Expelled.

Evening found me still walking alone across campus. I had wandered for hours after reading and re-reading the letter. Until that letter I hadn’t realized how much of my whole identity had been wrapped up in NIU: its class schedules, its labs, its libraries—at nineteen one’s identity is an unstable compound at best. My mother last year, uncharacteristically wide-eyed and stern, warning me of the dangers of combat: “Why do you think they draft eighteen and nineteen-year-olds? Because eighteen and nineteen-year-olds do what they’re told. The older ones hand them a gun and send them out into the jungle to die halfway around the world.” These were her now-perfectly-reasonable fears that I would be drafted, maimed or killed in Vietnam.

I had discouraged visits from my parents, fearing their disapproval of my impossible-to-conceal living arrangements with Beth, and her probable negative reaction to my folks. Now I deeply regretted that reticence. My folks were certainly closer to Beth’s own values than Roger and Donna were, and a whole lot poorer. Mom and Dad might not be communists, but they believed in the labor movement, and unlike my radical cohorts, could talk sense to you about John L. Lewis, George Meany and Walter Reuther, and all about the bloody history of the labor movement: the Molly McGuires, the Knights of Labor, the Pullman Strike, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, the Bread and Roses Strike, and the Ford Service goon squad at River Rouge. My mother would nod in mute agreement while my dad cursed the Taft-Hartley Act at the dinner table. Union meetings every Monday night; union picnics every summer, a second Labor Day where we’d run sack races, swim in the Fox river and sing songs like Solidarity Forever and Which Side Are You On? until they brought tears to our eyes. Here were a people, my people, to whom I truly belonged by birth and blood. My dad in a speech outdoors to the local membership quoting Eugene V. Debs’s stirring words: “While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison I am not free!”

Well, I told myself, maybe I was through doing what I was told. When I cut through the student center, there was Old Big Brother Nixon on all three channels. Freaks were calling for everyone to take it to the streets. The Cambodian Invasion had officially begun: it was now on American television.

Beth weathered my expulsion rather well. She immediately found us a crash pad that same day—a funky old house filled with assorted freaks, dropouts and burnouts, nicknamed the “Roach Hotel.” Shauna and Arlo made the leap in honor of my expulsion, too; they officially checked into the Roach Hotel as a couple. Rent was whatever you could afford whenever you could afford it: the house had been inherited by a self-styled “Digger” named Ray who from loneliness, horniness or whatever motivation liked to get next to freaks like us. The house was Ray’s only visible means of support, drugs and tenants’ companionship his only solace. There were no locks on any of the bedrooms or bathroom; all the keyholes except the front and back doors had been drilled away. The only bathroom was on the first floor. No shower, only a clawfoot tub, which you could use provided you made prior arrangements with Ray to unclip the jerryrigged chicken wire and two-by-four cover and temporarily evict his pet iguana, Tiger Lily, from her quarters. I preferred the two-mile hike to the field house, where you didn’t need a college ID to use the showers. Better than scooping out Tiger Lily’s alfalfa-green saurian shit, rinsing the tub and running a bath with her skittering around on the tiles.

“Hey,” Beth said conspiratorially, shaking a plastic baggie filled with at least two lids of alfalfa-green veggie matter. “Cuban. Really.” Producing Zig Zag rolling papers—no off-brands for Roger and Donna’s little girl—she expertly fashioned a Monte Cristo-sized smoke, saying: “El cigarro es muy grande, la fortaleza de La Habana. Cleopatra rolled in a carpet.” She fired up, breathed in a soulful drag and passed it to me.

Having smelled the smoke, a mooching Smokey the Bear soon honored us with an unanticipated visit that first evening: Ray, our host. A ruined shell of a man, he wore a two-year’s span of unkempt beard growth. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey, Man! You got a cool crash pad here!” Beth replied, in that too-loud voice we reserve for the stone deaf and the mildly retarded.

“Hey!” Ray repeated after a couple of beats to a music only he could hear.

“Like, hey, Ray. What’s happening, Man? Want a hit?”

Ask a dog if he wants to go for a walk. Ray’s red eyes glinted out from under half-mast lids. His lips managed to form a simpering smile under droopy handlebar moustache. Everything about Ray was out from under. Hell, yes, he wanted a hit. “You got to know the feelin’,” he said rhythmically, jerking his body in mute accompaniment.

“Yeah, man,” Beth shouted. “You got that right. You got to know the feelin’. Right on, man. Looks like you already got the feelin’, Raymond, my man.”

“Don’t call me Raymond,” Ray warned, his expression suddenly dark and menacing. “My fuckin’ old man always called me Raymond.”

“OK, Ray, that’s cool, Ray. Don’t get hacked, man. Cool out, you know?”

Beth passed him the J. Ray cooled out. “Rockin’ and a’ reelin’,” he said. He dragged it down by about half in a single hit, holding in the smoke for so long I expected it to toot out both his ears. Instead, a wet Rorschach pattern began to form on the fly of his faded jeans. Seemingly oblivious to his faux pas, he repeated “Hey,” before leaving the room.

“Hang loose, Ray,” Beth called out after him, acknowledging his abrupt departure. “Didja ever in your life see anybody as loose as that jockey? God, this is like, so real and cool,” she raved, flopping down on one of the mattresses on the floor of the living room where, sharing with Shauna and Arlo, we’d be keeping house. “This’ll be our bunker where we’ll plan our counterattack.”

“What counterattack?”

“It’s coming down, man. The final shit’s all coming down. Wicked King Dick has escalated, so we gotta escalate, too. The end time is at hand. The Days of Rage. The Days of Vengeance. Wonder what’s happening with the rads up in Mad? Madison’s gotta be on fire right now. Wisconsin’s burning down.” Her bright eyes behind the granny glasses caught the glow of the ancient orange candelabra fixture.

“Man, I hate it when you go airhead on me,” I said. “It happens every time you smoke.”

“Who’s going airhead? It’s a natural high, Wolfy. Can’t you feel it, too? I feel it in my fingers,” she sang, “I feel it in my toes.”

“All I feel is two years of tough-ass chem major courses with practically straight A’s gone straight to hell.”

“You oughta thank the bastards, Wolfy. They liberated you to devote full time to the Movement. There’s going to be a major riot, you know. It’s happening, and you’re going to be right in the center of it. Plus, you possess invaluable skills.”

“Such as?”

She shot me a crafty look. “Every revolution needs its mad bomber.”

“Hey,” I replied softly, “Come on.”

“All you have to do is to take one of your familiar boring little evening constitutional strolls into Faraday Hall, when there’s nobody left inside except some graduate student wrestling with his ennui while trying to crack the atom or get a research grant from Dow Chemical, and then when he or she goes on potty break you slip into the lab-OR-a-tor-y, pinch us a little smidge of this and a little dash of that—you know what ingredients we’ll need for our recipe—and stroll out again. And then BOOM! Bye bye ROTC building. Bye bye Vietnam War. Simple, n’est-ce pas?”

“Beth, you’ve got the wrong guy here.”

“Have I, Wolfy? Have I got the wrong guy here?” She reached across the mattress and stroked me between my legs, watching my expression and lingering where it felt the best. “Somehow I don’t think so.” She stopped, got up and crossed to the front door. She worked the antique push-button switch and put out the light.

After our coupling I lay next to her in the dark, thinking. I stared at the phosphorescent eye of the push-button light switch until it became the fading polestar in the center of an extinguished picture tube. Household and laboratory chemical candidates danced a molecular roundelay inside my head: raw sulfur, picric acid, a couple of bags of nitrate fertilizer as an oxidizer, gallon of diesel, ammonium powder, sulfuric and nitric acid, pure glycerin, acetone nail polish, hydrogen peroxide, sodium trichlorate, sawdust, nitrobenzoyl chloride, silver nitrate, chloracetic acid. Perhaps a matchhead-and-lighter-fluid-coated wire touching an incandescent light bulb for a detonator. We’d need a truckload of lab equipment, too: funnels, thermometers, graduated cylinders and beakers, mortars and pestles, distillation equipment, timers, batteries, filter and pH papers…

Beth stirred in my arms where we lay on the musty ruin of a mattress. I whispered to her, not knowing whether she was awake: “We can do it, Babe. We can really do it.” That brought her around. She rolled over onto me and pinned me spread-eagled on the mattress, giving me a kiss that bore down on my jawbone.

“I knew you could do it, Wolfy. The question was whether you would do it.”

“There’s just a few problems. One guy can’t carry all the stuff we’ll need. I’m talking major league ripoff here.”

“We’ll provide all the volunteers you want, as long as you’re there in person to supervise.”

“Secondly, there’s the small matter of transportation. Transportation from Faraday hall, transportation back to the ROTC building.”

“We can use my car.”

“Beth, we can’t fit everything we need into your Camaro. Besides, if they check for chemical residues, things like that—”

“We aren’t going to leave any kind of trail to get us caught, Wolfy. That’s just your oppressed protestant mentality, your prole mindset trying to worry you out of doing it. We’re talking perfect crime here, you dig?” She shivered with exhilaration. “God, what a rush, huh? Just talking and dreaming about it drives me wild. What kind of explosion will you make for us, Herr Mad Bomber?”

“First we have to solve the transportation thing.”

Beth telegraphed a Eureka moment. “What about this? The ROTC building is, what, only about a hundred yards from Faraday, right?”

“Right.”

“And what’s troubling you, Wolfy, is the risky prospect of transporting all those nasty explosive chemicals in a van across town, then setting up your smelly dangerous little lab here at the Roach Hotel, and then tooling across four sets of railroad tracks and a zillion potholes toting a high explosive device while retracing your route back to ROTC?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

Beth’s eyes and grin widened. “Then let’s build the fucker at Faraday!” Taking my silence for agreement, she added, “Since the University austerity program, there have to be labs and things they aren’t even using there, right? So we find some little hideaway lab like, down in the basement or whatever, where you can do your thing and it looks like any other boring nerdish chemistry experiment.”

“Then what?”

“Then we get a few friends together, gather up the fruits of your labor and tote our little present through the woods and into the ROTC building. How heavy could a bomb be, right? And there are paved hiking trails and bike trails through those woods separating the two buildings. You told me so yourself.” She nodded excitedly, rapt with her mountain-to-Mohammed epiphany.

When I hesitated, she observed pointedly: “Hey, man, what’s the University done for you lately?”

 

 

That first night in the Roach Hotel I dreamed of horrible dismemberment, castration and mutilation, with Beth always at the center, reaching down to fondle me and drawing back a surgical-gloved hand filled with blood. “I don’t think we can save ‘em, Wolfy,” she says. “C’est la guerre.” I can hear my mother, Es and Ruthie crying somewhere far off but I cannot see them. My father shakes his head and says, “They don’t make those things for kids.”

I awoke around seven to an atonal symphony of pile drivers and dump-truck backup signals. The city was putting in a new storm sewer system just yards from our bedroom window. It continually amazed me that Beth’s northern suburban ears could sleep through anything. Despite the noise and my attempts to rouse her, she slept like one of the dead; not even a deep moan even when I bent over and pinched her big toe as I left.

I had eight hundred eleven dollars in the bank, representing all the rest of my summer’s earnings from Green Giant Corporation. At two-fifty an hour, driving a tractor through rain and wind and gloom of night, it didn’t seem like very much, even in 1970. But it was all I had, and I knew it wouldn’t go far. I did not share Beth’s abject contempt for money and her blind faith in its sure availability for the future. I had prepaid for a two-semester room and board plan—would I get any of that back? Wandering onto campus, past the familiar lagoon and arboretum, I felt a newfound contempt for the legions of drones carting their armloads of books from class to class. Twenty-dollar textbooks filled with bullshit. I knew I still looked like a student and could masquerade as one, hiding out here indefinitely in the state-supported womb of higher education. But would the world afford me any hiding place after the deed was done and the ROTC building in flaming ruin?

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTSUMMER 2003

 

The gaunt, hollow-cheeked man sat Indian-style on the stacked red fence sections, staring off at the midway. With his filthy iron-grey hair flowing past his shoulders, he looked in profile like old Cochise himself. Cochise on a bender. His scalp flaked like a piecrust at the hairline. Zombie eyes rolled back into their sockets; he fell over backwards. The sound of his grizzled head hitting the planks could have been a maul hammering against a railroad tie in the distance. The two Clems who’d been lushed out in chaise longues on the shady side of the downtown sidewalk all afternoon like paradegoers watching us unload murmured to each other. Red laughed at their concerns and at the merry sound itself, his hands jammed into the back pockets of his grease-stained bib overalls.

“You can’t do that for too long, drink all night and work all day. I keep tellin’ him and tellin’ him, but he don’t wanna take an old man’s advice. Take one night off out a’ three, I tell him.”

“These kids today, never want to listen. Besides, Red, you ain’t old.” It was what Red’s own peculiar vanity—call it his playful spirit—yearned to hear. So I repeated it. “Red, you ain’t old.”

He drew himself up to his full 5’3” or so and threw out his barrel chest before proclaiming, “Seventy-five years and still on the road. Sixty-one seasons and counting. I got sawdust in the blood, boy. Sawdust in the blood. Gonna go out horizontal, that’s me.” His broad white beard—once red, according to legend—jutted like a spade. Red’s hair, also white but long as Cochise’s and just as dirty, made him appear like a Santa Claus in off-season, his avuncular beard stained with tobacco juice; Red spat tobacco juice like a locust.

“Wanna Indian wrestle?”

It was a challenge I’d never refused. So we Indian-wrestled right there on Main Street, two wandering men old enough to have grandchildren, both of us careless of our appearance, hirsute and bearded like Old Testament prophets without honor in our own country—Moses and Elijah in beat-up cowboy hats, instep to instep, beard to beard, the Law and the Prophets silently grappling with one another, putting on a show for the sidewalk lice. Red tried to stare me down, never varying his frozen expression, never blinking while he jerked and feinted in improbable trajectories. Finally I lost my footing and had to catch myself from falling into the pavement. Red stepped aside agile as a matador. I had over twenty years’ advantage on him but he easily won, as always.

“You’re a wiry son-of-a-buck, Red,” I gasped, “even for a carny.”

Instead of acknowledging the compliment, which he probably took to be his due, Red asked, “How’s about helpin’ me set up, Preacher? That greenhorn’s no good for nothin’ ‘cept holdin’ down the platforms in a windstorm. Damn drunkard’s all he is. Professional travelin’ card-carryin’ Irish drunkard. Get more help out of a fifty-miler. It was up to me, he wouldn’t get a goddamn cent. That’s what I’m tellin’ Old Lady Carroll, if’n she asks me. I hope she does ask me, too. Not that she will.”

“I ain’t no ride jock, Red. And I don’t work for Old Lady Carroll.”

“I know; you’re a man of the cloth. And I’m sorry for the cussword. But this here whirligig ain’t gonna set herself up nohow. Don’t the Good Book say something ‘bout goin’ the extry mile? ”

“They didn’t have Tilt-a-Whirls in Galilee, last time I looked.”

“I bet they do now.”

“I’m talking about ancient Galilee.”

“Well, they shoulda. How’d you like to’ve seen all them Pharisees and Sadducees packed in together asses to bathrobes four and five to a car just a’whirlin’ ‘round an’ ‘round under the lights on a Saturday night? Might’ve helped ‘em get along better, quit arguin’ so damn much, you ask me. What d’ya say, Preacher?”

His eager grin as he pitched that image finally got to me. “All right, I’ll set her up with you, but it was your homely theology, not Old Lady Carroll’s five bucks an hour that convinced me.”

One of the sidewalk superintendants chose that particular moment to half-rise out of his chair and speak up. “Aren’t either of you going to help that poor man? He may have a concussion or internal bleeding, for all you know or care.”

Before Red could challenge him to Indian-wrestle, I felt the preaching urge welling up from my diaphragm. I approached the two middle-aged men, both idle in Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirts, waving my arms.

“Praise the Lord,” I began in a hoarse shout that echoed from the cornices of the two-story turn-of-the-century building fronts behind my miniscule congregation. “For God has chosen that this poor wretch, drunken with the Devil’s whiskey and debilitated by unspeakable debauchery as he is, might serve as His instrument today. For Christ came into the world to save sinners, not the righteous. Christ came to this earth to rescue the lost sheep of Israel who had gone astray. Christ became man to run and welcome the prodigal son with open arms, placing a ring upon his finger and a kiss upon his cheek…”

The Clems had folded up their aluminum chairs and moved on to quieter surroundings by the third parallel. I preached after them. “Their ears are stopped, they are begging that no further messages be sent, they are deaf to the Word of the Lord!”

“Maybe I should try preachin’,” Red observed. “Better’n workin’, ain’t it? Now fetch me that big pipe wrench out of the possum belly. We got work to do.”

There are seven cars on a Tilt-a-Whirl, a carnival ride of circular bridge design constructed primarily of fiberglass, aluminum, tubular and 14-gauge steel, galvanized steel angle and T-iron. Each car free-wheels at the whims of gravity and centrifugal force from a pivot point within a revolving platform that is itself electrically powered, over hills and valleys around a circular track. In former days such rides were diesel powered. The cars—bearing figures of clown faces on the rear surface of each—are designed to accommodate four adults or six children. Up to five hundred people can be accommodated within an hour’s time, according to manufacturer’s specifications. Old Lady Carroll, owner of the Tilt-a-Whirl and five other rides in the back end of this particular show, was so accommodating she could handle six hundred when catching the blowoff. If any of the Clems started hollering about being shorted, before the situation deteriorated into an inescapably genuine Hey Rube he got an extra dozen or two cranked-up spins crammed in six deep to a car and a glowering look from the operator, a tattooed ride jock named Bud with missing teeth, a mullet, and an attitude born out of the sleep and stimulus deprivation uniquely afforded carny rats and migrant workers. The resulting g-force hipbone noogies were punishment enough to avert any fistfights. If Bud were feeling especially surly, he could transform even the most stalwart Clem into a puking baby with no more than an extra-firm hand pressure on the operator’s pedestal, as though prefiguring God at the Last Judgment spinning the world with terrifying velocity, hurtling sinners off into the dark void like blowflies.

We bolted the bridge track together. I helped Red cart the platforms over one by one and hook them together with hinge pins. Everything we touched was timeworn, carny-rigged and nearly shot.

“Help me heist one a’ them tubs off the rack there,” he said. We lifted one red tortoise-like car off the truck, Red insisting on taking the heavy end. We worked in silence after that, except for the occasional puffs and grunts until the rig was finally assembled. It was only then that Red pulled out a pouch of Red Man and treated himself to a chaw, after offering me the pack first as an obligatory gesture that I politely declined. The familiar complacent spritz and sidewalk splatter, then he mused: “Reckon the old girl’s got one more dance left in her.”

“Praise the Lord.”

I had joined the caravan in New Orleans on the New Millennium; on epiphany—what the locals call ‘Twelfth Night.’ The lifers told me about all I had missed the previous year, what with the New Orleans Super Bowl and almost continual partying in the streets after mid-January. I stayed with them through Fat Tuesday, followed their moveable feast to Slidell for the Mona Lisa and Moonpie parade festivities, on to Biloxi, Gulfport for St. Paul’s and Pascagoula for the blessing of the shrimp fleet, and throughout Florida where springtime festivals feted agricultural products from the strawberry to the citrus, and honored totem animals such as the pelican, the alligator, and even the lowly manatee, eventually meandering northward with the change of seasons to county fairs, small-town carnivals, schools and shopping centers only to wind up here: a genuinely familiar Illinois town to me once, now almost forgotten. No, not forgotten; my memories seemed as acute as the moment each had formed many years ago. Where there were gaps and conflicts between the pleasing reverie of the past and the sharp sense impressions of present day, it was always the town that had changed. Like a fiancée weary of waiting, she had at last betrayed my trust.

We followed the harvest home festivals and the fall festivals, the Summerfests and the Oktoberfests north with the changing seasons. Then, fat with the spell of harvest, we took wing south again like a great flock of riotously plumed migratory birds. The route was less settled but no different in principle from the route I had traced as an anonymous and enigmatic vagabond in search of seasonal farm labor for several years.

Only now I was reaping souls. For I found God in those gypsy caravans, riding shotgun from town to town on quiet, exhausted wordless nights. I found Him under sun-blazing days and starry nights driving tractors and combines like caterpillars measuring the landscape. I found him driving semi in the long haul. God hangs very close to the nomad, the outcast, and the Earth’s offscouring. God’s voice comes through clearest in the Wilderness, far from the babel of cities, far from the vocal range of social theorists, smart-aleck academics and polemicists. God’s whirlwind ranges free across the prairie Wilderness, stirring up dust that settles unnoticed on the farmsteads and in the towns. Driving semi late at night, tracing the double-yellow line to a vanishing point, I would pray to stay awake. And He would answer me out of the darkness ahead, with only the campfire glow of the dash lights outlining my face. And finally, after thirty years of wandering, He called me.

In that thirty-year season I witnessed measures in politics, men’s hair, women’s skirts rise and fall, shorten and lengthen like shadows. I saw the merry-go-round warhorse complete his three-decade circuit and return, his painted grin a Jingoist death’s head. I feared America’s span of freedom and plenty might prove finite and cyclical as well. Would another raging war fever finally consume all that was best in us, leaving us unmindful of its loss?

I always did better preaching in the South, as opposed to any other region of the country and any other species of labor I might have sold there. Old Lady Carroll looked the other way while Gordy “Weasel” Congdon, in exchange for a percentage of the freewill offering and my pitching in with the semi driving, lent me his girlie show tent most mornings at ten, before the girls were up anyway, and especially on Sunday mornings. Sundays I would preach to a goodly crowd. The flaps bearing lurid posters overselling the talent inside fell away like pasties; the tent became a sanctified tabernacle—Sinners’ Hospital, I had my own sign—where I preached my sermons and took up my collections. My latest phony ID card said Julian L. Pover, after Julian LePauvre, Saint Julian the Poor, patron saint of carnies, jugglers, circus clowns, wandering musicians—and murderers. The carnies all called me Preacher, or just Preach. As Preacher I dressed in a white lab coat, wore a doctor’s reflector on my forehead like a phylactery and gave hell-and-brimstone sermons to the curious, the spiritually hungry and thirsty, and even the jeering hecklers. John the Baptist had his own hecklers, remember, and worse. I was John the Methodist, zeroing in on that grain of self-doubt in every heckler, that self-esteem vacuum, and I worked away, straightening up another house for the Holy Spirit. At those times when I felt the most preposterous out there preaching, the most hypocritically venal, I thanked God for the golden chance he had given me, for all the other second chances He had given me over the years, and in a still small voice He always said You’re Welcome.

To the carnies I was at once a charlatan and a fool; to the pious townspeople—of whom there always were and still are many, rest assured—I embodied a spellbinding nomadic prophet, a Spirit-filled orator of the open road. No one could be certain who was right and who was wrong, but I harbored my own opinions. I watched the changing in their eyes in those priceless moments when, so help me, I believe God opened me up and the very Word spoke through me, despite my meanness, my affliction and my weakness.

“Here comes Old Lady Carroll,” Red muttered, the way a naughty schoolboy might warn of the teacher’s approach. Marge Carroll stalked down the midway with proprietary dignity, periodically intercepting older carnies in their work, stopping and pointing at this and that, telling them how to do their jobs. Red spat at a sparrow in the gutter. Marge zeroed in on us as though she had just remembered something.

“Got any more of that chaw, Red?”

“Let me consult my personal humidor.” Red dug inside a deep pocket of his overalls and produced the open pouch of Red Man. Marge plucked out a healthy forkful with thumb, forefinger and middle finger, her nails bulging and blue as robin’s eggs, the harbingers of oxygen tanks and nasal cannulae, hospital rooms and tubes you blow and blow into for the respiratory therapist. As though to answer my curiosity, she explained, “Sawboneses tell me I gotta cut down on my smokin’.”

“That’s hard to do at your age,” Red said.

“Well, thank you very much, young man. You’re gettin’ prid near old enough to vote yourself, ain’t ya, Red?”

“I voted for that Truman fella, but then he went and started that there foreign aid. So I quit votin’.”

“What do the doctors tell you, Marge?” I asked her.

“Somethin’ about chronic obstinacy disease or what have you. I told ‘em this old bird’s too tough to be anything but obstinate.” As though to prove that fact, she stuck the chaw deep as her wisdom teeth where it bulged her cheek like a ping-pong ball. She stood hands on hips surveying the street scene, then spat at the same marked sparrow, which gave up his gutter quest and flew on to less dangerous territory. “What’s this I been hearing about you two boys?”

The sleeping Indian began to rouse, emitting a deep groan, followed by an enormous fart—a throaty glass-pack warble that echoed off the stack of metal fence sections.

“Can’t rightly say, Marge,” Red said, decades of carny wariness in his casualness. “How’s that tobacky chaw suit ya?”

She spat big, muttered “Aww, hell. Nobody lives forever,” reached for a pack of evil-looking thin brown smokes in a green foil box, lit one and pulled down a desperately deep drag. Downwind of her, the smell was aromatic menthol pipe tobacco blended with an acrid bite like burning coffee. It seemed to relax her enough to say what she’d come to say.

“Couple a’ sidewalk straw bosses went crying to the local Chamber of Commerce that puts on this event. Something about a crazy street preacher annoying the townsfolk while him and another carny tried to hush up a head injury. You boys wouldn’t know anything about that, now, would ya?”

“There’s your head injury,” Red chirped, waving at the flatulent drunkard holding down the fencing. “Drink all night, work all day. You can’t do that for long.”

Marge nodded at the carny wisdom in that remark, that profound excess of experience one finds in carnies and road people—the knowing what is more than enough. I had the impression they’d both tried such things at least once in their lives. “I was the one that hired him,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s what I get for listening to a sweet talker in a tavern, me at my age. Oh, hell, maybe we can sober him up and put him to work runnin’ the horsey rides or something.”

Red said, “Better him than me. I’d rather ride a whore than a horse. Sorry, Preach.”

“Your whore-ridin’ days’re over, ain’t they, Red? Sorry again, Preach.”

“No offense taken from either of you,” I laughed. “Christ came to save sinners, not the righteous. But if it was me, I’d get displeasured with those ride ponies in no time, following them around shoveling up their road apples before the Clems get a chance to smell it. Bawling brats, bitchy mothers. Hell of a way to sober up.”

“I’m the one oughta take offense at that last crack of hers, not you,” Red said, feigning indignation at the perceived slander of his sexual prowess. “They used to call me the scourge of Pig Alley.”

“Yeah, and Warren G. Harding used to be president,” Marge replied. “Remind me to cut up jackpots with you boys some other time. Right now, I want you to try and sober him up and keep him from getting hurt ‘til I can put him to work doing something. Seems like it’s always payday around here. I’ll be lucky to make the nut in this one-horse burg.”

“If it was up to me, he wouldn’t get a goddamn cent. Sorry, Preach.”

“And Preacher, try and save those sermons of yours for inside the revival tent. Will you do that for me? I don’t need any local movers and shakers coming down on my show; I’m getting way too old for that shit.”

“A brood of vipers fleeing the wrath to come, Marge. And you’re not getting older, you’re getting better.”

“Ain’t we all, Preach,” she observed, expelling a bark of a laugh with the smoke. “Ain’t we all?”

Marge had hardly gotten out of earshot before Red sidled over to me and cracked, “Bet she’d like to put him to work for her in her bed. Every night.”

“I’d rather get the scoop shovel and clean up after the pony ride. How about you, Red?”

He lowered his voice and tilted his head this way and that in mock judiciousness, weighing the relative merits of shoveling Augean mountains of pony shit versus making love all night to Old Lady Carroll. “As a man who’s had it both ways, I’d say the horsey ride holds the greater attraction. That’s just one man’s personal opinion, of course. One experienced man.”

For some reason I flashed on Jimi Hendrix. Are You Experienced? A subject I hadn’t thought about in years. Janis and Jimi gone within months of each other. Cochise sat up and held his head in his hands, saying “Hoo. Musta fell out dere.” I sauntered over to him while Red tinkered with the lights on the old girl. The Tilt-a-Whirl’s lights, that is.

“Mouth feels like I been in a long drooth,” he said. “Sure could use somethin’ to drink. Say, a shot and a warsh.” He goggled at the Tilt-a-Whirl. “Yinz’s got the whole damn contraption all set up, aintcha?”

“Been travelin’ long, friend?”

The man stared at his knees. “Goin’ on two years.”

“Got people?”

He knew what I meant. There exists a fraternity of homeless road men who harbor an instinctive understanding of that query—a veritable foreign legion who took to the road to escape or forget someone.

“Gomme an ol’ lady in Picksburgh. At least I usedta. Never goin’ back ‘ere agin. I done warsht my hands of ‘at dere.”

I thought I detected Pittsburgh in the flat diphthongs, easy on the “o’s”, the epenthetic “r’s”.

“Been doing a lot of drinking?”

He hung his head. “Goin’ on two years.”

“Let’s take a walk. Get us something to drink, maybe.” He brightened considerably at that. “Red don’t need any more help right now, anyway. What do they call you?”

“Name’s Adams.”

“Glad to know you, Adams. Name’s Julie. They call me Preach.”

“Julie? Sounds like a broad’s name.”

We walked the few blocks that made up the downtown, or “danhntahn” as Adams called it. Familiar to me as a movie set of one’s birthplace seen close up, an oft-dreamed-of place fashioned of quicksilver memory that called out its Siren song to me. I was returning to my old home town in a hirsute and hat disguise, weathered by the years. Adams talked freely of leaving his wife—his one unbearable failure having let her down. We talked of bridges burned and no going back, of loved ones left behind and regrets carried forward. He was thirty-five and looked sixty. I was fifty-three and weary of the road.

We passed buildings old and new, some familiar, others not. The Egyptian Theater was a hole in the ground beside the creek. The Methodist church still stood nearby, as though it had presided at the theater’s burial. A guy named Reverend Willoughby presided there now, according to the sign. Services were still at ten AM. My competition.

We walked past the lemon shakeup stands, the ‘grab joints’ as the carnies called them, the hagy bagy gyp joints, silhouette cutters, Fool the Guesser, sidewalk Rembrandts, floss wagons, mitt camps, jam joints, and flat stores, and on to the back end: the kiddie rides, the Scrambler, the Octopus, the Slide, the Salt & Pepper Shakers, the Simp Heister, the Zipper and the Merry-Go-Round.

Finally we came to the Erotic History of Woman tent—a girlie grind show with Discovery Channel pretensions, an anachronistic embarrassment, really a poser with teaser curtain and lurid banners out front to turn the tip and draw in the suckers. The girls would pose like historical female figures such as Cleopatra and Marie Antoinette in cheap costumes, then slowly disrobe, but only partially, the better to get the men inside lowing and groaning loud enough to be heard on the midway. The Weasel would even plant open microphones inside to amplify the sound. The teaser curtain would expose only the men’s pant legs and women’s bare feet to the midway curious. The net effect of all that was to make the show sound much worse than it was, in order to prey upon the male imagination and draw the nightcrawlers—men who had spotted the show while walking the midway with wives, girlfriends or families, then skulked back after dark and bought higher priced evening tickets to see what was behind the canvas, what those rutting animal moanings and swinish lust grunts were all about. After nightfall and when the heat was off some of the girls would work rangy, meaning strong. The Weasel himself would take up a collection, where the real money was made for poses you won’t find in any history book.

It had been three years and more of diesel fumes, anaconda cables and red wooden junction boxes in small town streets decorated with carnival detritus, of tattooed saloon women and long-haired outlaws of the last frontier putting up and tearing down, spinning gambling wheels and hustling the Clems. It felt like saying goodbye. I searched the gathering crowd of local townspeople for any recognizable face from my past, but there were none. I made a deal with myself: If I saw one familiar face in the next twenty minutes, I would give up the road for good, find a job and some friends, maybe a particular woman friend, put down roots, even see about untangling my legal problems at last.

We turned a corner and came upon the site of the Trailways Depot and the Fairmont Hotel, now abandoned. A tattered shade flapped from a broken third-story window like a flag of surrender. The building had become a stopping-off place for ghostly travelers. Thuringer Brothers’ gold lettering still visible over the soap-swirled opaque plate glass window. Someone had taken the barber pole, though; only the bolt holes remained in the brick. It was probably a salvageable antique. I wondered if the same party had spirited away the peanut machine. Were the big chairs still anchored to the mosaic floors inside? I longed to sit in one, lay my head back on the filigreed headrest and spin lazily around, see myself as I once was in the wall-sized mirror, with Old Joe like a spirit guide holding a hand mirror behind my head inviting me to admire his handiwork. I nearly tried the door.

Distant drums and a siren. Parade starting. We turned another corner. Crowds lined both sides of Main Street, folding chairs of oldsters wearing big Hawaiian sun hats with see-through green visors the color of a Green River at the counter of Albrecht’s Drug, and townsfolk all ages milling for a vantage point, small-town deferential to those already seated so as not to block any elder’s view.

“Hold up, Adams,” I said. “Let’s see what there is to see here.”

Adams’ face contorted at the prospect of a drink deferred, but he still hung close by me. And then I saw her. Maggie Paderborn. Short auburn hair, short as a man’s, and parted in the middle. Thin perfect nose, wide blue eyes and opulent cherry lips. Her perfect cameo face upturned, lips parted in eager expectation of the parade’s approach, her bosom now barely restrained in a man’s plain white shirt worn over designer jeans and bejeweled black sandals. Her full breasts somehow incongruous with the scrubbed innocence of her face.

“Maggie?” I inquired. “Is it really you?”

She turned to survey me, unintimidated by my bedraggled appearance. I saw no close-minded judgments form in those eyes. With a polite smile and well-bred composure, she replied, “No, but I’m her daughter. And you are?”

I wanted to run away. Over the years, I had become extremely good at running away. “Sorry, Miss. Beg your pardon. I’m just a friend from the old school days. Ancient history, and all that.”

“Well, she’s working now, but I’m sure she’d love to have you come by and see her and talk over old times. She still lives at the same old place. I’m Laura, by the way. Laura Hahn, used to be Laura Gross.” She extended her hand. I took it in my grease-stained mitt like fine china, one of those elegant ladies’ hands that hold rings in jewelry store window displays.

“Johnny,” I said. “Used to be Johnny Wolfe.” It felt good, like confiding a secret held captive for over thirty years. She laughed politely, not catching my meaning.

“I knew your name waddn’t really Julie,” Adams scoffed, jabbing me in the ribs even as he glanced down the street for the nearest tavern. “You was puttin’ me on, wadd’n ya?”

“Julie’s my stage name,” I replied. “Just like your name ain’t really Adams.” When he looked unexpectedly downcast at that remark, I added, “Don’t sweat it, Adams. Everybody takes a new name when they hook up with the carnival. It’s kind of like joining a religious order in that respect. New name, new identity, new chance at life.”

He was quiet for a while after that, waiting. And he wasn’t any good at waiting. While he looked ahead toward the taverns, Laura and I leaned to peer farther down Main Street searching for the source of the military field drumbeat and the low feline moan of the siren. I surveyed the thin firm triangle of her torso, her narrow hips and compact perfect bottom. Could Frosty Gross’s porcine loins have sired such a daughter? The glint of police lights appeared; the crowd actually applauded. The annual kiddie parade had officially begun, a local institution since probably the Forties, if not before. Police car, mayor’s car, discordant but earnest perspiring high school marching band, then a sight that stopped me cold, mouth agape.

Buck Rogers, in full clown regalia down to a flower-print summer dress and a Minnie Pearl biddy hat with a posy on top, idling his 1940 maroon Ford down the center of Main Street at two miles per hour, just enough movement to keep the propellers spinning on a wood-and-celluloid B-19 gracing the hood of his car. Buck Rogers like a Pied Piper leading the ranks of costumed children towing red wagons carrying beribboned puppies and kittens. He had to be at least ninety and still crazy as ever.

The spectators ooh’d and aah’d at the preciousness of the bashful children and grandchildren squinting in the sun, cradling their pets. It was obvious when Laura’s two paraded by because she aimed a disposable camera and called out their names in a high, cooing voice. “Jessica! Jakie! Look at Mommie!” Jessica tall and thin, long auburn hair, about six, dressed in a nurse’s uniform. Jake at about four in a doctor’s getup not dissimilar to my own preaching costume and already the spitting image of Frosty Gross. Soon cannonballs would explode once more like massive depth charges at the Somerset Municipal Pool. Laura squatted and took shot after shot of them passing. She was one of those overly cautious women who use a superfluous flash outdoors. I felt like we were intruding on her young maternal joy. Adams and I headed on down Main Street.

“There used to be a tavern here,” I said, glancing at the site of Floyd & Mavis’ Music Box, now a thrift store. “Let’s go in, see if we can find out what happened to it.”

Befuddled and blinking, Adams and his hangover nevertheless followed me and my vague promise of a drink. I found a clerk in the storeroom sorting donations. “Got a man here in need of a bed,” I said. “Can you call somebody to maybe give him a ride?”

“Now wait a while,” Adams protested.

“Listen to me, Adams. There’s a Salvation Army shelter I spotted right on the edge of town. All I’m asking is that you give it a try. I got fifty bucks on me, everything I got. It’ll be waiting for you on account when you get out, if you clean yourself up and stay sober, follow their rules and try and find a job. Take my word for it, carny life ain’t for you.”

“I can’t do it, man.”

“Others have.”

“They weren’ me.”

“Tell you what. You try it for two nights. Then I’ll come and check up on you. You still feel the same way as you do now, I’ll hand you the fifty and you can throw it and yourself away chasing that long ball. You decide to stay, I’ll still put in the fifty and whatever else I can collect in town preaching, on your account. That way you’ll have a grubstake in case you find the road leads you back to, let’s say, Pittsburgh.”

He studied my face for a long moment before saying, “Hope you preach a helluva sermon, man.”

I gave him a slowball punch to the shoulder. “Oh, I do, Adams. A helluva sermon.” I was practically out the door before the clerk called after me, “Sir?”

“Ma’am?”

“May I ask where you preach those sermons of yours?”

“Why, in that big two hundred foot front tent at the far end of the midway, Ma’am. Sign goes up says Sinners’ Hospital. Ten AM every day including The Lord’s Day.”

“Sinners’ Hospital. Has a welcoming sound to it.”

“I’d be pleased to welcome you, Ma’am. Only thing free on the midway besides the smell of the candy corn.”

“I like that,” she said. “Maybe I’ll be there. You’re not too hellfire and brimstone, are you?”

“No, Ma’am. Only hellfire and brimstone enough, no more.” I touched the brim of my hat to them both before taking my leave. She gave no sign of recognizing me, even though I’d known her since childhood.

I knew the second and third toes of her left foot were webbed with the Sign of the Mermaid. I couldn’t make the same mistake twice. She was Maggie Paderborn.

 

 

CHAPTER NINEALL THAT IS MADE

 

CRC handbook of Chemistry and Physics 51st Edition under my arm, new Howdy Doody haircut on display, still feeling those prickly neck hairs in my collar, I slipped into Faraday with an army of other nerds. My disguise had been carefully debated and planned: pocket protector, slide rule, black frame glasses with adhesive tape patching the bridge, white Arrow shirt and black slacks, mirror-shined shoes and machined-off sideburns. Beth found some Lucky Tiger brilliantine and combed my hair straight back Filipino-style. They had dressed me like a doll for today’s trial run. The judge would have been pleased: my appearance would literally have ‘pleased the court,’ as long as the court could not read my mind.

There is nothing like campus life for offering the temptation of unstructured time. Idle hands truly are the devil’s playground, as my parents were fond of saying. I was about to become living proof. The past weeks had escalated our plans. There were to be bombs in the ROTC building and Faraday Hall—twin explosions timed to bring hell fire and brimstone down upon those twin gods of the Vietnam conflagration: The U.S. Army and Dow Chemical, purveyor of napalm. We smoked to the beauty of those tandem bombs bursting in air, heralding a newer, purer patriotism, a new spirit of peace.

Shauna got a job afternoons at Ace hardware just long enough to learn the key-making machine, adeptly conning the townie manager—“I just love keys, man. I mean, like, that’s always been my thing. Keys are like, the male part going into the female, you dig?”—and so on and so on, until he assigned her that position.

I moved with the crowds in Faraday as they filed into the big lecture halls. Then, finding my moment, I sauntered into the janitor’s closet. No keys in sight. I tried the boiler room in the basement. On the wall opposite the door hung two sets of watchman’s keys and two canteen-sized watchclocks. Good news and bad. The keys were there for the taking—I slid one set into my pocket before leaving—but the building would be patrolled every night. No way to work in peace. Beth saw no problem.

“Just ingratiate yourself with your local watchpig.”

“Just like that?”

“Shauna did it, didn’t she?”

“Shauna wasn’t committing I don’t know how many serious felonies.”

“Oh no? You never heard of conspiracy, Wolfy? Never heard of a band of brothers called the Chicago Seven? Shauna’s ass is on the line here too, buddy, just like yours and mine. And Arlo’s.”

“What’s Arlo been doing except supplying the occasional lid?”

“It’s not what Arlo’s done. It’s what Arlo’s gonna do.”

“Which is?”

Beth beamed. “Fake ID’s, for when we go underground.”

“I must have missed something in all the smoke and radical rap. Go underground?”

“Just until the heat’s off,” Arlo said. “Maybe a year or two, give or take. Until the war is over and the revolution’s here.”

“We’re talking about getting ourselves some land up in Canada, just the four of us,” Beth added. “Little farming commune.”

“Are you people crazy? You think they’re giving away land just because it’s in Canada? Besides, what do any of us know about farming? All I know is that it’s hard, boring, low-paying work. You ever drive a tractor, Arlo?”

“Oh, Wolfy, if I hear one more of those Green Giant war stories of yours—”

“Well? That’s what farming is. Dirty, hard work in all kinds of weather—”

Arlo held up his hand for order. “I have only one word to say to you all. Hydroponics.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning that we’ll farm ‘indoors, in comfort.’”—Arlo echoing that announcer from the famous Chicago late movie used car pitch. “Meaning that with your knowledge of chemistry and mine and Shauna’s knowledge of the practical aspects of botany, we’ll develop a whole new generation of super weed up there. We even thought up a brand name for it.”

“I can’t wait to hear it.”

“Revolution Rag. Kind of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? I came up with it about three o’clock this morning.”

“You came up with it?” Shauna in the doorway, already shedding her Ace Hardware vest as though it had crawling things in it. “Revolution Rag was my idea, Arlo. My baby.”

“What about ‘Northern Number’? ‘Fugitive Flower Power’? ‘Canadian Tea’?”

“All very good possibilities,” Beth assured me. “I’m glad to see you’re behind us in this, Wolfy.”

“Hey,” Shauna said. “Jingle Jingle.” She dangled a huge set of keys on a plain ring, then tossed them to me. “You owe Acehole Hardware, let’s see, fourteen dollars and eighty-five cents, plus tax. By the way, I just quit.”

Beth said, “Voici les clefs.”

“What about your vest?” I asked Shauna.

“It isn’t like I went and told them yet, or anything. God, Wolfy, you’d think you never broke a rule in your life.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what it’s like,” Beth chimed in, commiserating with her. “You act like you never broke a rule, Wolfy. That’s your bad trip, man. You need to get your shit together if you’re going to do this with us.”

“Goddamn your rule-following ass, Wolfy,” Shauna added with disgust, not raising her voice, an unpunished child mouthing cusswords. “You’re gonna chickenshit out on us, aren’t you? You and your rule-minding small town ass.”

And so, craving a walk in the late afternoon fresh spring air, I left the three of them to argue with each other. After exchanging the customary “Hey” with Ray, I walked and thought aimlessly for an hour, winding up at Faraday Hall, keys heavy in my pocket, just as three o’clock classes were letting out and graduate students began teaching afternoon labs. Few faculty were about this late in the day; uninterested graduate students with their monotonous rule-minding asses seemed reluctant to question my presence in the basement lab I had selected after my multiple visits to Faraday found it disused and remote. Gas fixtures still connected, lights and vents in order, a private fully stocked lab at my disposal. And so I liberated it, as we used to say back then, opening my handbook and reference texts on the marble counter, positioning beakers, ring stands, Bunsen burners, burettes, sidearm and Erlenmeyer flasks, pipettes and reagent bottles.

When the watchman came by around about seven PM, I recklessly handed him my student ID, secure in the knowledge that Arlo would fashion me a new identity as soon as the need arose. Truth be told, I was not particularly happy with my identity as I knew it then. Even though the ferocious mountain man in the picture no longer resembled my new clean-cut visage, the watchman seemed satisfied with my story of a student’s zeal to finish college chemistry with high honors in under three years. I did look the part in person. “Study, boy, study,” he would say, or later raise a fist of encouragement to me as he followed his hourly rounds past the aquarium glass of the lab window. I would wave happily, then return to my smelly task of fashioning plastic explosives from cyclonite and motor oil.

It had to be done on a weeknight, because the majority of Northern Illinois University students “suitcased” it back to the suburbs on weekends, hence less impact. It had to be done before June graduation, because the campus would be veritably deserted thereafter until summer session. I deliberately took my time, following down some ideas while discarding others, repeating and replicating my results with a procrastinator’s compulsion. I wanted the preparations to last as long as possible, before all hell broke loose and there was no going back. And I steadfastly insisted on one prerequisite: no one was to be hurt. Property damage I could easily rationalize; injuries or death, never. And I always conscientiously locked up the building every night when I left.

Sex with Beth was never better than when I returned home late from my laboratory marathons like some suburban dad working for DuPont. Something about my short slicked-back Richard Nixon hair, spaz glasses, holstered slide rule, white shirt and pocket protector ensemble seemed to release an ambivalent and unacknowledged passion in her—a passion I found myself reluctant to analyze, and so merely enjoyed.

Walking home one night, I caught the notice of a carload of young blacks. One of them hollered out the window, “Hey, Chet Huntley!”

I was doing the best, most skillful and meticulous lab work of my life. I might spend ten hours or more per night without a break in my subterranean domain, honing my skills. No one challenged my presence in the lab. No one was even aware of my presence other than the lone security guard, whose name by the way was Alvin. He looked and sounded a little bit like the old movie actor Guy Kibbee. Alvin would unfailingly poke his big head into the lab during hourly rounds—I learned that due to the University’s austerity program he was expected to cover both Faraday hall and the ROTC building—and either say something heartening or give me a thumbs up gesture that meant he believed in me, that I wasn’t one of those crazy campus radicals out to cause trouble.

Some of my most nettlesome challenges were to neutralize explosive compounds once I had created them, reversing the processes I had set in motion, disassembling the violent unbalanced mobiles of tinkertoy molecules back into their component innocuous earths, base metals and peaceful humors. In my mind I wore a peaked wizard’s hat atop my alchemist’s crown. I was caution incarnate, yet crazier than Buck Rogers with his model planes; the elements obeyed my every command. I was easy grace under pressure; no one need fear accidental maiming from premature detonation in my practiced hands. I was energy into matter, matter into energy. I clucked with delight at adventitious water. I strove to join Sol and mercury, to create the philosopher’s stone and hold it in my bare hands.

Lady Julian of Norwich, the medieval English mystic, reputedly experienced a revelation of Christ placing in the hollow of her open hand a rounded object the size of a hazel nut, and telling her, “It is All that is Made.” After reading of her in the salt mine vaults of the University library, I could not cease contemplating the profound metaphysical gravity of that statement. The humble anchoress, born into poverty and obscurity in an epoch tortured by the Black Death, writing down her Revelations in her native Middle English, the language of Chaucer, the first book written in England by a woman, could hardly have imagined quantum physics. And yet, how perfectly consistent with all we now know or suspect about the origins of the universe itself: an incalculable mass, compressed upon itself and infused with limitless energy from an unacknowledged Outside Source until it joyously explodes, orgasming into ever-more-rapidly expanding matter, fulminating, unfurling undreamed-of probabilities into literally all that is possible, ever, throughout all of time and space: mathematics, treachery, music, flesh, metamorphic rock, a sidelong glance, arrowheads, Arthurian saints, consciousness itself, sunlight glinting across a lake, the continent of Atlantis, the slick squirming feel of the first bullhead you ever caught, strange forgotten civilizations, color television, savage tribes, sphinx builders, extinct noble lineages, civil law, common law, perjury, Rosicrucianism, medieval heraldry, Spike Jones and his City Slickers, Cleopatra rolled in a carpet, lost worlds, newfound continents, the Minotaur, race wars with the Neanderthal and with the Nephilim—those mysterious Old Testament demi-angel Nephilim—your first kiss, your last kiss, every last birth, death and burial flitting by on a zephyr, all of human misery and all of human joy, “All that is Made”—shooting and bursting roman candles and firework azaleas, spreading swirling perfumes and deadly poisons, galaxies upon galaxies wheeling into the inflating void, boomeranging ellipses and shifting cotton-candy shapes outward bound, whirling across incomprehensible realms of space, unsuspected domains of Christ’s “other flocks,” weird wonderful planets peopled with cyan dragon traffic cops and scaly silicon-base eagle accountants, talking rocks and trees walking, things too terrible to tell, moving and changing chimera wonders the poor mind of man trembles to envision. Time itself. Space itself.

Not some lame Sunday school nursery tale.

Creation.

Sin had no substance or real existence, Lady Julian believed, and could only be perceived by the pain it caused. Others teach that the devil never created anything. He himself was created, and God makes no mistakes. Cursed or blessed with an undiscriminating working-class mind, I studied the alchemists as readily as the scientific texts in those days, the mystics as closely as the agnostics. I knew old Paracelsus and Marcilius Ficinus the way Beth knew Tommy the Toilet and Mr. Natural. And it struck me one day in the library, the sun low in the sky lending a rose tint to the lofty marble arches of the gothic windows, that Lady Julian’s same phrase could be found in the alchemical text Corpus Hermeticum—The Divine Pymander in XVII books, at Book Five, Para. 44: “Thou Art Thou, All that is Made, and all that is not Made.”

I cherished the discovery; perhaps no one in history had noticed it before me. I wanted to publish it in a learned treatise for posterity, or write it on vellum with a quill pen. Instead I self-published it in a bathroom stall: “All that is Made,” without comment or attribution, in an inviting clean glen amidst the graffiti thicket breathing unspeakable rumors of oral and anal penetration, sodomy and pederasty, Ganymedery and catamiteism.

I could have been the best chemist they had, working alone in the basement, doing the best chemistry I had ever done in my life. The getup made me look older somehow, more responsible. Republican. And every night, experimenting away in goggles and white lab coat, I became more and more the person I resembled—a “scientist” in one of those sixteen-millimeter Coronet films your grade school teacher shows on a Bell & Howell projector where the splices bang through the aperture and the soundtrack drags and jumps and the music all fifties-hopeful, piccicato strings, cheery-crappy woodwinds and sitcom brass vibrato and then all of a sudden the film gets away from her and you hear gasps from behind you in the venetian-blind darkened classroom because the belt’s off the take-up reel and there’s this big mare’s-nest all over the floor, twenty minutes of film you’d need a pitchfork to pick up. That kind of scientist, the one from your childhood who would never commit an irresponsible act under any circumstances, an absolutely trustworthy role-model, into whose hands you could confidently place the building blocks of the universe and know he’d never build a thermonuclear device with them, no matter how much they paid him or what his girlfriend wanted him to do.

Feverishly as I worked, I procrastinated. I made and dismantled enough various explosives to blow up the entire campus. My arsenal expanded and contracted like the universe with each new experiment. I was forever practicing, like the ROTC cadets I imagined endlessly assembling and tearing down their military rifles for drill, rehearsing for combat. Every hourly high sign from Alvin the Watchman found my skills and competence increased, but my resolve further dampening. For instance, I knew I could never utilize any form of triggering device that involved turning on a light switch, or any other human-activated fuse. That would mean death to my newfound friend. Every day was the high intoxication of Beth; every night was the quiet sober contemplation of the lab. I played two diurnally alternating roles: campus radical by day and cautious man of science by night. Finally, it came to me.

A smoke bomb to end all smoke bombs. An igneous cornucopia of stink and smoke, black roiling cumulonimbi pouring out all the windows, one haphazard volunteer fire alarm and a damned inconvenient cleanup after, ROTC cadets with mouths agape, toting their little wooden toy guns, temporarily dispossessed but no injuries or major property damage. A statement, like Beth’s street theater. Nobody gets really hurt, but we make our point in all the media. Even the rads up in Mad—the stylish Midwestern ivy-league upperclassmen of the Movement—take note of our little cornfield U’s doughty impudence. World Wars One and Two museum memorabilia, topographical wall maps depicting famous battles of history as if they were football plays, textbooks and reference books on how to kill your fellow man, even Old Glory herself all soot and stink. Take that, you military-industrial color guard types. Here’s your war, right up your ass. It would be a Statement. Maybe not enough of one to call out the National Guard, but a Statement, just the same. And after the smoke cleared, my new friend Alvin the Watchman would still be alive and well.

But what would I tell Beth after?

The thought dogged me as I worked.

The easy route, and the one I finally chose, was to lie to her. I would rather have her believe me an inferior chemist than a liar. “Gee, sorry, Beth, the damn thing was supposed to blow ROTC sky-high. Well, shit happens.”

The entire plan was perfect. And then suddenly I realized: while transforming matter I had unwittingly transformed myself as well. I had compromised nearly every principle to achieve my goal.

I had become Richard Nixon.

 

 

CHAPTER TENSERMONS AND SYMPATHY DANCES

 

“Fire that burns the fine houses, fire that burns the pornography and purifies the filth flowing through the polluted veins and arteries of this fallen land, fire that brings down all the artifices of sinful man’s pride. Where then will be our proud military, in whom we had placed all of our trust and all of our confidence? Where is the military might of Rome? Of Persia? Of Babylon? Where will you be when all the world’s merchants shall cry out: ‘What has become of the great Whore of Babylon who bought all our finery, all our luxury, all our opulent goods? She is aflame, and the smoke of her burning goes up to Heaven.

“Listen to that word aflame. Think what it truly means in your minds, in your hearts. Does it mean urgency? Does it mean alarm? Does it mean destruction? To those who are slaves of this world, it truly means all of these things. But my friends, if your heart is aflame with the love of Jesus Christ, then this world is already passing away. If your mind is aflame with the love of Jesus Christ, then you long to be with Him in paradise. If your body is aflame with the love of Jesus Christ and not with the lusts and pride of this world, then His fire within you is proof against any earthly fire.”

I actually got an “amen” at that from the midst of the morning crowd.

“My friends, do not be saved as if from fire, as the Apostle Paul says in First Corinthians Chapter three Verse fifteen. Do not wait until your deathbed to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour. For death like an unwelcome guest may arrive at your doorstep long before you expect him. Beautiful sleek imported automobiles can hydroplane, crash and burn in an instant. Cozy warm homes can explode in an inferno from natural gas and a spark in only a moment. Death may come for you like a thief in the night and spirit you away. How many times have we all heard it said: ‘He was much too young to suffer such a massive fatal heart attack;’ ‘She was much too young to suffer a blood clot to the brain and die of a stroke.’

“And then come the ‘at-leasters.’ They mean well with what they say, trying to comfort the survivors. Your survivors. ‘Oh, well, at least it was quick. At least it was painless. At least they didn’t know what hit them.’ But they forget to ask the big question: where will he take your captured soul, that Angel of Death? Where will he transport you on his fleet black raven’s wings? Where will he carry you, sinful man filled with pride, sated with lust, stained with adulteries? Where will he carry you, sinful woman filled with envy and gossip, consumed by grudges and petty hatreds? Do you think you’ll be welcomed in Heaven, full to bursting with the filth of your unrepented sins? Or will you be cast out like the guest compelled to attend the Master’s feast, among those harried from the ditches and from under the hedges, but without a suitable wedding garment—cast out into the outer darkness where Jesus says men shall truly weep and gnash their teeth.”

The crowd was aghast; I had them right where I wanted them. “Where will you flee from the everlasting fire to come, O sinful man? Consider the pain from fire, the agony? We learn from our infancy not to touch a hot stove, much less an open flame. Contemplate for a moment the eternal torture, the everlasting agony, of eternal fire consuming an eternal body. Consider, if you dare, the exquisite agonies of the damned, in a place of everlasting fire and undying worms that consume us forevermore. We know in our hearts, despite all our proud philosophizing and all our pseudo science, that Hell does surely exist. The Bible tells us that Hell does surely exist. Our Lord and our God tells us that Hell does surely exist. And yet He doesn’t want any one of us to go there. No, not one.”

“Then why don’t He just trash it?” An impudent adolescent voice, a tall, nasal, pimply-faced teenager in the front row munching on caramel corn. “I mean, if He’s really all-powerful and that, like people say, why not just hit the delete button on Hell if He’s supposed to love us so much?”

My preaching had become a breathing exercise by then, the concepts familiar, the words coming from some unknown place. I reminded myself to love this kid, whoever he was, and tried to put out of my mind any fear of embarrassment or humiliation by anything I might respond in answer to his question. God would give me the words to say before my accusers. And yet a whisper as though over my left shoulder that I was after all nothing more than a hypocritical fraud.

The crowd waited for me to put down this heckler. Word was I was pretty good at it. Putting down a heckler is where it gets entertaining.

“God doesn’t want you to go to Hell, son. It’s the Devil who wants you to go to Hell.”

“We’re all God’s children, right? Well, then, wouldn’t the State step in and remove a kid from a parent that would leave his kid in a place where it’s all open flames and science fiction worms? They’d lock up a parent who’d burn his own kid like with a cigarette or something. So how does God get away with it? Some parent.”

A couple of older patrons angrily murmured for the kid to shut up. Suffer the little children to come unto me, and do not hinder them.

“God will destroy Hell,” I said at length, after the tent had quieted. “In his own good time. Earth, Heaven and Hell shall pass away. There will be a new Heaven and a new earth.”

“What about a new Hell?” the kid asked, mouth half-full.

“There will be a New Jerusalem coming down. God’s elect will dwell there with him. They will need neither sun nor moon, for the radiance of God’s countenance will fill the city with inexpressibly beautiful light. Don’t you want to live in that holy city forever and ever? I know I do. Living and learning, because life is all about learning. For the first million years or so, I think I’ll study physics. It’ll probably take me about that long to finally understand it.” Indulgent chortles from sympathetic members of the crowd at this.

“Wait a minute. If God’s gonna destroy Hell, then it’s not totally forever, is it? Maybe a hella long time but not totally forever, because he eventually gets around to destroying it. If what you say is true.”

‘“Hell shall be no more,’” I countered, although I didn’t think the quote was a scriptural reference; perhaps a lyric from Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee—Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

“So then I’m right,” the kid sneered.

“But Revelation says the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. That means the smoke of Hell—what the Greeks called Gehenna, named for the garbage heap where ancient idol-worshippers dumped the remains of their human sacrifices to Moloch, the eternally smoking refuse dump outside Jerusalem. Gehenna—the lake of everlasting fire John tells us the false prophet and the beast will be thrown into, where all murderers and all fornicators and all sodomites and all liars shall have their part. Fire that burns and burns and lights up all the nerve endings. Pain worse than a dental drill buried halfway into your jaw. Pain like a blowtorch flame held against your wide-open eyeball that’s looked at women with lust, against the underside of your tongue that has spoken blasphemies and is now stretched out by demons with white-hot tongs, and against your privates that you’ve used in such manner to offend God: pain not for a moment but forever. What value is fleeting earthly pleasure compared to the pain of the damned? Imagine such pain if you can. The hell that is Hades shall pass away, but the Bible tells us the true Hell—Gehenna—is forever and ever.”

I could hear the rattle and roar of diesel engines starting half a block away. The brimstone stink of diesel caught in my nostrils. My reflector band itched against my right temple. I stepped from behind the makeshift pulpit where I delivered my daily jeremiads. Take the ticket box, drape Cleopatra’s lilac boudoir dropcloth over it, stand behind it wearing a white lab coat, surgical green scrub pants and a reflector like a sixties headband and there you have it: a doctor of the church, I swept aside the tails of my white coat and sat down on the edge of the stage facing the kid. Scared of the doctor? The crowd fidgeted in their seats like puritans giddy with the same primal fear of the invisible world once instilled in the faithful by Cotton and Increase Mather, Jonathon Edwards, John Bunyan, and old Calvin himself inventorying the inquisitional torments awaiting the eternally condemned. I had them squirming from something more than the hard two-by-twelve planks.

“Look, son, you don’t want to join those poor unfortunates in Hell, but you don’t have to, see? All you have to do is accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour. You can do that today, right now.” But the kid wasn’t finished yet.

“Why, if God is supposed to love us so much, does he all at once do a mood swing and hate us enough to send us to Hell the minute we’re dead? You can’t hate anybody any worse than to want to send them to Hell, can you? And yet you’re saying God lets us get tortured forever in Hell because of something we did that pissed Him off while we were alive. People treat their pets better than that. And why does God let bad things happen to good people even while they’re still alive?”

I knew what he was asking was a mystery, and knew equally well that any answer I could come up with wouldn’t satisfy him. “God doesn’t want you or me or any one of his creations to go to Hell, son. God doesn’t put any of us in Hell. We put ourselves there, by turning away from Him and his Word. His Word is Jesus Christ. Christ is perfect, and He wants us to strive for perfection. He helps us get there, but first we have to ask Him in prayer and repentance.

“Job asked that same question you’re putting to me today. Read the Book of Job, where Job tries to question God, asking why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper in this life, why the very dirt lies light on the faces of the unrighteous dead. God is not mocked, and as the Scriptures say, ‘As a man sows, so shall he reap.’ The Book of Job tells us God doesn’t owe us an answer to any of these questions you’re asking. It’s the other way around: we owe him everything, even our very existence. The Book of Job says don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. We need to be humble before God. Proverbs tells us that ‘with humility comes wisdom.’ Be humble before God and these answers may come to you by God’s grace.”

It was almost time to take up the collection. Adams’ future depended upon it. The kid said, “It still don’t make no sense to me,” sucking the caramel corn tackiness from each of his fingers in turn, smacking his lips in a gesture so genetically individual that for an instant I thought I recognized him.

Later in life he might conclude Hell was a myth made up by mercenary clergymen to keep an unruly laity in line. Hell, he might already believe just that. He might go on to read philosophy and agree with Sartre that Hell is other people. Or he might be one of those who falls among thorns, choked with the cares and riches of this life until he simply forgets the whole Hell thing, saving it for retirement like painting or some other neglected hobby.

I had an inspiration that made me stand and address the crowd from the pulpit again, ex cathedra. “Be humble. Pray always. In so doing you will become aware of other people around you in a new and different way. You will find true empathy. Sartre was wrong.” Puzzled looks from the motley congregation. Crowd sounds outside the tent from people passing by in groups, eager for parades, rides and the airy savor of cotton candy. “Empathy means walking a mile in the other fellow’s worn-out size ten’s. And Sartre was a French philosopher who said ‘Hell is other people.’ I say to you au contraire.” I got a couple of Francophobic titters and a misogallic guffaw at that. “I say to you that your salvation is other people. The halt, the lame, the downtrodden, the orphan and the widow: these hold your keys to Heaven.”

Maggie walked in and took a seat beside the kid with the caramel corn, too close to be strangers. She crossed her legs the way you wouldn’t do in a real church and looked up at me. Now I recognized the earlier gesture: the kid looked like a thin version of Frosty Gross at fifteen, sucking his fingers. Had to be a grandson.

“My friends, lose yourselves in other people. Be in this world but not of it. Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and console the grieving, show hospitality to strangers, for the Scriptures say that in so doing, some have entertained angels unawares. In so doing you will lose yourselves and find salvation. Let us pray.”

While I bowed my head and prayed from the pulpit, I stole a peek in Maggie’s direction. She still had really good legs, a bit fuller but shapely, and an arresting bustline. Her eyes caught mine. She shook a mockingly reproving finger at me, then bowed her head and closed her eyes. Was she joshing me because she’d caught me peeking or because we shared some other secret?

“And now a special collection for those less fortunate. Remember our brethren who are down on their luck, and please give generously.” The pie tin went around. Even Maggie put in a couple dollars, elbowing the kid in the ribs until he coughed up some change, too. The whole thing came to about fifty, according to my instant eyeball count, honed to fair panhandler’s accuracy over the years. Not bad for an hour’s work. I resolved to make good on the pledge I’d silently offered up to God late in the sermon: if Maggie would stay and talk with me about old times, I’d match it and give the whole works to Adams. The tent emptied out except for her. She patted the plank seat as an invitation.

“Johnny Wolfe.” She pronounced it woof, as though in casual defiance of all that speech therapy.“I never would have recognized you. Shame on you for not saying who you were in the store. Or didn’t you want to bother with an old lady like me? Handing me that ‘ma’am’ stuff. Leaving it to my daughter to tell me you were in town.”

I sat down next to her where her grandson had been. “You haven’t changed a bit, Maggie.”

“Liar.”

“No, I mean it. It was like we were back at the pool. Or the eighth grade dance.”

“God, I’d forgot all about that. Oh, is that cursing? I’m sorry. I know you’re a preacher now.”

“Relax, it’s time for the tent to be desanctified again. I borrow it mornings from the guy who runs the girlie show.”

“You’re kidding.” She smirked and gave me a broad nudge in the ribs, her favorite gesture it seemed. “Ever take in a show now and then?”

“He does his thing, I do mine.”

Her expression open and sincere, she looked me straight in the eye and said matter-of-factly, “I think that’s admirable.”

“What, putting on girlie shows?”

“No, silly. What you do. I wish I were that dedicated.”

“We each have our crosses to bear. How’s life treated you so far, Maggie? We have a lot to catch up on.”

“What do you want to know?” I’d almost forgotten the rich alto voice, the slow cadence of her speech.

“Well, for a start, how’s old Frosty these days?”

She looked down at the sawdust and said. “You have been gone a long time, Johnny.”

“What?”

“Kurt died two years ago. I’ve been so sad and lonely ever since.”

“God, I’m sorry, Maggie.”

“It’s all right,” she said, placing her hand lightly on my shoulder, consoling me. “He never took care of himself or watched his weight like I told him to. Did you know he was diabetic?”

“I had no idea.”

“Neither did I until it happened. Adult-onset. Brittle, they called it. Kurt always hated those shots.” She misted up at the memory. We sat there in silence, mourning Frosty’s passing. I awkwardly rubbed her back. She leaned the weight of her body against me. Minutes passed. When she spoke again, her voice was muted, congested from tears.

“Kurt took over managing the A&P after his dad retired, then we bought the store building and the equipment when the chain wanted to pull out. It’s Kurt’s Market now. The bastards sued us—pardon my French—over something called a no-competition clause, but we fought them in court and won the case. Even got damages in a countersuit. Not enough, but we got them. Pete Fuchs was our lawyer. Remember Pete?”

“Sure I remember Pete.”

“Why’d you guys always call him Bugs? He never looked anything like a rabbit. Not much, anyway.”

“Long story, and a dull one. What’s Pete up to these days?”

“I heard he got suspended.”

“What for?”

She giggled. The sound of it catapulted me back into the eighth grade. “The way I heard it, they caught him calling up strange women on the phone and reminding them to do their monthly breast self-exams. If he got a live one he’d try to talk her through it.”

“Sounds like Pete. Now you know why we called him Bugs.” We both laughed. “He ever call you?” I asked.

“Are you kidding? He had my number on speed dial.” She snorted. “He’s a good lawyer. Too bad he used his office phone to make the calls.” We laughed louder. Just then Lonnie, one of Weasel’s main girls, sauntered into the tent wearing a red halter-top and cutoff shorts and clomped onto the stage. Maggie leaned and whispered in my ear, “Maybe Pete should give her a call.”

“Who says he hasn’t?” I replied out loud.

“Church over, Preach?” Lonnie smirked.

“Just comparing life experiences with an old friend.”

“I hear ya. Done widdis?” Lonnie gestured to the lilac brocade cloth Weasel used to dress the joint.

“Have at it.”

She shook it out like a tablecloth, then brushed with her hand where it had touched the sawdust. “Wease sent me to pick up his percentage. Ya got it?” I retrieved the collection plate from behind the podium and offered it to her. She waved it off and said, “G’head. You got first count. If ya can’t trust a preacher.” I counted out Weasel’s forty percent, then looked away out of habit when she bent at the waist to accept it, straining the halter almost beyond endurance as she did so. Guarding my heart, as the Desert Fathers cautioned. Lonnie was a trouper, one of weasel’s girls who would ‘work wide-open’ and ‘take her best holt,’ as the carnies say. In other words, anything for a buck. I didn’t trust her except with money. She’d never go south on Weasel and risk exile as a ‘gypsy’—an outcast woman who follows the carnival the way a dog follows a desert caravan. I did not sit down to resume our conversation until she’d left the tent.

“You have just the one daughter, Maggie?”

“Ha.”

“Meaning?”

“You’re looking at the proud mother of two grown children. And even prouder grandmother of three, including that strapping freshman six-footer heckling you from the footlights this morning.”

“I’m speechless.”

“I got an early start, remember? I was still a kid myself when I had Chad Everett.”

I feigned disbelief. “Maggie, I don’t know what you’re talking about. This comes as a total surprise to me.”

“Jesus, Woof, you and your little buddies razzed me more than anybody else southmore year, calling me ‘fat belly Nellie’ and shit up and down the halls and all over school. Somebody even wrote it on my locker. You guys had me wearing a fucking panty girdle to cover up until my mom made me leave school over it.”

“Wasn’t me. Them, maybe.” I hadn’t thought about that in years, calling her ‘fat belly Nellie.’

“Why’d you think I missed second semester and had to make it up?”

“They said it was mono.”

“Close. It was preggo. I moved in with my aunt in Chicago. She took care a’ Chad Everett until I turned eighteen and married Kurt.”

“Kurt was the father, then?”

“Kurt was the father of Laura. Laura Petrie Gross, now Hahn. God, why am I telling you all this?”

“Don’t worry. I’m a minister. Your confidences are safe with me.”

“Don’t make fun. I’m truly impressed by your faith. That was a helluva sermon you gave just now. They all call you Preach?”

“Preach or Preacher, mostly. As long as they don’t call me late for chow.”

“You travel around with them all year long?”

“Last couple of years.”

“You ever study theology?”

“Mostly reading on my own. Theology is the graffiti scrawled on the walls of the New Jerusalem.”

“Did you just make that up, or what?”

“Yeah, and I’m kinda proud of it.”

“Pride’s a sin, isn’t it?”

“You won’t tell on me, will you?”

“Your secrets are safe with me, Preach.” She leaned against me again, this time as though wanting to be kissed. I could feel the warmth of her breath against my cheek. “All of them.”

Did she remember what had happened in nineteen-seventy? Did she even know about it? Had the news ever reached sleepy Somerset? Lonnie’s clogs clonked across the stage. “It’s showtime,” she drawled, giving me a broad wink before making her exit, putting some English into it.

Maggie alone with me in the tent, I kissed her with thirty years of a lonesome wanderer’s unspent passion. My life review passed before my tight-shut eyes, the revelation that it had been a wasted life without her. Wordless expression of her own unconfessed desire unfolded its secret treasure for me in her every motion, every aroused, frantic touch. I glanced at her through eyeslits narrowed by desire and found her wild-eyed as a colt. Our passion made us breathless and clumsy. Impetuous as two teenagers, fumbling and bunglesome, our unwieldy lips and teeth collided in a comic mania of missed signals and animal instincts. Her tongue was a feral thing that flittered uncontained against my own. I thanked God for Maggie’s grade-school speech therapy—her tongue the sleek, slick train and my mouth now its latest station. The late-morning sunshine cast a planetarium cosmos of tiny starpoints through the weather-beaten canvas.

It was she who finally and with reluctance broke the clinch, as though remembering herself and her surroundings, our panting breaths unseemly for two middle-aged school acquaintances. To break the newly awkward spell, I blurted out the first thing I could think of.

“Hungry?”

“Uh…sure.” She nodded rapidly, shy eyes downcast.

We both tried to speak at once, both laughed.

I stood, taking both her hands in mine. “I’ve missed you, Maggie. Without even knowing it, I’ve been missing you. For thirty-three long years. Does that make any sense at all, or am I crazy? Tell me.”

“No, I think I know what you mean. I know I do, because I feel the exact same way.” She stood and hugged me. I squeezed her in my arms as though afraid to let her go. Truth be told, I was already afraid of losing her.

We walked down the midway the way I’d fantasized in lonely grade and high school years, too terrified to ask her for a date at first, then double-teamed by Clete Winterholten’s unspoken droit du seigneur as an upperclass three-sport letterman and by Frosty Gross’s improbable and impetuous charms over her. Who would have thought the beautiful lifeguard—the unattainable water nymph—should have been so taken with Frosty’s loud corpulent appeal. While we strolled along she talked easily about the eighth grade dance.

“Me and my girlfriends saw you guys just sitting there like—what’s the male equivalent of ‘wallflowers’—and kind of took pity on you, ‘cause we all knew you were too shy to ask. It woulda been a shame to waste all those great dance lessons they made us take in gym, right?”

“I figured it was a sympathy dance. It sure was memorable, though. Street shoes and Argo cornstarch on the gym floor.”

“Pastel streamers from the basketball backboards.”

“You wore a strapless dress the color of lime Kool-aid.”

“That was before I had anything to hold it up.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“The high school dance band played You Made Me Love You.”

“It was the sixties, but I didn’t mind that it was old and corny. Remember Old Lady Bergoni sang it, and the microphone howled with feedback until everybody quit dancing and held their ears? The janitor, Mr. Schmidt, had to fool with the volume.”

“Mr. Schmidt. He was the one they’d always call for a ‘wet cleanup’ in the lower grades, which was an intercom euphemism for mopping up puke.”

“Did he ever unjam a stuck zipper on your coat when you were little? He did for me more than once.”

“Not since high school.”

Again the elbow in the slats—Maggie’s version of a rimshot.

“I can do better than that,” I said. “When I was in the first grade I once got the zipper on my fly stuck in the bathroom and Mrs. Deutsch had to send for him. Talk about your most embarrassing moment.”

“Mrs. Deutsch; I hadn’t thought about her in years. She’d talk about what to do if you had to vomit? I thought she was saying ‘to bomb it.’ Like if you had to drop a big turd? It was a year or two later I realized what she’d meant.”

“Hell, I’d forgot all about Mr. Schmidt and his zipper-loosening skills. Sounds kind of erotic when you put it that way, doesn’t it?”

“You’d always smell the cigar smoke on him,” she mused. “It was a nice kind of smell, with him being real gentle and all, his arms around you working on that zipper. Comforting, you know, like an old Grandpa. Almost worth it to get your zipper stuck. That was way before I transferred to Catlick school.”

“Any of the nuns smell like White Owls?” I dodged the responding elbow with a matador’s grace. Maggie retaliated by grabbing me by the spare tire and playfully digging in her fingers until I squirmed. No one had done that to me since grade school. playground.

“The nuns smelled like laundry soap and sandalwood incense.”

“Do you still go to Mass?”

“I kinda fell away since Kurt…passed.”

“Why?”

“I guess I’m kinda, well, angry at God, in a way.” She took my hand. “I’ll prolly go to hell for my sins. A woman like me, full of envy and gossip, eaten away by—what was it—petty hatred?”

“I didn’t know you’d caught the first part.”

“I was standing right outside the tent debating whether to go in or not.”

“I’m glad you made the right decision.”

“I’ll just bet you are.” We had reached the American Legion grab joint. The black grills sizzled with crosshatched burgers and brats.

“Hamburger?”

“You sure know how to show a girl a good time, sailor.” When I shrugged and struggled for an apology, she laughed and added, “I’d love one. And a Bud longneck, if you don’t mind. I’m parched.”

We ambled along the midway, folding away waxed paper and leaning forward to take greedy bites from our burgers. Maggie had turned down a paper cup, preferring instead to take big tip-up swigs straight from the bottle. When we reached the Tilt-a-Whirl Red was nowhere to be seen. Bud was punishing the riders with a horror-show juggernaut that strained the elderly ride’s every rack and pinion.

“I set that ride up the other day,” I told her with what instantly seemed a teen male’s braggadocio.

“You did?”

“Well, helped set it up as one-half of a team. In the carnie life, we all pitch in and help each other. Kind of like the early Christians, who held all things in common.”

“I live near here,” Maggie said tentatively. “You want to see where I live, Preach?”

 

 

It was eight blocks to Maggie’s house—a two-story with wraparound porch, set back from the brick street. Like many big houses in Somerset, some old Deutschlander or other had sided it with tarpaper grit patterned to look like brick, fooling absolutely no one—its sagging eaves and faded trim still mourning Frosty’s loss. The hangdog faces of the two big mutts who clambered out to greet Maggie drooped like Roman drapes. As though expecting Frosty, they seemed disappointed around the eyes.

Through pursed lips, Maggie cooed to them as she handled each with rough affection; they both responded with slobbery bonanzas. I guessed the way to her heart had to be through the dogs, and I liked dogs anyway. I offered my hand as a peace offering to be sniffed. The larger of the two, a bloodhound mystery mix named Chester, snuffled at my hand like a wine aficionado savoring a cork, then pronounced me friend with a welcoming bounty of slaver and salute of forepaws against my chest. His companion Vic joined in after a perfunctory muzzle probing of my inner thighs. Maggie only corrected them after Chester out of excitement gave forth with an unearthly banshee yowl.

The morning heat already prickly and sticky, I relished the cool shade of the porch. She checked the box; too early for mail. Fumbling for her key, she handed me the empty beer bottle and said, “I could use another one of these. How about you?”

“Wouldn’t turn it down.”

She looked at me with a crooked smile as the front door came open. Going in first, she quickly took stock of the front room, scooped up some newspapers and magazines scattered over a foldaway bed, then folded it into a couch again with perfunctory help from me. She glanced around for the cushions, replaced all three and arranged throw pillows over them. Only then did she say, “Home sweet home.”

“Nice.”

“Haven’t been much of a housekeeper since…well, you know. Not to sound like a broken record. Make yourself comfortable, Preach.”

“I’d be more comfortable if you didn’t call me that, Maggie.”

“I’m sorry. We’re both a little too old for name-calling, aren’t we? You like that beer now, Johnny, because I would.”

“Sounds good.”

“I mean, in this house we’re not beer drinkers or anything, but it sure is hot out there.”

Wanting to know who she referred to as “we,” I let it ride, saying, “You wouldn’t like the South, then.”

“Oh really?” she sang out from the kitchen. I had forgotten what a musical, lyrical voice she had when she lifted it.

“Man, oh man. You can sit outside in Alabama or Mississippi at eleven o’clock at night and the heat just hangs there like a sauna. Or a steambath is more like it. I mean it’s hot.”

She returned with two open bottles of Hamm’s and, I couldn’t help noticing, the top button of her white blouse undone. Crossing the room in three steps with a casual elegance, she handed one sweating bottle to me and clinked the neck of hers against it.

“Happy days,” she said, sliding in next to me.

“Anybody ever tell you that you move with an easy grace?”

“Easy Grace? Sounds like a good name for a showgirl.”

I drank to that.

“Hope you don’t mind Hamm’s. It’s cheap, and I kind of acquired a taste for it.”

“Beer is beer. Blindfolded, nobody can tell the difference.”

“Want me to tie a blindfold on you, then?”

“Maybe later. Let me look at you for now.”

She lowered her face. “Not much to look at. Not any more, anyhow.”

“Au contraire, ma Cherie.”

“You got a laugh out of that French thing during the sermon.”

“I’m serious now. You look gorgeous, Maggie. Not a bit different than the day I last saw you.”

“When was that? Day before yesterday?”

“Seems like it now. No, it was the day I left for college.” I waited, scanning her face for any sign of alarm, of the sudden terror that comes from certain realizations. No reaction.

“Well, thank you, then. Always nice to get a compliment from a gentleman. Especially such a perceptive one.” Her voice went up and she laughed a nervous laugh. “That calls for another round. I’m buying.” She disappeared into the kitchen, returning with two more cold ones. We drank and talked about old times into the early afternoon. About two we shifted to Jack and Cokes, then straight bourbon from Charlie Brown jelly glasses to clear our palates and thicken our tongues. She held her own, pacing me with every drink. She smoked Tareytons—I didn’t know they made them anymore. We talked about the black-eye TV ads. I told her about my life on the road, which unfolded like a made-up story because after all it wasn’t really me, but only someone who used to be me trying hard to lose his own identity. She talked about her three grandkids and how they’d wound up back in Somerset when Laura got divorced and moved back home with her two and then Chad Everett got divorced in the military and got custody of Kurt Russell from ‘that slut he married’ but couldn’t take care of Kurt Russell and so it was grandma to the rescue again. We talked about every trivial thing except the one thing that I in my presumption assumed was on both of our minds. The western sky was deep red and we were both faced before I returned to the subject of my last look at her—the mental picture I’d carried in faded wallet-size for over three decades.

“I was driving my dad’s Galaxy 500 down Washington Street, the last time I drove that car, in fact, and there you were, walking.”

“So why didn’t you offer a girl a lift?”

“Too shy at the time.”

“You seem to’ve gotten over that handicap.”

“Life on the road. No, I’ve never really gotten over it. Besides, you weren’t walking by yourself. You were still with that Clete Winterholten.”

“That asshole,” she whispered with the bitterness of someone long since left behind. “Probably promising me all kinds of shit while we walked, and all of it lies.”

“You wore a fancy loose blouse, one of those sixties things—”

“Peasant blouse?”

“I think that’s what they were called, yeah, and a tight pair of jeans.”

“Seems to have made some impression on you.”

“You could say that.” All right, out with it. She’ll be impressed. Unrequited love, and all that. I drew a deep breath. “Actually, there’s a snapshot of you in my mind from that day. I remember that blouse and your long hair in the late spring wind shifting shapes like wild clouds. You looked like a goddess to me. Helga, German goddess of the wind. Sometimes called Hel for short. Some say that’s where we get our word for ‘hell’.”

“Thanks a whole bunch.”

“I meant it as a compliment. Helga was a raging beauty. At least that’s how I always pictured her. Your face on some kind of Teutonic tarot card.”

“You know something, Johnny? I can tell you’re well read and all, which is all the more impressive since you’re on the road for such a long time, but what good is well read, when you come right down to it? Anything I want to know I can look up on the Internet. Just like they made me take math in school for twelve years, then somebody went and invented calculators. Born too late or too early, that’s the story of my life right there.”

“May I tell you something personal?”

She hesitated.

“Come on,” I urged. “It might help me overcome my shyness.”

“I don’t think you need any help in that department.”

“This helps.” I raised the Snoopy glass to her.

“It does, doesn’t took, go ahead tell me whatever it is. Just keep it decent. I’m a respectable woman. Except certain nights when I get on my ‘puter.”

“Say what?”

“Just nothing. Never mind. Something that helps me overcome my own shyness, is all.”

“I’d love to know what it is.”

“That’s for me to know and you to find out. You were saying? Something about my hair you found irresistible back then? Or was it my blouse?”

“It was you I found irresistible. I wanted to swoop up onto that sidewalk with the Galaxy passenger door flapping and Clete’s mouth hanging open, pull you by the elbow into that car and head due west for California.” I sat back, mellow now and a little pleased with myself for having gotten it all out at last.

“Why didn’t you? Damn you to hell anyway, why didn’t you?” She actually sounded irritated with me, flopping down on the end of the couch and looking up at the water-stained ceiling for commiseration. “You men are all so full of bullshit. You know what you are? You’re still that same little boy at the eighth grade dance, afraid to ask for himself. The only difference now is that hair and beard, which looks to me like a little boy wearing some kind of a disguise, and thirty-some years. I’m supposed to be flattered after all this time because of some mental snapshot you’ve carried around, some adolescent fantasy? Thirty-three years, Johnny! What the two of us could have done with those thirty-three years!”

“You had a family life with Frosty, I mean Kurt. And—”

“And what? A romantic life with Clete? Go on, say it. Everybody in this whole stinking town knows about it already.” She drained her glass, then took a swig out of the bottle and passed it to me. Not to be antisocial, I tipped it up, tongued it and set it down on the end table opposite her, out of sight behind a lamp. “Well, now Kurt’s dead, and Clete’s back with his dumpy doughball of a wife and his insurance agency, and here I am in a house taking care of kids and dogs. So if I’m your idea of an Earth Mother, you got the wrong idea, Sport. I like to drink and I like to fuck, and I don’t care who knows it. And if there’s nobody around to fuck at the moment, I go into my bedroom right over there, boot up my ‘puter and start cruising. See, I’m what in the vernacular they call a cyberslut. Does any of this shock you, Johnny? You wanna run away again, like you did thirty-three years ago when those buildings burned to the ground at NIU and that old guy died? You didn’t think I knew about that, did you? I could tell. That’s why the disguise and all the secrecy, isn’t it? The years on the road? You burned those buildings down and then just ran away. Away from yourself, away from your parents, away from all of us. Admit it, you don’t know whether your folks are dead or alive, do you?”

She buried her face in her hands, elbows drawn up tight, awkwardly alone with a newfound old friend now a stranger in her funky old house with daughter and grandchildren due back from the carnival at any moment. I drew nearer, formed my right hand like a beggar’s and slipped it between her thighs, cupping it there against the damp warmth and exquisite softness. She shivered, then squirmed against my touch and said in a voice husky with yearning, “That tickles.”

“I’ll bet it does.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN – A DEAF POLICEMAN HEARD THE NOISE

 

Beth had wanted us to get fixed—the penultimate form of self-criticism. ZPG meetings, The Population Bomb, and horror stories about overpopulation had bred in her a deep revulsion for human propagation. She lectured me how a newborn American could be predicted to waste x-percent more valuable natural resources in a lifetime than a third world baby. Therefore, it was decided that I would get a vasectomy and Beth would have her tubes tied, sealing our commitment to a kind of monastic ideal: biological celibacy without giving up the dervish god of orgasm. She’d fix me as well as herself the way one would spay or neuter a pet, the unspoken assumption being that the world would be that much better off without our offspring. It would spell the end of two ignoble bloodlines while saving wheat and corn and preventing unnecessary emissions of hydrocarbon spray and methane gas. The twin surgeries would form a joint statement that at least in Beth’s mind, and to a certain derivative extent in mine, we ultimately amounted to no more than our shit and our garbage.

The campus health center did not do sterilization procedures. Student insurance did not cover them. We would have to arrange for an off-campus hospital and a surgeon for each of us. Beth called and called, bright-eyed with save-the-Earth zeal. Money was not a problem: Daddy’s stipend could easily stretch to fit these procedures. In fact, if Daddy Roger had known what I was about, he would probably have deigned to perform the procedure on me himself, with a rusty pitchfork if possible. And so a date was set: Tuesday, May fifth, nineteen-seventy. As that date approached, I began to experience a species of cold feet—perhaps cold testes might be a more descriptive term—a form of castration dread. Images flooded my mind unbidden, of the tenderest, most delicate of flesh yielding to the finality of cold surgical steel; the matador’s gleaming sword inflicting the sudden coup de grace. What a vast difference without a vas deferens, as the old med school joke goes, haw haw haw, rude laughter erupting from the observatory above the surgical theater where, draped and ass-ended, soon to be violated, I am to prostrate myself, presenting my betadined perineum for the surgeon’s intrusion. All juice, no seeds, girls: a ‘safe’ male. Or more precisely, a damaged male, with interrupted, clipped and cauterized vas deferens hanging useless as a pair of cobwebs. No man in a no-man’s land.

What held my dread in abeyance was chemistry. Lab chemistry performed with the lusty panache of a Benihana chef for an occasional audience of one: my pal Alvin. Now that my intent was clear, it devolved upon me to fashion the bomb—two bombs, actually—to finish the job by spring, when kings go forth to war—before summer vacation. Whether the peculiar ambition I had recently formed to build two bombs and to blow up two neighboring buildings had anything to do with my imperiled testicles I will leave to modern psychoanalysis to explore, but I went about fashioning my two big ones gingerly and with tender loving care.

The plan I had devised without much reflection was to slip Alvin a bottle and get him drunk, then cajole him safely downtown to one of the local saloons where we’d lean on each other and act obnoxious enough to be seen and remembered together. We would thereby furnish each other’s alibis if need be. A homemade blast cap attached to a bomb would be wired to a telephone ringer circuit in my lab; Arlo on my instruction would set up an identical arrangement on the ground floor of the ROTC building after hours, hiding in the can until the building closed. From adjoining pay phones within view of the buildings, Beth and Shauna would call each number simultaneously and hang up. The thick dolts at ATF would never figure it out. That was the plan. Then on April 25 Wicked King Dick got drunk in the White House and watched the movie Patton three times. Five days later he invaded Cambodia. On my return to the Roach Hotel near dawn, I found Shauna, Beth and Arlo up and smoking. I set down my briefcase and flopped into a recliner like a suburban lab daddy waiting for his sitcom goodwife who, wearing pearls, high heels and satin stirrup pants, would bring him his first martini of the evening. Arlo was expounding on another cosmic revelation.

“We’re all of us like, made out of electric meringue.”

“Bullshit,” Shauna the elementary education major reasoned.

“I’m serious. If a nucleus of an atom is the size of a grain of salt, and there’s this cloud of electrons whizzing around it like the surface of a bubble, then the space inside that bubble is big as the inside of the International Amphitheater.”

“You are so full of shit.”

“It’s true. We’re not solid matter at all. Our bodies are made out of tiny electrified bubbles. We’re no more solid than smoke.” As if to accentuate his point, Arlo exhaled a thin jet stream that hovered above his head.

“Then how come I can’t just reach over and put my hand through your bubble head, Arlo? Answer me that, smart guy.”

“Charges,” Arlo responded after a deep contemplative drag on the hookah. “Two negative poles on a magnet, only much stronger because it’s so concentrated. We repel each other as physical bodies even as we’re attracted to one another as physical bodies on another level.”

“I’m not attracted to you, Arlo, you spud.”

“The whole atomic universe is superpowered. Every human being contains both poles on a magnet, the yin and the yang. We’re all light and music. If only we had ears to hear and eyes to see the electronic frequencies in our brothers and sisters, we’d light up for each other like Christmas trees and play symphonies to each other that would transform the world.”

Shauna took another hit. “Did you ever think that if you took and tuned a transistor radio just right, between two stations and then between those two points and again between those two points and so on and so on, and really listened hard, you could tune in other planets in other galaxies?”

“I’ve done it,” Arlo said. “And I’ll tell you something else. The universe is not mostly atoms or the spaces between atoms. It’s mostly made out of something called dark matter and dark energy. They’ve known about it since the thirties but they’ve been keeping it a secret.”

That was enough to set Shauna down the panic trail again. “You’re lying, aren’t you?” she demanded. “Tell me you’re lying!”

“He’s not lying, Shauna,” I said. “It’s true. And you wanna know something else? Scientists don’t even know what that dark matter and dark energy are. They have no clue. Remember how medieval mapmakers would map out vast unexplored regions of earth with fantastic drawings of dragons and demons and write ‘here be monsters’? That’s how modern science looks at the dark things in the universe.”

“You guys are so full of shit I dowanna be here!” Shauna whimpered. “I can’t move my legs! I can’t move my arms! My chest is paralyzed, I can’t breathe!”

“You’re moving your arms and legs right now, Shauna,” Beth consoled her. “You’re breathing right now. Cool out, girl. You got The Fear again, is all.” All of us had read Burroughs’ Naked Lunch over and over, although it was going through a period of relative obscurity at the time.

I had to take a hit. Hard day at the lab. In moments, everything suddenly felt wonderfully ironic and blissful. God’s gift to us hidden like a leprechaun in a humble green herb. Wicked King Dick wanted to take it away from us, wanted to take us away from our post-adolescent drift, our casual lusts, cloud-fancying predawn conversations and idle seditious sentiments, to the ultimate military school where we’d earn while we learned, where doughty embattled southeast Asian farmboys lay in waiting for us in tunnels and trees, eager to kill us with everything they had.

“You got some mail today, Wolfy,” Beth said, her arms still wrapped around Shauna’s shuddering red-faced form, legs tucked under her, bare bony knees like two death’s heads. I flipped through the cardboard box that held the Roach Hotel’s communal mail until I found the letter from my draft board. Thanks to NIU’s prompt notification and a jinxed lottery birthdate, I’d been reclassified 1-A. I collapsed into the recliner and took one monster hit after another.

“How you coming with those fake ID’s, Arlo?”

“Man, they’re primo.” Arlo unfolded from his lotus-eaters position and pulled something out of his pocket. Selecting an envelope from where he’d been hiding all of our newly created identities close to his ass, he handed it to me, saying: “You died at age one-and-a-half of the diphtheria that was going around in 1949. Must not of had all your shots. Don’t worry, though; I got you reborn at the corncob county clerk’s office. All it took was a buck for a new birth certificate to replace the one that was lost. Your new Social Security card is coming in the mail. The good news is now you’ll be able to vote and get served legally in bars. Plus I wandered around cemetery after cemetery until I found baby graves for each of us. High draft lotto numbers, in case anybody ever asks why we’re not impressed into the service of our country.”

“John Bohannon,” I read from one of the driver’s licenses.

“Yeah, and I’m James Bohannon. Cool, huh? We’re twins, Bro.”

“Two dead boys.”

“Right on. Two dead boys, that’s us.”

The bloodthirsty playground jump rope chant reverberated in my head:

 

 

One dark night in the middle of the day,

Two dead boys went out to play.

Back to back and facing each other,

They drew their guns

And stabbed each other.

A deaf policeman heard the noise;

He shot and killed those two dead boys.

If you don’t believe this lie is true,

Ask the blind man, he saw it too.

 

 

Arlo had prepared fake alternative Illinois driver’s licenses for me with both my old and new looks.

“What else have you got?”

“Beth is Patricia St. John. Get used to calling her Patty. And Shauna’s Holly Peters.”

The lottery had been kinder to John Bohannon than to Johnny Wolfe. My conscription was imminent. “Tomorrow I rig the two black beauties for real.”

Beth ran to embrace me, playfully nuzzling the stubble of my beard. “Oh, Baby! It’s really goin’ down at last!”

“Here’s the deal,” I told them all. “I’m only going to tell you this once, because I wanna get high. Arlo, you’re going to sneak into the ROTC building around closing time wearing one of those janitor uniforms we stole. Hide in the men’s room. There’s one on the main floor on the south corridor. At closing the exterior doors will be locked, but they’ll open from the inside. When the coast is clear, after dusk, duct tape the latch open for the side door that faces Faraday Hall. Precisely at nine PM, be by that door and open it for me. I’ll have one black beauty on a two-wheel cart. It’ll look just like a trash can.”

“Aye aye, sir. But why bother to duct tape the latch if I’m letting you in?”

“Call it a fail-safe. I don’t want to be standing outside knocking like the Fuller Brush man with a twenty-megaton bomb loaded on a cart, get it?”

“Got it.”

“Now listen. We slip the lock to the commander’s office with a plastic ruler. It’s an old-fashioned joke lock, not a deadbolt. I’ll set up the bomb on his desk and rig the fuse to his telephone ringer. Here’s the numbers. I have an identical copy I carry with me all the time. Guard it with your life.” I handed Arlo a folded piece of notebook paper with the two crucial telephone numbers handwritten inside. “When we split, don’t forget to peel off that duct tape before we go; it might have fingerprints or hair on it, for instance. Meanwhile, I’ve already done the same thing over at Faraday in my little basement lab.” I paused and took another hit off the bong. “I’m gonna miss that lab. It’s been my personal sanctuary.”

“It’ll be you and me and the road after this is over, Wolfy,” Beth murmured in my ear. “I’ll make you forget all about that lab of yours. They’ll be labs and bombs for us all over this land. You and I’ll be famous before you know it. It’s like, the ultimate commitment. Tomorrow night the buildings go up, and then the next day we each do our own personal thing to save the environment. Remember? After that no one could ever doubt your devotion to the movement…and to me.”

 

 

CHAPTER TWELVETHE BIG BANG

 

While Maggie changed into something more comfortable I glanced at a Time magazine on the coffee table. It seems some new super telescope had detected shimmering microradiation traces at the ends of the universe, confirming that the Big Bang took place exactly 13.7 billion years ago, and that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, thanks to the fact that seventy-three per cent of it is composed of dark energy—the mysterious reverse pole of the gravity magnet. An additional twenty-three per cent is composed of dark matter, leaving only four per cent for atomic matter: our insignificant little pie-graph domain.

When I had been in college, one popular theory held that what goes up must come down—that the Big Bang explosion would bring about a countervailing Big Implosion wherein time would run in reverse. The Universe beats damnably slow, but it beats like a great cosmic heart, in other words. When the next systolic downstroke finally comes, will the graves give up their dead full of promise in a slow rearward march to the bleakness and despair of the womb? Will our lives rewind from death to birth while we ride backwards like observation car passengers facing the retreating tracks? Will redeemed sinners turn once again to their apostasy? Saved sinners be harried back into Hell?

The telescope’s findings had confirmed Einstein’s theory that the space-time continuum is indeed flat, like a scroll unfurled in the hands of God.

“Find anything interesting?” Maggie appeared in the darkened arch of the bedroom doorway. Her idea of ‘something more comfortable’ was a sheer blue peignoir coat, which she modeled for me over matching bustier and G-string.

“Not until now. That’s an interesting color.”

“It’s called Midnight Haze.”

“Call it anything you want, it’s interesting.”

“Are you going to sit there all afternoon reading Time magazine? The kids won’t stay downtown forever, you know. I realize it’s wrong to rush a man at times like these, but—”

I had bounded across the room, caught her in my arms and kissed her hard on the lips. She shrieked like a child at the chafing of my beard against her neck. “You might want to pop into the shower, Johnny. Let’s not bring the carnival to bed with us.”

“No. I’m leaving the carnival behind.”

Her shower, humid and inviting from recent use, smelled like lilacs from the cockleshell-shaped barlets of soap. I liberally applied ladies’ shampoo and scrubbed the dirt and grit of the carny road out of my hair and beard forever. I knew I wanted to stay here with her all my life; I’d figure out what to do with my legal problems, find some kind of a regular job and put down roots like a big old shade tree. Maybe marry her later if she’d have me. Let the theologians struggle with issues of morality; judging from the hot blood already pooled indecently big and heavy in my sagging cock and drooping bag, I’d already committed adultery with her in my heart. Standing and staring at myself in the bronze-toned mirror of the shower door, I saw the picture of a fifty-three-year-old primitive man, a museum diorama exhibit in a copper frame—hirsute beer gut and sunken chest, arms and shoulders still pretty good from jockeying rides, loading and unloading trucks. I drew myself up, flexed my pecs and tried a couple of Charles Atlas comic book poses before glancing a smirking Maggie in the dim mirrored periphery.

“Time’s a’wastin’, Ferrigno. This girl’s not getting’ any younger.”

“You’re not getting any older either, Maggie, unless my eyes are deceiving me.”

“It takes guts to let a man see me wear this outfit at my age.”

“I can’t wait to slip it off your creamy shoulders and undress you with my teeth.”

“You are one sugar-tongued devil, aintcha?”

“Give me a chance and I’ll prove it to you.”

“You’ll get your chance, believe me.”

“My tongue’s all yours. And other things.”

“Race you to the bedroom.”

 

 

She drew a lethal drag on the cigarette, releasing next to nothing on exhale. “I’d hate to see a chest x-ray of you now,” I ventured.

“Jesus, you sleep with a man one time, he thinks he owns you. Is that how it is with you, Johnny?”

“Don’t swear.”

“Jesus.” She took another drag, then bounded out of bed nude and circled around behind me. I heard the whisper and creak of furniture casters against carpet, then an electronic whirr. I rolled over to observe Maggie seated on a piano stool in front of her computer TV set balanced precariously in the center of a dusty mirrored vanity. Without turning around, she said, “Checking my messages.”

I checked the not unpleasant way her cheeks spread on the bench. One more drag and she stubbed out the Tareyton in an uncomfortably full ashtray. “Come back to bed, Maggie.”

“Business before pleasure. I offer a few of my more valuable items on eBay from time to time.”

“What’s eBay?”

“Jesus.” I waited for cockcrow at that third taking-in-vain. “You have been a long time gone. It’s like an auction online. People pay crazy prices for things. Insane prices. One way I make my money. Chad Everett isn’t doing all that well at the store. Not much head for business. Not his fault. Guess he gets that,” she slapped a key impatiently, “from his father. Fuck.”

“No takers?”

She shifted her weight on the bench and crossed her legs. The sole of her right foot was criss-crossed with dry skin. “You’d be surprised. I’m kind of a carny rat myself I guess you’d say. Flea markets. Jewelry mostly. Old comic books, TV Guides. Collectibles. Trinkets. Fine artwork. Got six display cases and as many tables as I can tote around.”

I waited for her to tell me she could use a hand. She didn’t. Instead, she typed and moved the grey plastic ladybug thing around a couple of times, switching to a different picture. Typing and pausing, she was quiet for at least ten minutes.

“Johnny! Hey!”

“I must have fallen asleep.”

“No shit. Anybody ever tell you you snore like a buzz saw?”

“Bother you?”

She clicked on the ladybug again, then laughed. Eyes danced, expression changed to a smirk like she was carrying on another conversation. “Nope. Kind of manly.”

“I’m glad you feel that way.”

Typing and laughing again. “You farted, too. Also like a buzz saw.”

“Consider that manly?” No response. “Maggie?”

Her face intent on the screen, she broke concentration and said, “Oh, ah, no. Just natural, I guess.”

I rolled out of my side of the bed. If I had a side. Stole a peek at the TV. Made out three words before she made it disappear. Three words unfit for polite conversation, written in garish fuscia script.

“What are you auctioning off now?”

“None of your beeswax, Preach.”

“So it’s back to name-calling.”

“I knew you could be had as soon as I set eyes on you in the thrift store. You sure were a—”

“Sight for sore eyes?”

“To coin a phrase.” With me standing behind her, she seemed to lose interest in whatever she’d been doing. She did something to make the screen go dark, then stood and stretched, the reflected images of her breasts rising in the vanity mirror. “That was a helluva sermon you gave today.” I reached under her arms and felt the gentle weight of those breasts.

“Been a long time, hasn’t it?”

“About fifteen minutes.”

“I mean before today, smartass. You went for it like a drowning man. Drowning and starving.”

“Don’t forget dying of thirst in the desert.”

“You mean the wilderness? Guys like you go to the wilderness to get away from sin and temptation and all that shit, right?”

“If you’re trying to make me feel guilty, it won’t work.”

She turned to face me. “I know who I am. I need a man who knows his own mind, a man who isn’t into game-playing.”

“Sounds like a personal ad.”

“Don’t think I haven’t tried those.”

“Did it work?”

“I’m still alone with a houseful of kids and no man, ain’t I?”

I swallowed. My mouth was as dry as Frosty’s probably was when he asked her for that first date. “Doesn’t have to be that way.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning this traveling man’s not going anywhere unless you give me my walking papers. I know I may not look like much right now, but I clean up good, and I’ll work damn hard to earn a place in your heart, Maggie.” It was a speech worthy of a true cad, and I congratulated myself on composing it extemporaneously.

She sighed. I smelled stale acrid cigarette breath, and kissed her. She returned the kiss, but then looked down at the floor, her fingertips drumming away on my shoulder.

“Hesitation? Indecision?”

“You’re on the run from the law, Johnny. I could get in a lot of trouble, and I still have grandkids to support. You’re asking me to take a hell of a chance.”

“Pete’s a lawyer now. Let’s go see him tomorrow. And anyway, a wife can’t testify against her husband.”

Her mouth dropped open at that. “We have to do an awful lot of talking first.”

“So let’s talk. We’ll stay up all night and talk if you want, catch up on two lifetimes of talk. I want you for my wife, Maggie.” Only after I had said it aloud did I know it to be undeniably true.

And so we got back into bed and talked. We talked about how our lives had been in the thirty-three years we had lived apart, until talk became superfluous to the point it seemed like two other peoples’ lives we were telling, two more or less interesting stories to keep ourselves awake. We gazed into each others’ eyes for a full thirty minutes without speaking—something she’d heard Brando had done with his female costar once upon a time—until everything else dimmed to obscurity and Maggie’s dark pupils were the twin poles of my world. We became two souls joined at the eyes, or rather an hourglass through which one commingled soul could freely slip and pass at will, turning back time with nostalgia or slipping through the present into the future. I gave myself to her utterly in that half hour. Bold with the power of silence, I told her deep things there are no words to tell, sang funny and sad heartsongs to her, kissed her gently while my eyes remained fearlessly, relentlessly opened to hers. She forgave me all my faults and loved me with a love untroubled by that treacherous distorting mirror we call speech.

When we spoke again—reluctantly—every word we uttered seemed a strange and intrusive distraction, and speech a mere vulgar party trick like blowing smoke rings. We both laughed at the unfamiliar awkwardness of it, a man and a woman who’d happened upon each other in the garden and suddenly realized they both were naked.

“Is it just me, or did colors used to be brighter when we were kids?”

I laughed at the unexpectedness of the question; she joined me in laughter, but said, “C’mon, I’m serious. Remember going to the movies? Old Technicolor? I read where it used to be done with three films at once, red yellow and green or something, instead of just one film like they do today. All I know is it’d knock your eyes out when they started one of those old movies up on the screen at the Egyptian, like say at a summer matinee. I haven’t had the same experience since they tore the old place down.”

“Actually it was red, blue and green. There were three negatives, not three films in the projector. It was called dye transfer process. Classic Technicolor went the way of the dinosaur.”

“How come you know so much?”

I didn’t want to tell her how Dennis Diddlehaupt had explained it to me when I was trying out for a job as projectionist. “I used to work at the Egyptian.”

“I miss that old dinosaur. Remember when real theaters, I’m not talking about mall theaters”—she pronounced it thee-A- ters—“had curtains in them, and the curtains opened and closed?”

“What’s your favorite classic Technicolor movie?” I still felt the first-date pang of ungainly speech. Making conversation.

“God, there’s so many. That one with what’s-her-name. She looked up at the ceiling. “Whatever happened to her, anyway? I remember the blues in that movie were so blue. Oh, and Elvis. Anything with Elvis in it.”

“By the time Elvis died they had dismantled the classic Technicolor machines, sold off the parts and all the film stock to China. When it was gone, so was classic Technicolor. Probably all the guys who worked on it in Hollywood are dead and gone by now.”

“Poor old guys. I can almost see them with those wide-brimmed hats and little pencil mustaches, smoking nonfilter cigarettes, wearing suspenders and going ‘nyah, nyah’ all the time.” She crinkled her face in a nasal Edward G. Robinson impression.

“Going ‘nyah, nyah’ all the time?”

“Well, you know, like in all those old movies where the guys who work in the studio behind the cameras are these Hollywood guy types. That’s how they talk. They all say stuff like, ‘well, say, listen’ and ‘why I oughta’ and ‘oh, a wise guy.’”

“Oh, those guys.”

“But the one I remember most of all was that musical about Paris. Now there was Technicolor. Rooftops and street scenes, dance numbers and music. And then he hands her that rose, and the camera zooms in on it until it fills the whole screen? Remember when that one came around, sometime in the sixties?

“It was what they called a re-release. I was the projectionist on that one.”

“You mean it was you up in the booth while me and my friends watched it on the screen? Wow! That was a great moment for me. It was like the streets of Somerset opened up and became the streets of Paris. Movie Paris, way better than the real thing.”

“I was there. I remember it too, that feeling.”

“More than the colors even, I loved that music.” She slid off the sheets and slipped into a robe in a single fluid motion, crossed the room and selected a record album from a wooden rack. Before she had returned to bed, the strains of Gershwin’s masterpiece filled the expansive room, his mastery of Twenties Tin Pan Alley jazz in its infancy. The sighing strings, ricky-ticky Spike Jones traffic sounds, layering of theme upon theme evoking the grand artistic ferment of an age, the bawdiness of the can-can, Van Gogh’s Moulin Rouge, the shimmering beauty of the City of Lights in all its Rive Gauche splendor, the sweetness and purity of that haunting trumpet solo a Siren’s song to the lost generation, to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound. The music made you believe you could dance like a Hollywood star, inspiration overcoming gravity, levitating Chagall-like above the slate Gallic fairytale rooftops at the stroke of twelve, peeking like naughty cupids into dormer windows to spy on other lovers caught up in their rapture. We lay in bed and thought of colors off the daily spectrum; colors too rich and lush to be found in nature. Colors to make you gasp and rub your eyes in wonder.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” Maggie whispered.

“The best ever.” We listened without speaking until the piece was finished. Maggie got up again and flipped the record to Rhapsody in Blue.

“Told you I was born too late,” she said.

“Remember Mr. Schultz, the band teacher? Schmaltzy Schultzy?”

“The guy with the black uniform and the hat, like a Nazi?”

“Like John Philip Sousa on the march. He wasn’t all marches and close-order drill. Do you know what he told us once?

“No, Johnny.”

“He told us that some great music is like great literature: you have to have lived and experienced life in order to appreciate it. I’ve learned that Gershwin’s like that. Now when I hear those compositions I want to go back and really study music, really write that novel. All my life I wanted to write. I promised myself I’d take it up later. Now here I am fifty-three and you want to know something?”

“What, Johnny?”

“I know how truly insignificant and helpless I am in the world. When I was twenty I thought I knew everything. It seemed reasonable, laudable even, to act on your own values and beliefs even when others were betraying theirs. Protest the war, be a hero. Plus if you really must know, there was a girl involved.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” I should have taken that as my cue to shut up. She after all guarded more secrets than I.

“You mentioned before that I’d done some things. That I don’t even know whether my parents are dead or alive.”

She gripped my forearm above the wrist and squeezed. “That was mean of me. Don’t worry. They’re alive, both of them. In fact, your mom used to volunteer at the thrift outlet with me before it got to be too much for her. We used to talk about you every now and then, whenever she wanted. She’s gone kind of goofy now, no offense. Your dad retired from Kaiser’s before Kaiser’s got bought out. They both missed you, Johnny. Whatever you did, whatever you intended, they missed you.”

“George Gershwin and his lovely wife Ira.”

“Beg pardon? Oh. I never knew he was married.” She lit a Tareyton and smoked it in bed as though it were her last.

“It’s a joke, see? Some radio announcer referred to them like that. Actually, Ira was his brother.”

“Don’t change the subject. I’ll go with you if you want. When you go see them, I mean.”

Suddenly I felt isolated and afraid. “Ruthie and Es? What about them?”

“Es married Ray Schneider and moved up around Palatine. They have three kids now, and four grandkids I think.”

“Es married Schneider?”

“Yes, Es married Schneider. It has been a long time, hasn’t it? How does it feel to have nieces and nephews and great-nieces and great-nephews you’ve never met?”

“I couldn’t take a chance and have any contact—telephone, mail, nothing. The authorities would have been watching.”

“And you’re saying you feel insignificant in the Universe? Listen to yourself. You think you’re so goddamn important that the whole world is looking for you, enough to run away from your whole life, for Christ’s sake.”

What could I say? She was right and I knew it. But I added: “Eventually it was for Christ’s sake. There are all kinds of martyrdom, you know. I offered it up to God, my suffering, loneliness, all the guilt, just like your church says to do. You know what I’m talking about?”

“You know your own conscience, I guess. I mean, I know you’re sincere, and all, but here you are asking me to marry you one minute and spouting religion and fine arts the next. I’m too old to want anything less than one hundred per cent solid man in my life and in my bed; a man I can trust. I don’t want you to be like the mercury from a busted thermometer, you know what I’m saying?”

“Let me be that man, Maggie.”

Maggie exhaled smoke from her nostrils like an exasperated dragon. “Do you know your own mind? Do you know what you want at last?” She was nodding quickly, prompting me to say yes.

“Yes.” As soon as the word was out, it felt like a lie.

“Ruthie you’re never going to believe.”

“Try me.”

Her face brightened. “Ruthie’s an artist. A really successful one, so your mom told me. Gives shows in Chicago and New York a couple times a year.”

I flashed on a kind of life review vignette: Ruthie at the kitchen table with water colors and shiny shelf paper working away, me the older brother pestering her, snatching her paints and harrying her elbows when she tried to work, then sullen and resentful when my dad rebuked me. With Ruthie it was never any round ball of green and brown stick for a tree; always true to her vision of life’s detail. “She used to like drawing and painting.”Karl the butcher’s impertinent remark surfaced after nearly four decades: “Guess it runs in the family.”

“Is she married?”

“To a really great guy, yeah. One of my ex-boyfriends, in fact. That’s life in a small town.”

“Who?”

“Dave Unruh. Unruly Dave. The one and only.”

“Unruh?”

“Ain’t life a bitch? Yeah, they seem to have found the secret of happiness, those two. Together for twenty years, producing along the way a couple of, shall we say, headstrong children, both teenagers. And Dave’s always been a child himself. I don’t know where she finds the time to paint. But she does. That painting she donated to be auctioned off at Somerset Festival brought enough out-of-town bid money to keep the thrift outlet going for a solid two years.”

“Must have been some painting.”

“Oh, it was. She called it ‘Echo I.’ It showed you guys’ yard at night, you and your mom and dad, Ruthie and Es, everybody looking up at the stars, and your dad’s got his arm around you, pointing up in the sky. On a sight line where he’s pointing, way up overhead, there’s this shimmering point of light, almost like the Star of Bethlehem moving across the sky. I think she intended it to be like the Star of Bethlehem. One of those artistic deals that makes you think about religious things in a different way but without being sacrilegious, you know? Sold it to a private collector from Chicago for a fortune. They even wrote it up in the paper, him handing Major Franky the check.”

“Major Franky?”

“Yeah, Frank Wolfe. Any relation?”

“Stocky build, dark curly hair, world-class drunk act?”

“That’s Major Franky. Kinda funny when you think about it, a Salvation Army major reeling around like a comedy drunk from some old movie.”

“He’s my cousin.”

“No shit? Small world, ain’t it? I’m gonna love meeting the rest of your family.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

She smoked and sighed, coughing once.

“You really should quit those things, Maggie.”

But she touched a gentle cautionary finger to my lips, saying simply, “No.”

More silence. “So you were a projectionist at the Egyptian? How’d you ever glom onto that job?”

“It was after Ahmad had his accident.”

“God, that was so awful. I’d forgotten. He was Somerset’s first, last and only foreign exchange student, wasn’t he?”

“I was the one who found him.”

“Jesus. What happened?”

“He was…preoccupied, and forgot to open the damper for the ventilator fan. It wasn’t automatic like they have now.” My friends and I theorized at the time that Ahmad, focused on masturbating into the sink while watching the trailers, simply lay down on the black rubber floor tread and fell asleep after making his last changeover. “I’ll never forget it. They were showing that Italian artsy-fartsy movie The Gospel According to St. Matthew, directed by Pier Paulo Pasolini. Pasolini was a Marxist and an atheist, Ahmad told me. Ahmad knew things like that about the movies. He loved the movies: they were the forbidden fruit to him, coming from a tight-ass repressive medieval society. He told me how Pasolini had wanted to cast Jack Kerouac as Jesus Christ, only Kerouac was too old for the part, way over thirty. Then he considered Allen Ginsberg.”

“Who are those guys?”

“People called them ‘beat icons.’ Ginsberg was a homosexual poet and Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road. Have you read it?”

Maggie shook her head. “I guess I’m dumb.”

“Oh, Baby, you gotta read On the Road. It was, like, my bible when I was young.”

“I will, then, if you say so. Is it good?”

“Good? It’s great.”

“You sound like Tony the Tiger when you say that.” She stubbed out her cigarette in the bedside table ashtray. “Want another beer?”

“Sure. I’ll get you a copy. Anyway, Ahmad thought it was funny that all the good Christians in and around Somerset, even those who wouldn’t be caught dead—that was his expression, not mine—watching a movie like, say, Antonioni’s Blow-Up because of the topless scenes and glimpses of bush, as he called it, would buy tickets to a communist atheist’s vision of Christ as proletarian revolutionary. And still be hawkish on Vietnam.”

“I kind of remember that movie. It had subtitles, right? I thought it was real boring.” She stretched and moaned provocatively. “You did say you wanted another beer, right?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

“’Cause I hate to drink alone.”

I had happened to be downstairs in the audience that night on a trainee projectionist’s free pass. What tipped me off was the sound track abruptly sputtering and popping, the numbers and letters going by like a speeding train, then white screen headlights in our faces. It was as if God himself had derailed the movie.

Ahmad never missed a changeover. If he hadn’t just started a reel, somebody might have caught him in time. As it was, I barely beat Dennis Diddlehaupt racing up three stairs at a time to find Ahmad’s lifeless shell crumpled on the floor, depantsed in a final indignity, his pacific olive face and lips bearing the unnatural greenish cast of death under the fluorescent lights. He looked like a leprechaun.

“Jee-zuz Christ,” Dennis said over and over again behind me. It sounded almost like a prayer.

“What do we do now?” They were my words, but felt like dialogue in a movie.

“Whole theater’s full of gas. Get everybody out,” Dennis said, cutting the carbons and dumping the overhead lever for the damper vent. He brought up the house lights, turned the ventilator fan from quiet mode to high and threw open the two tiny windows above the reel-to-reel workbench overlooking the marquee. “Go on, get them out of here. You want to work in a theater, don’t you?” I had almost reached the bottom of the stairs before he called out, “And nobody gets their money back without clearing it with me first. Make sure you tell Teddy Bear.”

I hurried down the center aisle, ascended the three small steps to the narrow stage and faced the audience for my first impromptu public appearance.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been asked to clear the theater. Would you please exit by the nearest aisle in an orderly fashion. Thank you.”

“What the hell is this?” snarled a farmer in the second row—red-faced from anger, or was it carbon monoxide—wearing what may have been his only suit.

In a louder, firmer tone: “Sir, I need to clear the theater. Now if you will please exit by the nearest and most convenient—”

“Bullshit. We all paid good money, and we all got our ticket stubs to prove it. We ain’t none of us goin’ nowhere until you show the rest of the goddamned movie.”

Others began murmuring and complaining, the cacophonous swell of voices growing in intimidating force. I’d blown it. The word ‘refund’ reverberated like an indignant contagious sneeze throughout the auditorium. The situation urgently called for some distinctive form of crowd control. Then from over the balcony rail it rang out: that unmistakably rude air-raid siren of a voice with its raw power, its shattering intensity of command.

“QUIET!”

The first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth could have invoked no more profound silence. The fate motif. Death knock-knock-knocking on your door.

“Now listen,” Dennis in his high-pitched Hoosier accent addressed the crowd with the warning that would win him local fame and make him a Somerset legend, words that were soon to seal his fate and effect his transfer. “We’ve had us a little accident up here. Nobody needs to panic, but the whole theater’s full of gas. So unless you’re fixin’ to be buried in that suit, mister, you best get your ticket stub and your ass outta this theater.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER THIRTEENECHO

 

September 1960

 

“Boy, they’re saying out at the factory some of those high school kids wanted to punch him right in the nose for some of the stuff he was saying,” my dad remarked at the supper table. “Who the hell do those Russians think they are?”

“What was his name again?” My mother, bringing broiled hamburgers to the table. Individual serving dishes of fresh Swiss chard cooked in vinegar and raw green onions standing in a glass, both from the garden. Ketchup and mustard on the table. Stewed tomatoes in a dish to pass. Raw carrot and celery slices. Huge chipped wedding-china bowl of mashed potatoes, my dad’s favorite.

“Rubinoff,” my dad told her. “He called himself ‘Rubinoff the Great.’ Why the school district would piss away money on something like that. Van Heiss says they booed him.” Van Heiss was my dad’s industrial arts trainee from the high school.

“It’s the PTA’s money, I heard. The PTA sponsors acts from time to time. Hear tell the grade school had a clown last year. I never heard any advance warning about this Rubinoff, but then I don’t go to all of their meetings, either.

“Every word out of his damn mouth was anti-American. He’s going to play a violin, fine. Teach the kids something about playing the violin. But don’t come over here, take our money and then bitch about everything American. I wonder how much they paid him.”

“He said he used to be on the radio and that he was famous,” I volunteered. “He was kinda funny. He said that us Americans were so lazy that one day we’d have a machine that shoveled food into our mouths like this.” I imitated the rude man in tails, pantomiming his flapping jawed shoveling motion. “He said he was in Betty Boop cartoons.”

“I think I saw him in one,” Es piped up.

“And on some radio show. Eddie Candy.”

“Eddie Cantor,” my mom corrected. “Oh, there was a Russian guy who had an orchestra back then. I think I remember him now. What was his first name?”

“David, I think. I’m not sure, though.” I was man of the hour, the eldest sibling with first-hand knowledge to impart. Es and the other kindergarten kids had sat Indian-style in the first row. At three, Ruthie was too young to go to grade school. “I thought he was that other guy with a violin—the guy that tells jokes on Ed Sullivan. ‘Take my wife, please’. But that other guy doesn’t have an accent like Rubinoff the Great. Rubinoff plays on a Stradivarius over a hundred years old.”

“Rubinoff the has-been. Rubinoff the communist. He’s probably a Jew.” My dad plopped a king sized dollop of mashed potatoes next to the glistening burger on his plate.

“What’s a Jew?” Es asked.

“Eat your tomatoes, Esther.”

“They look like bloody mess.”

“Eat them anyway. They’re good for you. Tomatoes have vitamin A.”

“Time was people believed tomatoes were poison. They called them love apples,” my dad told her. “Grandma Broomstick remembers. Ask her sometime.”

“I still think they’re poison. They look bloody.”

“Mmm, tomatoes,” I teased, greedily slurping up mine for Es’s benefit. Es clamped her mouth shut and bowed her head over the tomatoes.

“Tell you what,” Dad said. “If everybody finishes their supper tonight, cleans their plates, we’ll have a surprise. A big surprise.”

“Does that include me, too?” Mom asked in a whimsical tone.

“That includes you too, Ma. You know you’re included. You’re number one in my book.” You could always tell when my dad was in an expansive mood. He’d consistently called her ‘Mother’ ever since I could remember, never by her name, which was Betty. When his mood grew expansive he called her ‘Ma.’ She for her part always called him by his given name, which was Duane, but when talking to us kids referred to him as ‘Daddy’ until I left for college.

“Black cows?” I piped up. Black cows meant an evening walk to A&W for a gallon glass jug of the genuine elixir, A & W root beer, to be brought home and poured by my dad with great ceremony over vanilla ice cream into our individual tumblers—the set of big twelve-ounce tumblers with antique car decals that Mom had bought with green stamps when A & P still gave them out.

“What do you think, Ma?” Dad winked at her.

“Sounds good to me,” she smiled. “We haven’t had them in a long time. But how about after Bible reading?”

“Oh, yeah. Bible reading comes first. And then after Black Cows I was thinking we could all go out in the yard when it gets dark and try and see that satellite that’s going around the Earth. The guys were talking about it out to the factory. Echo.”

“Yeah, Echo! Come on, Es, eat your tomatoes. They’re good,” I reassured her with an impatient older brother’s insincerity. Es suffered mightily from lack of appetite. She’d refused to eat lunch for weeks after the kindergarten teacher, oblivious to Es’ uneasy relationship with food, and no doubt endeavoring to explain the ever-changing composition of matter and the cycle of life, told the class that, miracle of miracles, it was indeed within the realm of mathematical and theoretical possibility that a molecule in one of today’s hot dogs in our own school cafeteria might once have resided in George Washington’s big toe. It’s a shame to admit it, but I probably embellished the disgusting and ill-suited example by saying something like: “Maybe she means, Es, that when George Washington’s body rotted, worms ate it, and crawled out of his grave and into the hog pen, and a hog ate the worms, and puked ‘em up and ate ‘em again, and then they butchered the hog, and took out its guts and sent them to the hot dog factory and ground them up worms and all, put the ground-up worms into hot dog skins, and trucked them straight to the cafeteria where Old Lady Mauss picks her nose before she opens the package and handles the hot dogs, and heats them up and puts them on your plate for you to eat. Maybe that could be what your teacher means, Es.” Something like that, an innocent hypothesis. And, “Hey, Es,” (This one for the benefit of my buddies Fuchs and Schneider). “Maybe the molecule your teacher’s talking about came from George Washington’s weiner instead of his toe. Aww, or you know what? Maybe it was in his caca, Es. Could be, you know. Oh, man, what if it came from his caca? From a dead guy’s caca. Or maybe from one of Abe Lincoln’s eyeballs.”

“Or one of Abe Lincoln’s real balls,” Fuchs volunteered, taking it too far. Grand Guignol was okay, as long as it was with my own sister, but my buddies never. Tormenting Es was my own territory, a control issue.

I personally found the teacher’s proffered example far-fetched, but when coupled with my own wry invocation of dead men’s eyes and worse, it had seemed enough to put my squeamish sister off her feed to a worrisome extent. Maybe even enough to jeopardize Black Cows tonight, if untimely called to mind once more.

Es took a tentatively encouraging micro-bite of her stewed tomatoes. My dad reached for the familiar leather-bound Revised Standard where it rested within easy postprandial reach atop Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision on the kitchen step stool.

Maybe if Dad was in the right mood he’d chill us with tales of mammoths perfectly frozen in the wink of an eye, their mouths still full of half-chewed buttercups, of saber tooth tigers ‘torn all to hell’ and frozen in clear blue ice above the arctic circle when Satan fell to earth like a comet, the rivers ran backwards and the Earth turned upside down. “We need to take you kids up to the Field museum again sometime,” he’d say. “All the evidence is there, right in front of your eyes if you look at it.” The prospect of the secrets of the universe readily accessible in a trip to the Field museum in Chicago, not to mention arising at 5 AM for a train trip to Chicago on the Burlington Northern (where if you look out the window and blink fast enough you can freeze the image of individual ties from the adjoining tracks flying by), the colossal echoing cavern of Union Station, and the mummy cases. The unspeakable mummy cases. Real dead bodies staring you in the face, except that their eyes had probably been plucked out by real Egyptian embalmers. Es had been four when I’d wiped my finger along a ledge facing the desert-dried rows of brown corpses, then thrust it under her nose, shrieking “mummy dust!” I’d been punished for making her cry.

As a youth Sunday school teacher, Dad’s scholarship was as unorthodox and eclectic, if not frankly heretical, as my own quasi-academic wanderings would prove to be a few years later. There was Velikovsky in the kitchen, religious pulp magazines with their lurid drawings of plagues, cataclysms, and the Time of the End filling a rack in the living room, and the bookshelf in my parents’ bedroom which contained three books: a King James Bible, a Complete Concordance tome puffed up with self-importance, dominating the shelf, and a dark secret book—off-limits to children—authored by a famous radio minister. When a few years later I ventured Prometheus-like to open its forbidden covers, I discovered mainly what amounted to a diatribe against the evils of masturbation. A couple of years after that, my mother handed the same book to me without comment other than an uncharacteristically stiff, “Your dad and I want you to read this.” And that, folks, was the extent of my home-schooled sex education.

My sister Es gradually got over her childish aversion to cafeteria food, particularly hot dogs. Not that we ate hot dogs in those days. Hot dogs were unclean meat. We had to assume that good old U. S. government inspected hot dogs, even though arguably not contaminated by any vestige of any of our great American presidents’ mortal remains, surely contained pork. The same famous radio minister preached Old Testament abstinence from any food taken from a beast that walks on cloven hoof, i.e., a hog. Beef was all right but not pork in any form. Then we’d make fun of the Catholics for not eating meat on Fridays.

“A pig will eat anything,” my dad said once at the table. “It’s a filthy animal, even eats its own manure if it can’t get anything else.”

“Duane,” my mother said.

“It’s the truth. A cow has four stomachs. It only eats wholesome food, and digests it real well to get rid of the poisons. There are good reasons for all the Old Testament laws. In Old Testament times they didn’t know about diseases you can get from swine, like trichinosis, hookworm, swine flu—”

“Won’t a chicken eat anything too?” I queried. “Fuchs said he saw a chicken eat a mouse once.”

“Johnny!” my mother warned in a stern tone lacking the indulgence perhaps understandably shown my father. Es’s face already contorted with horror. Would she ever eat poultry again?

“Chicken’s all right to eat,” my dad hastened to explain. “Chicken lives its whole life in a coop where they feed it wholesome food full of vitamins. Mice can’t get in there. Now fish is okay too, as long as it has fins and scales. A fish that don’t have fins and scales is like a bullhead or a catfish, a bottom feeder—a scavenger fish, like an underwater buzzard.”

“Fish eat worms,” I said with an air of authority.

“Johnny! That’s enough.”My mother, fearing the four basic food groups vanishing from Es’s diet in the span of one dinner conversation.

“You fish for carp, don’t you?” my dad quizzed me. “Remember that last time you fished for carp in Lake Somerset?”

“Yeah.”

“What did you use? For bait, I mean. I know, because I showed you how to make them.”

“Doughballs.”

“Doughballs. That’s right.” Dad turned to Es, full of reassurance. “Real fish, the ones with fins and scales, go for healthy bait like doughballs. Those are the fish that’re good to eat, the Bible says.”

“The Bible says carp are good to eat?”

“Not only carp, but any fish with fins and scales. The fish has to have both. Muskies have fins but no scales. You can’t eat a muskie.”

“Aren’t carp just great big goldfish, somebody’s pet that they throw in the lake when it gets too big to take care of? The great big goldfish at Grandma Broomstick’s fish pond are really carp, aren’t they? That’s what Robin says.”

“You keep listening to what Robin says, you’ll go to hell with patches on your ass,” my dad replied. “Now lets read our Bible while Es finishes every bite of those love apples—I mean tomatoes. Where were we? Oh, yes. The Book of Acts, Chapter Ten, verse One.

‘“Now there was a certain man in Caesarea, Cornelius by name, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man, and one who feared God with all his house, who gave gifts for the needy generously to the people, and always prayed to God.

At about the ninth hour of the day, he clearly saw in a vision an angel of God coming to him, and saying to him, “Cornelius!” He, fastening his eyes on him, and being frightened, said, “What is it, Lord?” He said to him, “Your prayers and your gifts to the needy have gone up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and get Simon, who is surnamed Peter. He lodges with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.”

When the angel who spoke to him had departed, Cornelius called two of his household servants and a devout soldier of those who waited on him continually. Having explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.

‘“Now on the next day as they were on their journey, and got close to the city, Peter went up on the housetop to pray at about noon. He became hungry and desired to eat, but while they were preparing, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and a certain container descending to him, like a great sheet let down by four corners on the earth, in which were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild animals, reptiles, and birds of the sky. A voice came to him, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!”

“But Peter said, “Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” A voice came to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed, you must not call unclean.” This was done three times, and immediately the vessel was received up into heaven.

“Now while Peter was very perplexed in himself what the vision which he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood before the gate, and called and asked whether Simon, who was surnamed Peter, was lodging there. While Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men seek you. But arise, get down, and go with them, doubting nothing; for I have sent them.””

My dad replaced the red silk bookmark and closed the Bible. “Remember three men appearing to any other Bible figure, Johnny?”

“To Lot, in Genesis,” I said.

“You’re close. Close but no cigar. Who was it? Go on, you’re on the right track. I know you know this.”

“Abraham? Also Genesis?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“Telling you.”

“Abraham is right. And what is the word for these visitations?”

“A Theophany?”

“Very good. That means the Trinity—or at least their angels—appeared to Abraham. Two of them then went on ahead to Sodom to warn Lot and his family to flee. Are the three men sent to Peter by the Holy Spirit really angels too? Angels in disguise, maybe?”

“No. I mean, the verses you just read says they were men. Two servants and a soldier of Cornelius.”

“Do you know what the word ‘angel’ means, Johnny?”

“Spirit?”

“You’re guessing now. No, the word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger.’ Angels are messengers sent by God. Were these men sent by God?”

“I suppose so.”

“Of course they were. God told Cornelius to send men to Joppa. Remember, the Bible tells us in Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. What’s another Theophany? Here’s a hint: Paul talks about it in Hebrews.”

“Melchizedek, King of Salem.”

“That’s right. Some say that Melchizedek was Jesus Christ himself. After all, Abraham tithed to him. Who do we tithe to besides God? And the Bible says Melchizedek was without father or mother, neither beginning of days nor end of life. His title means ‘King of Peace.’ And he brought forth bread and wine. What do bread and wine remind you of?”

We were stumped.

“Ok, I’ll give you a hint: bread and grape juice.”

“Communion!” Es got it on the first try.

“Good girl, Es. You sure you’re only in kindergarten?”

“Yup.” Es took the opportunity to ignore her remaining portion of tomatoes.

“Let’s see how Bible smart you are, then, Es. What was Paul’s name before he was called by the Lord Jesus?”

“Saul.”

“Very good. And what was Peter’s name before he was called by the Lord Jesus?”

“Simon.”

“Amazing. You know what, Esther Wolfe? You’re so smart, I’ll bet Mother will let you skip eating the rest of your stewed tomatoes, just this once.”

“Well, just this once,” my mother agreed.

“Who wants Black Cows?” my dad posed the rhetorical question. We trooped out the front door and down to Meridian Street, my dad carrying Ruthie on his shoulders most of the way. We took the short cut past the roller rink, a huge airline-hangar quonset with its row upon row of chasing lights the color of custard. The big front doors open to let in the night air, we could see long skirts and pony tails swaying, red-faced farm boys with slicked-back hair, hear the roll of skates as couples glided across the concrete skating floor accompanied by tinny sounds of Connie Francis singing My Heart Has a Mind of its Own. I got to carry the jug all the way home. There was vanilla ice cream in the freezer.

Dad did the honors while Mom did the dishes. Soon we all were ranged around the kitchen table with Black Cows in front of us so thick you couldn’t eat one without a long iced tea spoon. Dad put on a radio sermon but, too full of the night’s wonders, I couldn’t listen to the bombastic preacher. I’d craned my neck upward at every chance during the root beer run, but the dusk hadn’t turned to full night, and besides, I didn’t know Echo’s orbit. Probably Dad did, from talking to the guys in the corn picker department. Finally it was dark outside. Ruthie chased lightning bugs but never caught any. Dad saw it first: a bright pinpoint of light like the picture tube made when you turned it off, migrating slowly across the starry vault of the night sky. He draped his arm around my shoulders; he was so close I could smell the root beer on his breath as he pointed the flashlight and said, soft as though it might hear us and shy away like a wild thing: “Look there. Echo.”

We two older kids were full of questions.

“What’s it made of?”

“How fast is it going? It looks real slow.”

“How do they light it up like that?”

“Is there a dog or a monkey onboard?”

“Is it taking pictures of us?”

“Do you think it can see us if we point the flashlight just right?”

I remember little Ruthie stood transfixed and stared at it without comment or visible reaction, its Bethlehem course reflected and captured within the crystal orbs that were and would become her artist’s eyes.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FOURTEENBIG-BREASTED WOMEN UNDER SIXTY-FIVE

 

Maggie involved me easily in her life’s routines. Weekends were the flea markets. We’d pack up the van like a gypsy caravan Friday night before dark with all the display cases, jewelry boxes, extension cords, folding tables and chairs, inventory individually wrapped in newsprint or bagged in Ziploc bags as the nature of the merchandise warranted. We would often head out before dawn to fairground floral halls, municipal parking lots, church bingo parlors and defunct K-Marts. Everything had to be unwrapped and set up by eight or nine AM and re-wrapped and torn down by five. Maggie was a veteran dealer and her MO was simple: buy low and sell high. Every auction warranted an appearance, every estate sale for miles around guaranteed her presence. She’d comb the legal notices in classified sections of all the small town newspapers and call the executors offering her condolences as well as her services. Estate jewelry was one of her specialties. “Turn it into cash before the heirs start fighting over it,” was her motto. It didn’t take much getting used to: it was a sort of carny life all its own.

After morning setup my contribution was basically one of idleness: a scarecrow to discourage shoplifting, I sat in a folding chair behind a card table, shot the shit with voluble passers-by and oversaw the exhibits of old TV Guides and Life magazines going for five dollars per, and more if the cover featured a Kennedy, an Elvis, or a thirty-year-old picture of any celebrity who had recently died. I wrote receipts, made change and kept the take in an old dented fishing tackle box. Maggie authorized me to shave ten per cent off whenever the customer was interested in buying in bulk as long as the customer wasn’t a dealer. She considered a buyer who deigned to buy discount off another dealer a scavenger of the worst sort. “Let ‘em stand around in the rain and cold at the auctions same as I do,” she’d say.

The only rules of conduct I needed to abide by, I soon learned, were of the negative variety: not to leave my post without Maggie to relieve me, not to discount for a dealer, and not to flirt with any big-breasted women under sixty-five. None of these strictures was so onerous as to constitute a burden for me.

Have you ever sat in a chair for eight hours watching people pass by? It helps to bring along something to read, although in order to make a respectable number of sales one must maintain sufficient degree of eye contact with the crowd so as not to seem in any manner aloof. I couldn’t read the old TV Guides because I might finger-track them and dampen the collector’s resale value. Doing the crosswords was totally out of the question.

One unfamiliar with flea markets would probably have no idea the brisk business opportunities that exist in old TV Guides, movie and romance magazines, Sears & Roebuck catalogues, faded old portrait studio photos of the anonymous dead trussed up in their Sunday finery for long-forgotten weddings, christenings, and graduations, and toys from the era when Maggie and I were girl and boy, e.g., Ideal Tammy dolls and Glamour Misty dolls in original boxes, and, pristine as though still under the tree, an A. C. Gilbert Erector set in red steel case, manufactured by the Gilbert Hall of Science. The Erector set contained a real electric motor with which you could power your very own model simp-heister. Maggie wanted a hundred for it but confidentially would have taken ninety.

Conversation was no challenge; due to my legal problems I was well-versed in being vague. A man of my apparent age could be ambiguously retired. When the time-passing conversation turned, as it often did, to life histories, my best defense was to become the good listener. Many of the dealers seemed to pursue their calling out of loneliness and boredom from retirement. All of them touted the freedom of the open road and the joys of being one’s own boss.

The real-life conversation challenge was with Maggie. I had made a true commitment with this woman. The fact that it was first uttered naked in her bed did not detract at all from its holiness in my mind. The problem was that I was not used to the closeness of life with a woman—any woman. Beth and I had been two children. Darlene Hahn and I had been two children. I still carried the guilt of Darlene Hahn in my mind. But Maggie proved to be sensory overload, a cornucopia of new delights, strange sensations and novel emotions, of petty rages soon forgotten and exotic sexual demands at startling times and places. The challenge with Maggie was not only what to talk about—my topics tended to draw heavily from religion—but the constant threat of interruption to make love. Maggie took sex to the pain level; I grew to crave both the warmth and the soreness of our frictive couplings. Maybe it was her way of compensating for a falsely perceived inadequacy of social intercourse skills by initiating sexual intercourse.

Maggie loved the risk of almost getting caught. Now I understood how on our first night together she had been enjoying the danger like a reckless motorist trying to beat a train to the crossing. When daughter Laura Hahn, used to be Laura Gross, her two: Jessica and Jakie—both of whose grandmas I’d screwed—and fifteen-year-old Kurt Russell came be-bopping in through the bedroom door hollering when do we eat, would I be eating Maggie?

The challenge of public sex also fascinated her, a particularly treacherous obsession in a small town like Somerset. I discovered that aspect of her early on, the last night before the carnival left town, when for some unaccountable reason she dragged me downtown for a ride on the simp-heister. Bud was jockeying the old girl for the evening; he gave me a knowing smirk as he slammed the lap bar down and swung the car into a sickening rocking motion. In no time we were stranded at the top.

“I love it up here. Look at the stars, Johnny. And the flat rooftops of all the store buildings. It’s so funky up here, like when I was little, my dad would lift me up so high I could see the dirt on top of the refrigerator and the dead bugs inside the light fixtures.”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not very talkative this evening.”

“It’s just that I’m kinda scared of these things.”

“You’re kidding. A carny man like you afraid of the Ferris wheel?”

“Go figure.” I tensed as the stopped car jerked into motion and then halted again a foot later, swinging perilously. Gravity seemed to intensify with height. Even the light evening breeze felt threatening.

“Good thing I brought this for us, huh?” She unfolded and spread a heavy western blanket rough as horsehair over our laps, tucking it securely against wayward breezes or prying eyes. She snuggled against me; I felt her tongue in my ear. “Let me unzip you, all right?”

Fear is desire’s first cousin. She had me going in moments. “This isn’t fair to you, Maggie.”

“You’re not asking me to stop, are you?”

“Not that, but—”

“I’m not wearing any underpants, in case you’re interested. And my skirt’s up, under this blanket.”

“I have to hang on.”

“Hang on with your other hand, Darling.”

When we dismounted we fairly ran down the exit ramp onto the midway, blanket flapping. From the breadth of his leer I could swear Bud had been peeping through the holes punch-pressed into the seat and the footrest of our car.

“I love the lights of the midway at night. Sometimes I think I should have run away with the carnival like you did.”

“I didn’t run away with the carnival. I ran away to day labor, sweatshop work, migrant farm work, messenger, apple picker, trash picker, you name it. Permanent entry level employment.”

“That’s over now. What we have together is permanent.”

“I want it to be. I want to marry you using my right name, not some phony moniker off a dead baby’s tombstone.”

“Don’t say it like that. Gives me the shivers.”

“Didn’t that simp—that Ferris wheel ride give you the shivers?”

“No, Johnny. That warmed me up. For the main event.”

“What is it about, you know, being in public?”

“The freedom,” she answered without hesitating. “The ‘I’m an adult, free white and twenty-one, so why not?’ thing. If uptight people have a problem with it, don’t make your problem mine, you know? Oh, my, does that shock you?”

“How could I say yes? I’m a willing participant.”

“I’d hate to think I’d raped a man on the Ferris wheel. Or anywhere else, for that matter. The church. The store.” Her eyes gleamed; mouth broke into a naughty smile. “The store!” She pulled away from me in a loping run. “C’mon! It’s only half an hour ‘til Kurt’s closes!”

Wider aisles, brighter fluorescent lighting and more of a convenient store feel than I remembered. Wearing the blanket like a cape, Maggie bade a brief greeting to the elderly man clerking until closing, then led me to the rear of the store and leaned back against a glass case of deli meats. She raised both arms, hands gripping the hem of the blanket and enfolded the two of us into its warmth. I heard the bell over the front door chime once, then again, and heard muffled voices near the front of the store. Maggie brought her lips close to my ear and whispered, “Fuck me. Fuck me right now, right here.”

I was drained from the simp-heister, but her expert fingers soon did their magic. For her part she knew how to keep quiet, except for a low guttural grunt when I entered her, and heavy breathing, some of which may have been mine. “I could get used to this,” I shuddered.

“Could you?”

In ecstasy I craned my neck upward, eyes closed. When I opened them I was staring straight into the elderly clerk’s disapproving scowl reflected in the overhead security mirror. He shook his head briefly before turning away to other duties.

“My friends and I used to watch you fuck at fifteen,” I blurted out, close to climax. It started a sexy soliloquy in her.

“Is this where you talk dirty to me, baby? Now you’re fucking me, is that right, Baby? Is that what you want to tell Momma? Well, go ahead and fuck me, Baby. Fuck me harder. Teach me, Preacher, with that gnarly old cock of yours inside of me while you squeeze my big ass with both of those gnarly praying hands.”

“You don’t have a big ass,” I lied, eyes on the fisheye rearview.

 

 

 

CHAPTER FIFTEENMONDAY, MAY 4TH, 1970

 

Sybil Danning and October 1983 Playmate Tracy Vaccaro each celebrated a birthday; current Playmate of the Month Jennifer Liano listed her measurements as thirty-six, twenty-two, thirty-four; the Pulitzer prize was awarded to Eric H. Erikson for his book Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence; The Guess Who’s American Woman topped the WLS Silver Dollar Survey; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Woodstock was number five with a bullet; Tom Jones was gaining on the Beatles’ Let it Be with Daughter of Darkness at number twenty-two. Energized by current events and the anticipation of bursting bombs, everyone at the Roach Hotel had gotten up before noon. In the dusty front room, Arlo read aloud from a library book by James Lipton.

“‘A gaggle of geese.” My old maid English teacher would have called that ‘hackneyed.’ Here’s one I didn’t know: ‘A parliament of owls.’ Here’s one I think he made up himself: ‘A shrewdness of apes.’”

“Oh, I got one!” Shauna, sleepy-voiced. “A pride of lions.”

“Groovy. How ‘bout ‘a murder of crows. A dole of doves. An exaltation of larks.’”

“A bunch of cocksuckers,” I leered, entering the room in my torn boxer shorts and beat-up pool flip-flops. Out of pure waking surliness I deliberately rearranged my privates in Shauna’s full view.

“What’s your problem, Wolfy?” Shauna snarled. “Can’t stand to hear anybody else having a good time?”

“Good time? In case you’ve forgotten last night’s discussion, Holly Peters, allow me to remind you we’re all going on the run in a day or so. Underground, as in a foursome of freaks, you dig? With a pack of lawmen on our asses.”

Beth in tears, face contorted and red, emerged from the kitchen. Emotional displays were so uncharacteristic for her; I instantly assumed she’d received word one of her despised parents had died.

“Four dead at Kent State in Ohio,” she murmured, “peacefully demonstrating against ROTC. All four shot dead in cold blood by National Guard pigs. It’s all over the radio.”

Shauna screamed as though she’d seen a snake.

“At least nine others wounded. It’s comin’ down, man! We gotta do this thing now, before they close the University.”

“Are you crazy? I can’t do it now, with both buildings full of students and faculty.”

“Chickenshit wimpass Wolfy,” Shauna derided me. “You rule-following system-conforming sellout pledge-allegiance play-it-safe pussy salute-the-flag law-abiding Joe college motherfucker! I knew it! I knew you’d wussy out on us the minute things started to get hairy.”

Beth crossed her arms and glared at me. American Woman blared from the kitchen radio for about the zillionth time. I had to defend myself from the females of the tribe, and soon.

“Get hairy? Who’s going into those buildings bare-cocked and setting up bombs? All you’re doing is placing an anonymous phone call. I’ll bet you’re planning on wearing gloves when you dial so the pigs can’t dust the pushbuttons for prints, right? Who’s a play-it-safe pussy, Shauna, me or you?”

I threw on my cleanest white shirt and black pants without another word to any of them. I pulled on my socks and shoes on the couch next to a red-background smiling painted portrait of Glen Campbell strumming his guitar on the front cover of TV Guide featuring the article TV and Sex Education: The Battle Rages. Glen just kept on smiling and strumming as I slammed out the front door.

I entered the cave that was McGuire’s, full of sunlight and empty of patrons, just after noon. A white-haired man my grandfather’s age interrupted his sweeping long enough to draw me a beer and take my quarter. After two or three more quarters he took a break. Mistaking my clean-cut appearance for conservatism, he tried to make conversation.

“Tell you what’s gone wrong with this town in one word.”

Wink, I can name that tune in one word.

“What’s that?”

“The niggers,” he said.

“That’s two words.”

The old man looked momentarily perplexed. “Two words, then. The University brings ‘em all down here in droves from Chicago, from the ghetto. Something called the CHANCE program pays for everything: clothes, platform shoes, them big pimp hats they all wear.” He demonstrated with both thumbs and forefingers, forming an enormous brim in the thin air surrounding his head.

“I’ve heard of that.”

“Yeah, puts ‘em up in them brand-new dormitories, pays for everything, even gives ‘em a cash stipend. I heard it was a thousand a month.”

“That much?”

“S’what I heard. Whaddaya think they use to buy all their damn dope with?”

“Easy come, easy go.”

“Easy come, easy go, hell. That’s our hard-earned tax money them cocksuckers are spendin’. And then at ball games out to the college when they play the national anthem and everybody salutes or puts their hand over their heart, you know?”

“Yeah?”

“Them cocksuckers hold up their fists and give each other that black power salute. During the national anthem. And I’ll tell you somethin’ else, too.”

“What’s that?”

“A lot of ‘em are in here prid near every night sniffin’ around the white girls. You know, girls from the college.” He refilled my glass, refusing my proffered quarter this time. From a distance, I heard a soft pump motor kick in. “Now, not all white girls pay any attention to ‘em. And those that do ain’t strictly white. Mostly Jewesses, I think, from the looks of ‘em.”

“Jewesses,” I nodded.

“I think most of your strictly white girls are scared of ‘em, at least at first. Then them bucks start in sweet-talkin’ ‘em, buying ‘em drinks, talking about how oppressed they are, how misunderstood. The whole thing’s an act to get into their pants, see?”

“What else?”

“Oh, yeah. Then they take ‘em out to their cars—CHANCE program pays for them big cars, too; one a’ them cocksuckers drives a Cadillac. Can you believe it? It’s the white girl that’s takin’ a hell of a chance, you ask me.”

“Hell of a chance.”

“Cause as soon as he gets her out to the parking lot, and she gets a little air, starts thinkin’ maybe she don’t wanna put out for him and alla his black bastard pals, that’s when they’re liable to beat the shit out of her. And even if they don’t, I keep tellin’ ‘em, no decent white man’s gonna touch you once you been with a nigger.”

“Sure, I get it.”

“I keep tellin’ em, you can’t put niggers and easy money and dope and booze and flashy cars and white girls together without there bein’ a whole lot of trouble. It’s what you call a recipe for trouble, like selling whiskey and guns to the Indians. You need another beer?”

“I’m good.”

“You know what I mean, though. You work out at Green Giant, dontcha?”

I smiled and nodded.

“I knew you was from Green Giant. You guys have a certain look about you. Playing hooky today, though, right?”

I smiled again, conceding that I’d been had. “Trouble with the old lady,” I said.

“How’s that?”

“Always bitching.”

“Better get used to it, friend. Got any kids?”

“Two. Boy and a girl.”

“You’re trapped all right. Better get used to it.” He extended his hand over the bar. “Wendell,” he said.

“John. John Bohannon.”

“Glad to know you, John.”

We listened to the silence until I said, “I think she may be sleeping with a nigger.”

Astonished, he hawked and spit an ejaculation-sized loogie on the wooden skid behind the sink before asking, “Whatcha drinkin’ besides beer?”

“Whiskey.”

“Jack and Coke? We sell a lot of them every night.”

“Let’s do it.”

He set up two, then brought the bottle from the rail and poured generous shots for both of us. “Sleepin’ with a nigger, now that’s bad. Know who it is?”

“Great big guy. Wears his hair in one of those ‘fro’s.”

“Like a big dandelion? Hope it ain’t that goddamn Soul Food. That cocksucker’s in here damn near every night.”

“That what they call him? Soul Food?”

“That ain’t what I call ‘im. I call ‘im Asshole. But that’s what he goes by, yeah: Soul Food. Great big bastard. One time he took off the door to the men’s can just by slammin’ it. He goes mostly for them Jewesses with the biggest tits, though.”

“I bet they fuck like minks,” I ventured.

“Awh,” he nodded, mouth agape with concurrence. “You’re talking to the guy that fills up the rubber machine in the women’s can. Minks ain’t the word for it. Don’t forget, they ain’t Christian like you and me. They can fuck this nigger or that nigger all night long and not feel a bit a’ guilt about it. Take my word for it, most ‘a them Jewesses are in here every night a the week suckin’ on nigger lips. Or worse.”

“If they aren’t Christian, what do they believe in?”

“You’re kiddin,’ right? They’re all bra-burning liberals, that’s what they believe in. A couple of ‘em even flashed their bare titties all over the courthouse a while back. I read about it in the paper. They must be crazy.”

“All over the courthouse?”

“Yeah, protesting some nigger being in jail where he belonged.”

Wendell sat Shiva with me for my moribund imaginary marriage until some ancient barfly regulars arrived and needed tending. His tour of duty apparently ended at four o’clock when a younger man replaced him: Les, a shift worker at Green Giant,

now moonlighting and cruising the chicks. If I closed my eyes I couldn’t tell him apart from Wendell.

“Got a Jewish chick comes in here sometimes, name of Bec, short for Rebecca? I bet she’s from Skokie. Rebecca from Sko-kikee. Tits like fucking melons, I swear to Christ. What I wouldn’t give to throw a fuck into her. And one of these nights I’m gonna do just that.” And so on.

Seven o’clock rolled around before I saw a familiar face. Lawrence from the jail, flanked by a beauty with luxuriant wavy hair, a Levantine face and breasts barely restrained by a man’s denim work shirt and coveralls. After seven hours of drinking I took a chance: “Soul Food! Bec!”

“Aw, man, it’s No Dick. S’happenin’, man?” Lawrence tried me on one of those signing-for-the-deaf handshakes, but it was totally beyond me. We settled for a freak brothers left-handed arm-wrestle of a greeting. I joined them in a back booth facing the dance floor where no doubt Lawrence presided over the action every night.

“Don’t know as I resemble that nickname.”

“No, Dude. You gots a big dick—fo’ a white man.” He chortled and traded hand-slaps with Bec before explaining, “It’s like, Dude with a big ass, he be No Ass, you dig? Brother with big lips like a carp, he be No Lips. What they all be callin’ you in the jailhouse after you flash the judge that time before you cop.”

“What, No Lips?”

“No, man. No Dick’s what they call you.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, No Dick.” Bec gave me her hand, which was lotiony-soft, warm and inviting. Les glared over at the three of us, envying me.

“Glad to meet you, No Tits.”

“Dude broke the code,” Lawrence snickered. Bec smiled at the compliment.

“So what you been doin’, Man?”

I accepted Lawrence’s offer of a cigarette even though I didn’t smoke. Spirit in the Sky blared from the jukebox. “You’ll be reading all about it in the papers tomorrow, what I’ve been doing.”

“You goin’ notorious, Man?”

“You heard about all that shit that went down today in Ohio?”

“Kent State,” Bec said. “What an awful tragedy.”

I couldn’t feel my face from the drinks. “Well, me and some friends of mine decided to do a little something about it. It’s all goin’ down tonight. You’re looking at a master chemist. A bomb-builder.”

“Say what?” Lawrence’s falsetto seemed almost comic to a desperate criminal like myself. I sensed Bec looking at me in an entirely new and awed light—a Midwestern Che Guevara disguised as a nerd. Maybe, being Jewish, nerds turned her on. I couldn’t wait to tell more.

“You know Faraday Hall? The ROTC building next door?”

Bec nodded. Lawrence looked around for a waitress.

“Tonight around nine o’clock? You don’t want to be anywhere around there.”

“I hate ROTC,” Bec sniffed. “But why chemistry?”

“Ever hear of a certain company named Dow Chemical? And a nasty little product of theirs called napalm? Dow recruits at Faraday all the time.”

“I want to watch you blow them up. Don’t you want to watch, Soul Food?”

Lawrence had finally caught a waitress’ eye. “Say what? No, Bitch, I do not wanna watch. I don’t even wanna hear no more of this Dude’s bullshit. Dude went and got hisself crazy with some shit. You go watch, you better be watchin’ your own sweet ass.”

I remember reeling out of McGuire’s with Bec in tow. I remember snaking my arm around her once we reached the relative darkness of the campus beside the lagoon, half-listening to her tell me about spending last summer living and working on a kibbutz.

“How do you know Soul Food?”

“Met him in jail.” There is a swagger to that phrase like no other. I keyed the outer door of Faraday with a flourish and gave her a private tour of the building, culminating with my basement laboratory. From the storage room I rolled one black fifty-five gallon drum from its hiding place, then had her watch while I wired it to the telephone ringer. Even drunk and under Bec’s close observation, the endless practice sessions paid off. My fingers were magic as Uri Geller’s.

“I feel like Menachem Begin or one of the other freedom fighters,” Bec said. It was 7:43. I struggled for something to say to her, something in common with her Jewish roots, to unite us further.

“I really found it interesting that booth they built on campus last fall, made out of leaves and tree branches? I think Hillel House did it. You a member of Hillel House, by any chance, Bec?” I knew something of the Feast of Tabernacles from pictures in little Sunday school papers in the elementary grades. Dim memories of cutouts and messy school paste jars.

“The sukkah. Yeah, I helped build that one last year, as a matter of fact. My freshman year. I was still Judy conservative back then, the Jap from Palatine. Bas Mitzvah and the whole megillah. How things do change.”

“No kidding.”

“No shit. We were daring each other to stay in it for a week, my boyfriend at the time and I. That was before the movement radicalized me. My head’s totally in another place now.”

“Do you still keep the, what do you call, the high holy days?”

“You mean Succoth? Sure, sort of. I mean, I am still Jewish and all.”

“What I know, it’s a kind of harvest home festival celebrating the end of the harvest, right? Two weeks after the Feast of Trumpets?”

“You know all this how?”

“I read. All the time. I practically live at the library. In ancient Israel, the people stayed in the tabernacles for seven days, remembering when they were wanderers for forty years in the Wilderness, delivered from slavery but not yet living in the Promised Land. Then on the eighth day, there would be merrymaking and sacrifices to God. The sojourners in the land took part in the rejoicing, and so did the servants, the widows and the orphans.”

“Succoth is two weeks after Rosh Hashanah, five days after Yom Kippur, on fifteenth Tishri, that’s right. Some of your Christian brethren think fifteenth Tishri is the real Christmas, the day Christ was born. Do you know all this, goy boy, from your constant reading? Succoth is to remind us that we are strangers and sojourners in this life, and that we are to welcome the foreigner and the wayfarer and to remember that we ourselves once were slaves. Oy, I sound just like a rabbi. God, and I drank so much beer today. Oy gevalt!”

“Now we head for ROTC.” I balanced the remaining drum on a two-wheel dolly and took the elevator to the main floor. The elevator opened onto darkness. I followed the corridor to the main rear doors of Faraday, Bec trailing along behind me like a child. Outside, a couple of freaks met us on the path. Put off by my appearance, one of them sang out, “Oh, have you seen the garbage man, the garbage man, the garbage man?” until Bec retorted, “Fuck you, faggot.”

The ROTC building stood unguarded, except in alternating fashion by Alvin—alternating Alvin—next to the arboretum, the lone fortress in a hostile land. The drinks raised my blood and bred impatience in me; I hammered on the door like Moses striking the water-bearing rock with his rod. White-faced Arlo appeared, an awakened concierge, and opened the door.

“Shit, man, I duct-taped the door like you said. What are you doing knocking like it’s a raid and you’re The Man?”

“Sorry, Arlo, I forgot.”

“Plus you’re way early, man. It’s not even dark yet.”

“It’s dark as it’s gonna get.”

“So who’s the broad?”

“Arlo, meet Bec. Bec, Arlo.”

“Hi. Don’t I know you from Poly Sci?”

“I don’t think so. Can I talk to you, man?” That last directed to me. Arlo took me by the elbow and moved me away from Bec and the bomb before whispering, “Hey, man, you do realize we’re in the course of committing a major crime here, don’t you? I mean, has that righteously sunk in with you yet?”

“Sure, Arlo.”

“Sure, Arlo. So then what gives, you bringing along this Jewish broad like it’s a hayride to the Holy Land? I refuse to make any more fake ID’s. That kitchen’s closed.”

“Don’t worry, Arlo, Bec’s cool.”

“Bec’s cool. I hope the fuck Bec’s cool, because it’s your ass and mine if she’s anything else but cool.”

“Bec thinks we’re freedom fighters like the Israelis.”

“Well, we are. Aren’t we?”

Arlo had brought the wafer-thin plastic ruler we used to slip the lock of the Commander’s office. Bec viewed the wall maps like exhibits in a war museum, paying no attention to Arlo and me rigging the phone fuse. She had seen it before. How I wanted to nail her, and then run away with her to the sunny hills of her Israel. The Holy Land indeed.

The three of us exited ROTC the way we had come. Arlo split for the Roach Hotel. There was a phone booth under a streetlight by Sven Parson Library. Bec snuggled close to my neck, clinging to me, whispering: “Let me set it off for you, No Dick. Then we can watch it burn together.”

What the hell. Beth had wanted me fixed tomorrow. She’d even sided with Shauna in this morning’s latest belittling session that had run me out of the house in the first place. They needed me, but did I really need any of them? “I hardly know you, Bec. I’d like to know you.”

“What do you wanna know, No Dick?”

“First of all, my name’s Johnny. Where you from, Bec?”

“Palatine.” She pronounced it Pyalatine.

Nervously: “I hope we can, you know, be together after this thing goes off.”

“We are together, Johnny.”

“No, I mean really, like, you know, be together.”

“You mean you want to have sex with me?” It was a statement and a judgment.

“No, no, no, not just sex, Bec. Travel together, like two revolutionaries on the run, two freedom fighters, like you said.”

“But first you want to have sex with me; that’s what you’re really saying, right?”

“Much more than that. I want to escape to the Holy Land with you.”

“I’ve already been to the Holy Land,” she sniffed. “Besides, I have midterms. Are you going to let me set these bombs off or what?”

I had only quarters, no dimes. I handed her two, folded in the original notebook paper on which I’d written the two phone numbers. While she placed the first call, I stood close behind her and fondled her breasts. She didn’t resist. In fact, she didn’t respond at all until ROTC went up. Then she started breathing heavily, stamping her feet in a kind of dance, but unlike Lot’s wife, she didn’t turn around to look back. Nighttime pedestrians paused to gasp and point at the scene behind us. Bec dialed the other number. A second explosion. More hoots and howls, like at a fireworks display. She whimpered, then gasped. I felt down to Bec’s crotch to encounter adventitious water.

“Don’t touch me there,” she warned. “I… just peed my pants. Told you I had too much beer today.” She ran away into the night without another word. Before I turned to go after her, I paused for a second to admire my own handiwork. ROTC and Faraday, every floor befouled with smoke. But there were flames as well. There weren’t supposed to be flames. And sirens in the distance. And one very important detail I’d forgotten.

Alvin. I’d forgotten that aspect of the plan that called for me to get him drunk and out of harm’s way, each furnishing an ironclad alibi for the other. Alvin making his rounds, probably overcome already by the choking, impenetrably thick smoke. Alvin likely to perish by my hand in something akin to parricide. I sprinted for Faraday. Struggled for the key to the rear door facing the lagoon. Opened it to waves of black smoke and hellish heat. Hesitated. I knew the layout well. If Alvin were only in his customary easy chair in the boiler room listening to the radio, instead of mid-rounds toting his watch-clock. And where were the sprinklers I’d privately relied upon to minimize the effects of the smoke and prevent a major fire?

I hit the floor and loped hyena-like on all fours to the basement stairs. Smoke even thicker, belching out, impossible to breathe. Like sticking your head in a barbecue grill. I did a chin-up on a drinking fountain, intending to soak my shirt and cover my face, but all I could get was a trickle, then nothing. Why no water? Sopping up what little I could into my white shirt, now already heavy with soot, I made a mask and darted down the blacked-out cavern of the staircase. What about the risk of explosion with all those chemicals stored? What about a gas explosion? Exploding boilers? With the sudden clarity of mind afforded by a life-threatening event, I realized that I had considered none of these eventualities. All I knew was that there was an innocent life inside, a life placed in jeopardy by my own damn foolishness over a woman. Two women. My vanity, because I knew in a moment’s time that my involvement in the antiwar movement, anti-everything movement, had been no more than vanity all along. Slavish adherence to a style of dress and of speech, lip service to a cause that frankly bored me, truth be told. And, when surrounded by smoke, one tells oneself the truth. And one prays.

I prayed that if God would forgive me and let me rescue Alvin alive, I’d live my life serving Christ from then on. If only, if only. “Oh, God, forgive me my sins. Let me find him, let me find him. Forgive me my sins. Let me find him. Forgive me. Let me.” All I could visualize was the Laughing Jesus poster in Shauna’s dorm room where we’d often congregated to smoke and laugh along. Who had the last laugh now?

I had penetrated the coal-black smoke as far as the boiler room. Following an l-shaped path in my mind’s eye, praying and panting, I felt him sitting there. Patted his chest, then his face. He didn’t move.

“Alvin,” I yelled. “Fire, Alvin! Fire!” No response. I threw his body over my shoulders, barely able to stand under the weight. Shuffled and dragged him as far as the basement staircase. Still no response or movement of any kind. “God, let me get him out of here and I’ll live my whole life for you,” I prayed. “I’ll preach your word. Let me get him out of here and I’ll preach your word, I swear.” When I tried to stand, it was Samson against the Philistines. My limbs infused by preterhuman strength, loosed from the bonds of my oxygen dependence and energized by the smoke, I spirited Alvin up the stairs through the billowing blackness and out of the building in a sprint. Clearing the building by about fifty feet, I lay Alvin down on the ground face-up. Before flopping down beside him and whooping and gasping for breath, I saw that his expression was one of closed-eyed gentle mirth, as though bemused by all the fire and smoke. Sharing a private joke with Laughing Jesus. Alvin’s face was as still and purple as any I’d ever seen. I didn’t even hear the first fire truck pull up. Firemen running hoses spotted me lying there next to Alvin on the grass.

“He’s dead,” the first one said. “Did you get him out, son? You’re a hero, regardless, to risk your life. What’s your name?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Come on. You don’t remember your own name?”

“Call me Preacher.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER SIXTEENTHE PANTHER AND THE BUM

 

“Bye, Mac,” Maggie called out hoarsely to the clerk we passed out front. A look in his eyes warned me that I would one day soon be closing the store in his place, that I’d better start earning my keep when the novelty of me wore off for Maggie, replaced by a perceived need for some more money to start coming into the house. Better start learning the cash register. Was I only the latest companion to share her late-night PDA’s? She had warned me, that first day, more than slightly drunk, how she considered herself something called a ‘cyberslut.’ It had to do with computers. On the road for so long, I’d barely seen a television set in thirty-three years, let alone a computer. She’d also let me know how she knew all about me and what I was running from. Two buildings burned to the ground. That old guy died.

The computer was something Maggie did in the bedroom. She resented company while she was doing it. More private than sex for her, the computer took at least four hours every evening and two or three hours every afternoon. “Everybody needs a hobby,” she would say, rushing me out the door. Maggie always did the computer partly dressed and fully made up. Occasionally I could hear her talking to herself behind the closed bedroom door. In no position to dictate terms in our impromptu living arrangement, I would read my Bible, Time magazine or even occasionally—and surreptitiously—one of the old magazines offered for sale. Catching up on a little reading.

The guilt I deadened by rationalizing how in fact I did still intend to marry her. Sex with Maggie a foretaste on approval, prior to sale. Sex was the means for us to get to know each other, and Maggie proved to be a very demanding woman in that department, especially for a man with thirty-three years of celibacy under his belt. No, Maggie imposed upon me a different form of celibacy—a giving up of communication, of quality time spent together. Never having had a mature relationship with a woman before, I imagined the kinds of things people say they want in personals ads: soulful communication by candlelight; hugging and kissing that didn’t invariably lead to toiling, slogging sex; long walks hand-in-hand. While there were moments of all that, what dominated our daily lives was her exclusion of me: the short, tired replies, the dumb shrugs whenever I tried to penetrate her mind and her heart as opposed to her body. The fear she was growing tired of me, that we after all might prove unsuited to one another, high school fantasies aside. And the humbling, gnawing fear of having stayed in one familiar place too long.

When it wasn’t the computer, it was the slow hypnosis of what from the pulpit I had always called the Devil’s box: the television set. There was one in every room. All were tuned to one or another shopping channel. Maggie could have watched jewelry shows twenty-four/seven but she never bought anything. She called it “keeping up,” pointing out that after all, she was in the jewelry business. Shopping channels were for her what stock channels are to the investor: an informational tool. She’d roll her eyes and groan with exasperation at the prices and mock the false southern folksy charm and slick handling the brassy hostesses doled out to the suckers dumb enough to call in. Then I would recognize some of the same expressions emanating from her when we’d go on the road weekends. She was learning to talk like a talker.

“Have you ever seen such a clear stone? You absolutely will not find a stone of this clarity in jewelry stores at any price. Not overpriced, not at any price, you simply will not find it. And the color!”

The customer might say something moderately indifferent like, “It’s pretty,” whereupon Maggie would lean in, say, “It is, isn’t it? So pretty and it goes with your eyes. It brings out the blue/hazel/green of your eyes so beautifully. No mass-produced, store-bought product will do that. That’s why I deal exclusively in estate-sale antique jewelry. Jewelry with a history. Jewelry with a provenance. These selections are one-of-a-kind creations. These pieces are heirlooms. You won’t find your neighbor or your friend wearing the same thing you just paid too much for at the mall. Don’t you just hate that?” I even detected the lilt of a drawl behind her speech when the talk was upon her. She was a talker, my Maggie. I recognized it as a low form of preaching, praising God for the beautiful minerals he created and inspired man to chip and forge into adornments.

Thirty days after I moved in with Maggie, she handed me a contraption that looked like a futuristic weed-whacker and said, “You’re sitting around too much, Preach. You need exercise. Plus, idle hands are the devil’s playground. So now why don’t you go out to the lake with this and do a little treasure hunting for Momma? See if you can find me an engagement ring, hint-hint.”

So out I went toting Frosty’s state-of-the-art metal detector. The fear magnified in me when I was out of the house in daylight, in public, in my old home town. Technically, I was still a wanted man. No statute of limitations on murder and arson. I focused the fear into my treasure hunting, transforming myself into a wily scavenger anticipating where I might find rare coins, jewels, treasure trove. Convincing myself that I looked crazy enough to be a dowser, I worked my way up and down the berms of residential streets straining to hear the hidden voices of precious alloys give up their hiding places through earphone signals. Aimlessly, I passed the old trouser factory—Arlo’s term for a salacious homosexual had been a ‘trouser dowser’—and turned down Meadows Avenue. I wasn’t ready for any more reunions. Disguised in my hair and earphones, like the scoundrel I was I passed by my parents’ home without looking up. I swept the berm on the opposite side of the street until I came to Uncle Bo’s house, still standing and in good repair, although it had been more than a century old when I was a child. The Shop still stood as well, with one crucial difference: the door was open. All the mysteries of The Shop open there for the peeking. I took the chance of being run off the property, and ventured down the expanse of well-tended sloping lawn toward The Shop. Call it intuition, but I knew it would still smell of mold and decades-old sawdust. I knew that it would be filled with esoteric tools and racks upon racks of every manner of hidden treasures. And one more thing: somehow in that moment I knew my sister Ruthie would be inside.

I edged closer and closer to the door. I had only been in The Shop one time as a child, and then only in Uncle Bo’s company and for a brief glimpse around while Uncle Bo fetched a miter box for my dad to use cutting some door molding. The Shop, because of its omnipresence, its compelling mystery and shroud of arcane secrecy, its ordinariness transcending to a mystic plane, was one of three things from my childhood that called out for capitalization. The other two were The Panther and The Bum.

Sometime in the late nineteen-fifties, the story began making the rounds in Somerset that a full-grown black panther had escaped from a traveling circus and was roaming voracious and wild, intent on preying upon human flesh, terrorizing the citizenry. Numerous more or less credible sightings lent momentum to the legend. After dark one summer evening, when all of us had retreated into Uncle Bo’s house to escape The Panther’s specter, not to mention the mosquitoes, The Panther continued to dominate the conversation.

“They said it sounded like a high-pitched scream. Not a growl, more like a baby crying, only real loud and close, right up in the trees.”

“What’s it eating all this time to survive? That’s what I wanna know. A panther needs at least ten pounds of meat a day.” This from Robin, the self-appointed expert on Felidae. “Your black panther is really a jaguar, but a freak of nature makes his coat all black pigment, kind of like the opposite of an albino jaguar. The other jaguars ostracize him from the pack, and that’s what makes him so evil. Or a leopard born all black, same thing. He’s literally the black sheep of the family. That’s what makes him a loner, a killer. But even killers gotta eat, know what I mean?”

“Livestock, I hear tell,” Uncle Bo said. “They say there’s an awful lot of sheep found all tore up, just the hooves and some bloody wool. Young pigs, too. Farmers are up in arms, got a posse out every night trying to shoot that damn panther.”

“Them farmers ain’t gonna find it at night, Pa,” Robin said, “unless it wants to be found. All they’re likely to see are its eyes. And that’s the last thing they’ll ever see. ‘Cause let me tell you something, Pa, once you see its eyes, it’s too late. That black pussy’ll be eatin’ himself some posse.” Robin laughed his most vulgar laugh, a loud one that echoed from the gut, a laugh one hears from the street while passing an open tavern door.

We kids shivered at that: the idea of looking our last look into the watery yellow, deadly ravenous eyes of The Panther, just before he pounced from a branch to devour us. And coming from Robin’s mouth, it sounded all the scarier.

“They say it coughs just like a man, too,” Robin said. “And I’ll tell you what’s got people around these parts really scared.”

“What’s that?” my dad asked him.

“They say there might even be two of ‘em roamin’ around. A breeding pair. There may be panthers in his county for years to come, they don’t nip this in the bud.”

“How come the cops aren’t warning people? Or the paper? Week after week, I ain’t seen nothing about it in the paper.”

“Because they don’t want to start a panic, that’s why. Cops don’t know nothin,’” Robin scoffed. “Paper don’t know nothin’.” Suddenly Robin’s eyes got big as a panther’s. “Listen.” He held up one cautionary index finger. “You hear that?”

“What?”

“A sound,” Robin said in a low hunter’s voice, “like a baby cryin’.”

The women began wailing at that. Uncle Bo remarked, “Aw, bullshit. Probably is a baby cryin’.”

“You know anybody’s got a baby around here, Pa?” We kids drew closer together. I stared at a carving of a wolf’s head on a wooden rocking chair design until I shivered with fear. Ruthie babbled, “It’s the pantser. It’s the pantser.”

“Aw, hell,” Uncle Bo said, “I’m gonna go get the shotgun.”

Aunt Lena melted at his suggestion. “Don’t go out there, Bo! Don’t go out there!”

“I’ll go load it for you, Pa. Then I’ll fetch my twelve-gauge and go with you.”

“Don’t look at its eyes, Bo! Don’t look at its eyes!” I half-expected Uncle Bo to slap Aunt Lena open-handed like they do in the movies to assist a hysterical woman in coming to her senses and maintain the proper decorum, but he just put both arms around her and patted her on the back like an old chum before heading out the back door behind Robin, both toting shotguns. A moment later my dad, muttering about somebody’s going to get hurt and better keep the two of them from shooting each other, went out the front door and circled around to meet them.

Just as he left, I heard the urgency in my mother’s voice as she said, “Duane—” to the closing screen door. The women clucked and muttered as women no doubt have done for millennia while their men are gone on the hunt. Within no more than a minute, I heard a cough below the front room window; my father’s cough, followed by an earsplitting blast unlike any I had ever heard—a blast to turn your eardrums inside out. My hearing came back to high-pitched screams from Aunt Lena, my mother, Grandma Broomstick and probably others in that rising cacophony of fear.

Robin would later blame it on my dad’s dark slacks and jacket, and the element of unfair surprise. It was the only time in my life I actually saw one man kick another man’s ass when Uncle Bo spontaneously disciplined Robin for his rash and impulsive shot. But it was the totally unacceptable premise echoing from Aunt Lena’s screams out the window that made me run outside to see for myself.

“Robin killed Duane! Robin killed Duane! Oh Jesus God Robin killed Duane!”

At the age of ten, one’s parent in agony is an unacceptable thought. The mind somehow acknowledges it at the gates of perception but will not allow it entry into the realm of emotion. That is why I stood there looking at my dad’s bleeding side and watched him writhe and gibber incoherently, all the while thinking nothing, feeling empty and helpless, knowing I was seeing something I shouldn’t be seeing, but paralyzed from any reaction. Too much blood. My dad lying there helpless. There shouldn’t be that much blood. Worse than that first split-second reaction years later upon seeing God’s obituary: God is Dead on the cover of Time magazine. Worse because unaccompanied by mature reason, and more prolonged, open-ended and final. Duane is Dead more chilling to a ten-year-old son than God is Dead. The latter absurd, the former unavoidable.

One of the women cried, “Call the ambulance!” but Uncle Bo said ambulance hell and drove my dad in his own car, blood or no blood. He and my mother each supported my dad, one on either side, and dragged him into the old black Plymouth. There were no driveways on Meadows Avenue in those days, only gravel crescent pulloffs in front of the houses with cars. I remember how Uncle Bo spun gravel just like in the movies, and did a u-turn toward Somerset Community Hospital.

My sisters and I stayed with Aunt Lena that night. There were guest rooms galore at Aunt Lena’s, but Ruthie and Es slept on a trundle bed in Aunt Lena’s room while I slept on an Army cot at the foot of Robin’s bed. Even from the third floor I could hear the murmur of concerned adult voices downstairs. When Robin finally came to bed I pretended to be sound asleep even when he turned on the light and said, “I know you’re awake. You ain’t foolin’ nobody with your fakin’.” He threw off the bedspread, stripped down to his underwear and lay fetal-positioned on the bare sheet. Minutes later I heard him softly sobbing.

My mother returned with Uncle Bo at breakfast time. Aunt Lena met her at the back door open-armed, saying “I’m so sorry, Betty. I’m so sorry.” My mother looked more tired and haggard than I’d ever seen her, dark circles under red-rimmed eyes that I knew had to be from crying. She nodded without saying anything at first when Aunt Lena asked, “How is he?”

“We’re taking all Robin’s guns away,” Aunt Lena assured her firmly. “He isn’t going to have any guns at all anymore, we’ll see to that. His days of having guns are over. For good. Panther, my garsh!”

When my mother spoke, it was for everyone in the room, a quiet, humble voice: “Duane’s going to recover, Doctor Harmony says. The shotgun pellets didn’t damage any vital organs. His lung didn’t collapse. His side is going to be real, real sore and he’ll have a big scar, of course, but he’s going to be all right.”

“Hallelujah!” Grandma Broomstick cried.

It would be nearly a week before Doctor Harmony, who liked a drink now and then, some days even before morning rounds, would discover the peritonitis and have to operate. I remember what seemed like whole days of the family praying around my dad’s hospital bed, his lips like wax. I remember the chalk-white stockings and stiff starched headdresses of the nurses—like nuns’ wimples only they weren’t nuns—their grim faces all business even when one of them gently Dutch-rubbed my cropped hair. I remember frank cries of helpless pain behind drawn curtains every time they changed the dressings. The preacher, Reverend Vogler, came and stayed all afternoon and evening one Saturday, praying and reading the Bible. He had to go out in the hall one time with my mother when she lost it and cried like a baby. Es and I trailed along; Ruthie, too young for the hospital, was staying with Aunt Lena.

A curious kind of role-reversal occurs when a young child hears a parent cry uncontrollably. My parents’ emotions were kept tightly reined during our growing-up years. For them crying was a secret vice like drinking is to some people. Owl-eyed from fear and disbelief, Es and I patted her helplessly and said, “Don’t worry, Mommie.”

Great strength seemed to emanate from Reverend Vogler as he clutched her hand and said, “God won’t let him down, Betty. Duane’s a God-fearing man. And you know what the Good Book says, in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: ‘If God is with us, who can be against us?’ And God is with us, right here, right now. Our Lord says ‘wherever two or three of you are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of you.’ Be strong for Duane, and for these little ones. God won’t let any of you down. Let us pray.”

They bowed their heads and prayed silently. I peeked and strained as if to hear their thoughts. And my dad did recover, coming home with something called ‘drains’ to clean. He even laughed when Ruthie asked if he had to put Drano in his drains.

I walked a couple of steps closer to The Shop. How I had betrayed them all these thirty-three years. Did they think me dead? Was it a cruelty to reveal myself alive so late in the course of their lives? I slipped Frosty’s headphones off, hung them around my neck and thought about whether anybody had ever tried to take one of these contraptions out to the cemetery and talk to the dead. It seemed like an idea worthy of Rod Serling, and I resolved to write it down when I got home. Home. Maggie’s house. And yet here I was a half-block from home, afraid to look up from the unsteady ground.

The summer when I was ten years old the story was going around that a character known only as The Bum was lurking in Somerset posing a grave yet unspecified threat to children. The parents rapidly picked up on the tale, imposing strict curfews and geographical limitations upon their children. The Bum in my mind’s eye wore dirty overalls and a blue and white railroad striped engineer’s hat. A solitary vagabond, he had grizzled beard stubble and some vague association with the railroad. I visualized him as a menacing version of Boxcar Willie. Even those few select children who claimed to have actually seen The Bum utterly failed to provide any coherent description that might have been of use to law enforcement. And Bum sightings were as rare and just about as credible as Bigfoot sightings.

Ray Schneider impetuously claimed to his mother that he had seen The Bum.

“What did he look like, Raymond? Think, now. It’s important.”

“Like a hobo.”

“What does a hobo look like, Raymond? You never even saw a hobo in your whole entire life. How tall was he?”

“Maybe six foot seven.”

“That’s taller than any basketball player. Think, now. Was he taller than Mommie?”

“I dunno.”

“What did he weigh?”

“I dunno. Three hundred?”

“Raymond! The fat lady in the circus doesn’t even weigh three hundred. What do you think Mommie weighs? No, never mind that now. What color was his hair?”

“Grey.”

“Grey? Good, now we’re getting somewhere. What else can you tell Mommie about him?”

“He had long grey hair and a long beard like Santa Claus, and he smoked a stogie.” Schneider had his imagination going full-throttle now.

“He was smoking a cigar? Good. What else? Was he fat? Thin?”

“He was ordinary.”

“Ordinary is no good, Raymond. Everybody is ordinary. Did he say anything?”

“He said, ‘You better get out of here, kid, before I beat your butt.’ Only he said ‘a’ with ess at the end of it.”

“Where was this, Raymond? Where did he say this to you?”

“Out by the tracks. He had a fire going in a barrel and a potato on a stick.”

“Were you along with Johnny when you saw him? Did you see him too, Johnny?”

“No, Ma’am.” I wasn’t going to get in the middle of this for anything.

“Was he dirty? Did he look dirty?”

“Yeah. Real dirty.”

“You know what a Negro is, don’t you, Raymond? A colored person? Was he a Negro?”

“Huh-uh.”

“Was he a Mexican? You know what a Mexican looks like.”

“Nope. He was just a regular guy, like Dad.” Schneider’s parents were divorced, a relative rarity for the time.

“Your dad is not a regular guy, although he may be a bum at that. Did he do anything, well, nasty?”

“Who, Dad?”

“No, not your dad. I mean the person we’re talking about—The Bum. Did he try to do anything nasty?”

“What do you mean, nasty?

“I mean, for instance, did he show you his pee pee? Or make you show him yours?” Damn, Schneider’s Mom was weird. Her reporter’s job at the Somerset Standard, the town’s weekly paper, convinced her of her interrogation skills. Or maybe she saw the possibility of the scoop of a lifetime: Bum Terrorizes Somerset Youth. I was exhausted just standing there hearing her drilling Ray.

Schneider made the mistake at this point of asking, “Why?”

“Why? Just you tell me the truth, young man, and stop asking me why.” Schneider’s mom, seated in a big desk chair with castors for the entire inquisition, paddled her slippers and rolled after him on the kitchen linoleum until she had him literally backed into a corner. She never stood the entire time; rather she rolled, like one disabled. I thought Schneider’s mom must be the laziest person I’d ever seen. I rarely if ever saw my mother sit down at all except for meals, evenings after the dishes were put away, and of course in church.

“No.”

“No you won’t tell me or no, he didn’t show you?”

“No he didn’t show me.”

“Did you show him yours?”

Schneider here made the further mistake of laughing. Maybe it was nervous exhaustion, or maybe the idea appealed to him on a humorous level, but at any rate the laughter incensed his mother. No going outside for a week, no going along the tracks forever, and no friends over for three days. “So Johnny better go home now. Raymond, you’ll be by yourself while Mommie goes to the store for a minute. Take care of your little sister. Neither one of you goes out of the house ‘til I come back, you hear? And don’t answer the door. If the phone rings, tell them Mommie is cooking dinner and can’t be disturbed.”

“What’re you going to the store for?” Schneider asked.

In a hoarse, barely audible whisper not meant for company, Schneider’s mom whispered, “Liquor.”

That summer we invented a childhood game reminiscent of Red Rover: we would run across a grass playing field, daring each other closer and closer to the treeline in the distance, beyond which, at least in our giddy collective imagination, lurked The Bum, a troll like figure eager to spirit us away to his lair where he would then perform unspeakable acts of perversion and cruelty upon us, maybe even show us his pee pee. Schneider, once released from his quarantine, outdid everybody else by actually running into the woods and disappearing for so long a general panic ensued among the rest of us. Then he came out again, singsonging, “I ain’t ascared of The Bu-um. I ain’t ascared of the Bu-um.”

It occurred to me that if I could jump into a time machine and go back to nineteen sixty, at least in appearance I would qualify to play the role of The Bum. In my own mind, I was already The Bum. I had been The Bum for years.

Ruthie, facing an easel, had her back to the door. She wore a paint-smeared too-big work shirt, faded jeans and worn tennis shoes. My shadow fell across a half-completed canvas she was working on: another night scene, a group of people in folding chairs huddle together in a cocoon of light under menacing, tangled trees and a Van Gogh midnight canopy above it all. There were Uncle Bo and Aunt Lena, recognizable in the huddle. I looked closer; the two bright yellow eyes of a panther overhead, its sinewy obsidian outline taking shape, barely visible amidst the branches, focused on the imperiled party below. Ruthie said, “Dave?” as she half-turned. I heard her sharp intake of breath when she saw me framed in the Shop doorway.

“Ruthie,” I said. But she had already dropped the palette and run into my arms, sighing, “Johnny! Oh, Johnny!”

“The Prodigal son returns at last,” I said sheepishly, as I held her at arm’s length to take a good look at her. The crown of her head came only to my Adam’s apple. At forty-something, her chestnut hair had highlight streaks of gray in it. Her wide-set eyes were still sky blue only bigger now, the whites clear as milk. She wore no makeup, only smudges of dark blue and charcoal paint here and there. She had made Play Dough animals and then eaten them as a child, causing our panicked parents to call Doctor Harmony, who’d assured them that Play Dough was salty but non-toxic like the package said. I tilted her face up to kiss her on the forehead, as I’d done when we both were children. It was only then that she said, “You finally came to see about Daddy, didn’t you? Daddy’s illness is what brought you back home at last.”

“Dad is sick?”

She hesitated, her eyes brimming with tears. “He’s dying,” she choked. “You mean you didn’t even know?”

“How could I know?”

She slapped me openhanded across the face. It made my eyes water more than the familiar turpentine fumes that floated in the shop atmosphere. I tried for a flippant remark.

“Now that we’ve gotten the preliminaries over with.”

“What the hell was the matter with you? How could you do such a thing and disgrace the family? One day you’re this hotshot honor student, the next you’re a bomb-throwing communist or something. I can forgive you for robbing me of an older brother and the kids of their only uncle, but I can’t forgive what you did to Mom and Dad. And now that he’s lying there in that damn, goddamn hospital bed here you come like the Angel of Death or something. Well, come on. Put down that asinine mine sweeper and let’s go see them. Time’s a’wasting.” She gave an ironic snort as she grabbed me by the elbow with a surprisingly strong grip and ushered me out of the Shop. Padlocking the door, she remarked, “Prying eyes.”

“That’s a good title for your latest creation.”

She loosened up and laughed at that. “Hey, not bad. Sounds kind of Biff Roayale.”

“Who?”

“Don’t tell me you never heard of Biff Roayale.”

“The calendar artist. The Andy Warhol of forties and fifties cheesecake.” I could remember the big corny signature at the lower left of the best of those old calendar pictures under Uncle Bo’s mattress, pictures with titles like Twin Beauties, Puddy in the Well, and Nursie Nursie, I’m A’Gettin’ Worsie.

“Unnecessary ‘a’ in the first syllable of his last name,” Ruthie said. “That man could paint like an angel from Heaven but he couldn’t spell worth a damn.”

“Uncle Bo could paint? You mean like barns and sheds and stuff?”

“Do you hear what I’m saying? Uncle Bo was Biff Roayale.”

I stopped walking, but she tugged at me until we resumed our trek up the long lawn. “How is that possible? I mean, he worked at Kaiser’s all his life until he retired, and then all he ever did was watch television and—”

“And what? Work in the Shop, right? Uncle Bo was always working in the Shop. Remember how it was forever kept locked, even when he was in it? He’d lock the door from the inside with one of those slider things. Those few times us kids would get away from Aunt Lena and knock, he’d open the door just a crack? That’s because inside the Shop, Uncle Bo became Biff Roayale. Kind of a Jekyll and Hyde thing.”

“Did Aunt Lena know about it?”

“Know about it? Here, let me show you something.” She turned and steered us for the back porch. Ruthie’s kitchen was immaculate, the diametric opposite to Aunt Lena’s during her tenure in the house. Down the hall toward the living room, everything spotlessly preserved, like Lincoln’s home in Springfield. All that was missing were the velvet ropes and tourist brochures.

A new door had been installed for the living room—a thick plush swinging door with an opera window like for a theater. I peeked in, half-expecting to see Uncle Bo in his favorite chair. Inside it was dry and temperature-controlled, unlike the rest of the house, which was open and airy. Against one wall were racks and racks of flat stainless steel cases, labeled with cataloguing numbers.

“After I restored these, I took them to the college to have them microclimated. You have no idea how much moldy excrescence can accumulate in a damp environment like The Shop.” Ruthie made her selection; she slid one case draped with a cover from its place on the rack and balanced it on a display easel in the far corner of the room. “Are you ready for this?”

“Sure.”

“Trust me: you’re not ready for this.” She whipped the cover from the frame with a magician’s flourish. A girlie portrait in the old style, three-quarters turned to the viewer, the youthful model’s chin resting on her knees, wearing a broad smile, red open-toed forties dress shoes and nothing else. Her pussy was clearly and lovingly featured, a numinous grotto enshrined in an archway of lush dark vegetation. Bell-shaped slightly veined breasts with pink areolae blossoms. Her hazel eyes playfully flashed beneath long glamour lashes. Rita Hayworth hairdo right out of Gilda.

Aunt Lena had never looked better.

“You, brother dear, now belong to a very select, hopefully discreet cadre of cognoscenti who have actually set eyes on this painting. Savor the moment. Actually I thought of donating this one and some others to the college, for their ‘Dollars to Scholars’ program. Believe me, the alumni association put on the old full-court press when they thought I was wavering in that direction. This thing alone is worth conservatively three-quarters of a million.”

“Three-quarters of a million?”

“Maybe more if it’s a hot night at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. I see I’ve managed to capture your attention. That’s right, there’s been a kind of resurgent interest, among critics and international collectors, in calendar art in general and Biff Roayale in particular. Seems old Biff never quite succeeded in keeping his lamp under a bushel.”

“Or his wife under a blanket.”

“Ha ha,” she said without humor. “In case you’ve forgotten, this is our great-aunt we’re talking about, my peripatetic sibling. This thing is art in its purest form: it’s done lovingly, privately, and with a master’s skills honed to greatness. Look at the detail. It goes ‘way beyond Gray’s Anatomy and captures something sublime about the human form, the melding of bodily beauty and true spirituality. Something holy between man and wife. And, paradoxically, that’s the reason I can’t sell it.”

“How is it your decision whether to sell or not, Ruthie?”

“Because Aunt Lena willed them to Daddy, who’s entrusted them to me. And it’s my decision to keep this one eyes only, get it?”

I felt a certain degree of hostility building in her, so I asked: “Why do you think I’d have any reason to object?”

She stood silently beside the easel, arms crossed, eyes downcast. “Well, Daddy’s very ill.”

“Dad’s willed the paintings to all of us, hasn’t he? That’s what this little exhibition is all about. God, Ruthie, you think I came back here because selling the paintings would mean a bonanza for me? Is that what you think?”

She sighed and turned away, continuing to hug herself. “I guess not. You seem clueless about the whole thing.”

“I read an article a couple of years ago about Biff Roayale in Time or Newsweek, but I didn’t make the connection. How could I?”

“Local people knew, some of his contemporaries. A couple of his asshole lodge buddies he thought he could trust. People like that.”

“I guess his trust wasn’t misplaced. The secret never got out, did it?”

“Not in his lifetime. After he died—Robin got killed in Vietnam, did you know that?”

“No, I didn’t. Dear God.”

“Kind of late to send flowers. Anyway, Uncle Bo you might say wasted away after that, Robin being his only child. Uncle Bo died in 1975. Aunt Lena lived in the house for years and years after he died. Daddy helped her with things, you know, stuff she’d get in the mail and didn’t understand, help around the yard, handyman chores. So when Aunt Lena died two years ago, she willed everything to Daddy, her favorite nephew. We opened up The Shop thinking we’d inventory the tools and junk, and work for days cleaning out all the rest, and it was like King Tut’s tomb all over again. I think Daddy was embarrassed more than anything about the paintings. I took one look at them and realized—I mean, that’s my field.”

“Girlie pictures?”

“Fine art. Appraisals. Auctions. Restorations. That’s my main vocation, next to creating my own art, which is my first love. So Daddy let Dave and me have the house, in exchange for what you might call curator’s services over the estate.”

“How is old Unruh?”

“Old Unruh’s great. You going to ask about your niece and nephew anytime soon, Unc?”

“Funny,” I said, “there was a guy in college we called Unc. Uncle Al, the kiddies’ pal. I just now thought of him.”

“Feel free to reminisce about those carefree college days any time you like, Freddie the freshman. Mom and Daddy were dead set against Es and me even going to college after what happened to you. Es was fine with that plan; she ran out and got married. Have you seen Es yet?”

“She lives up around Chicago, right? Palatine or somewhere?”

“She’s here taking care of Mom and Daddy these days.”

“Mom needs help taking care of Dad?” I dreaded to ask details; every unwelcome bit of news was not only unbearably sad, but a well-deserved judgment upon me as well.

“Mom needs help, period. I don’t know how to tell you this without just coming out and saying it: Mom’s not been herself for a long time.”

“Was it…because of what I did?”

“God, what an ego. No, Johnny, it’s got nothing to do with you. It’s Alzheimer’s. And it’s bad. Stage three, and thank God there’s only three stages.”

“What’s it been like?”

“Picture a graph with a red line going down and down for about eight years now, closer and closer to making a crash landing on the x-axis.”

“Are you sure?”

She looked at me, her mouth hanging open with incredulity, then said, “Let’s go over and see them. You can draw your own conclusions.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEENALL CLEAN AND PRETTY

 

On the short walk up the block to our parents’ home, she said, “It really started when the NSF notices came in the mail. Mom always kept the checkbook, you know. She was always so meticulous. But then when Daddy looked in the memo book, the numbers were all hashish. She’d been writing checks all over for this and that, not recording anything correctly or balancing the account. It cost them over three hundred dollars in bank fees I couldn’t talk the damn bank out of. Then there was the day she put the portable phone in the freezer. We couldn’t find it for days. Finally she started wandering off. We found her way out by the fairgrounds last month babbling to herself about picking up a blue ribbon she thought you’d won. That’s when Es decided she’d take a sabbatical from her job at the optical department and come down to take care of both of them. Between Daddy’s cancer and her Alzheimer’s, it was getting to be more than even Dave and I could handle alone.”

“I’m sorry. I’ve let you all down.”

“No shit Sherlock,” she agreed, then laughed dryly and said she was kidding. She asked me if I was staying in a motel and whether I’d accept her hospitality. So I told her about Maggie, but as little as possible. I think she guessed the rest, judging by how she flinched when she heard me mention Maggie’s name.

They’d re-sided the house with white vinyl and replaced the roof, I could see from the street. Most of the shrubbery had been removed. Daddy’s Cancer. Her Alzheimer’s.

Ruthie banged on the front door, gaily hollering, “Look who’s here!” I stood on the concrete front porch—the one that had replaced the wooden porch of my childhood—shaking and hyperventilating. “Better brace yourselves: we’ve got a surprise visitor.” I nearly stumbled as she yanked my arm to pull me into the living room.

An old woman’s querulous voice from the kitchen said, “Where’s that goddamn fuse box?”

“Same goddamn place it’s always been, Mom,” Es replied too loudly and with a conspiratorial indulgent wink to Ruthie. Then she saw me wobbling in the doorway staring at the enormous hospital bed that contained my father’s wasted body like a gleaming coffin. Es gasped, then gasped again. She took the length of the room in three strides, grabbed me around the shoulders and bear hugged me, letting go only to step back and survey my appearance, shrieking, “I can’t believe it!” before hugging me again, harder this time. Finally she let go and asked, “But aren’t you—?”

“That’s right,” Ruthie volunteered. “He’s an outlaw, our brother dear.”

“Well, you’re here now. That’s all that matters. Where are you staying? Wanna stay in your old room? It’s available.” Ruthie whispered something in her ear. Her expression seemed to deaden as she looked at me. Her face became grave. In a funeral director’s somber, calling hour tone she said, “Come see him now.” She led me to my dad’s bedside and seated me in a kitchen chair. He wore an oxygen cannula that looked like snot trails across his seamed face. Morphine drip equipment hung from the bed. His complexion was the consistency of paraffin, hair stiff, tousled and drained of color. As if reading my thoughts, Es said, “I’m gonna try and dye his hair today. He hasn’t felt like doing it himself anymore since he got sick.”

“I remember how he had started using the Grecian Formula the year I left for college.” The unnatural reddish hue, the scalp irritation. Yet still he’d persisted.

“That may have been what did it to him, that lead acetate in the dye. It’s a carcinogen, you know. Still, I’d rather do it for him when he’s alive than—” Her eyes scrunched up and she sobbed once. “I want the people he knew to be able to recognize him at the visitation and not say, ‘Who’s that white-haired old man?’”

With his eyes still closed, my dad said, “Welding smoke. It was the welding smoke. Not the dye.”

“There he is,” Ruthie said. “Hi, Daddy.”

“Dad?” I leaned forward and took his hand. It was warm and husk-dry.

He opened his eyes and looked at me for a long time, nodding to himself as though satisfied about something. In a faint whisper he said, “I told ‘em you’d be back, Johnny. I never gave up on you, son.” He squeezed my hand in an exertion that must have been taxing to him, blue eyes welling up with tears. “Boy, you got some hair on you.”

“It’s a disguise,” I said.

“You need to get yourself a better one; I’d know you anywhere.”

“I’m not hiding from you.”

“Could have fooled me. How long’s it been? Thirty-three years? Long time to be away. You damn near missed me.”

I started crying at that like a damn fool, body wracked by loud sobs. Crying Wolfe. Even though I could remember neither of my parents ever coming right out and saying it, I had always retained the subliminal impression that my upbringing judged it a shame for a man to cry publicly, or at all. No one offered the least criticism, though, at my outburst. My dad gently patted my hand and said, “That’s all right son,” over and over again. My sisters stood on either side of me, each resting a comforting hand on my shoulders.

My dad, the one who had forced me to brave the playground jungle jim hand-over-hand even after at the age of five I’d tearfully sworn to him I couldn’t do it; who taught me how to ride a bicycle, to tie a necktie, to shave, to drive a stick shift; who was the one—that time when at age fifteen we boys got into a fifth of Schneider’s mom’s gin—who walked me around and around the neighborhood half the night holding me up, pausing only to support my shoulders when I had to puke; who never once told me he loved me until the day I graduated from high school with the science award, but didn’t have to even then because I already knew it; who probably told everybody who’d listen how his son was in college and well on his way to becoming a doctor, right up until April of my sophomore year.

A doctor of the church, I snorted and gasped, “Oh, God.”

“They tell me I’m goin’ to be seein’ Him pretty soon, face to face,” my dad said, triggering a crying spell for both girls which he seemed at pains to quell by saying in reassuring tones, “Oh, now,” and “We all gotta go sometime.” Of me he asked, “Ruthie tell you how we’re all gonna get rich offa Uncle Bo’s dirty pictures?”

“She said something about it, Dad.”

He rocked his head on the pillow. “A guy works his ass off all his life, and it’s not ‘til he’s dyin’ a’ cancer he finds out he’s gonna be rich. Me a rich pornographer.”

“It’s not pornography, Daddy,” Ruthie protested. “It’s art. There’s a kind of sweet innocence in those paintings, a wistfulness for a past where everything was clean and fresh.”

“I ain’t no critic. All I know is, that art you’re talking about was painted by a filthy old goat who didn’t know his paintbrush from his peeder.”

Es leaned in close and whispered, “It’s the medication they’re giving him.”

“And yet there’s some willin’ to pay millions for them pictures. Ain’t that the shits?”

“That is definitely the shits, Dad.”

From the kitchen we heard parroted: “Ain’t that the shits?”

“She never used an off-color word in her life, until the disease,” Ruthie said. “That was another sign, remember?” Es nodded in mute agreement, a professional mourner in charge of the suffering, grieving household during her tenure.

“Go see Ma,” Dad told us. Ruthie led the way into the kitchen where my mother sat at the table, ravaged by age and Alzheimer’s, a drunken uninterested stare in her eyes.

“Hi, Ma,” Ruthie said, the way one calls out to see if anybody’s home.

“Where’s the goddamn fuse box?” my mother inquired, frustrated.

“Oh, boy,” Ruthie exclaimed, having caught the smell. Moments later she was leading my mother toward the bathroom, informing Es, “Ma had an accident. Number two, bad. There’s some on the chair by the kitchen window.” As they passed, I saw the leakage through my mother’s pink fleece pants.

“You have to take her every now and then, even when she doesn’t want to go,” Es counseled. “I’ll get the baby wipes. Are there any out there?”

“There’s some in the bathroom, I think. I’ll clean it up, just nobody sit in that chair for a while.”

“I read that in the paper,” my mother said.

Shaken, I sat down again at Dad’s bedside. “That morphine gives me the opposite problem,” he said. “Oughta be a happy medium.”

“That’s right, Dad. Never a happy medium.”

He beckoned me to lean closer. “Listen, I’m gonna tell you something while Ruthie’s out of the room. The lawyer’s got it all set up: those paintings are to be sold at auction to the highest bidder, all except the seven or eight of Aunt Lena until something like twenty-one years after her death. Then those’ll be sold too with the money going to the grandchildren. But the money from the first set gets split two ways: half goes into a trust to take care of Ma during her lifetime, and the other half is split three ways for each of you kids. Your split woulda gone to the two girls if and when you were declared dead. We tried that once for your own protection, you know, and caught holy hell from the judge, not to mention the government. At least there’ll be more than enough in your share for you to pay a good lawyer and get free of that old mess you got yourself into.” His eyes narrowed. “By the way, you notice I ain’t asking you whether you did it, Johnny. I know you didn’t do it. I never once believed that you did it. Just so you and I understand each other here at the last.”

“Dad—”

“Don’t say nothing. The lawyer already took care of it.”

“What lawyer?”

“Why, that friend of yours from high school, what’s his name, Pete Fuchs.”

“Pete did your will?”

“Will and trust. Wouldn’t charge me a damn thing, either. All he asked was that I let him know right away if we ever found out anything about your whereabouts, as he called it.”

“All clean and pretty,” Ruthie sang out as she led my mother back from the bathroom.

“All clean and pretty,” Mom repeated.

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEENNEVER-BEFORE-SEEN PICTURES

 

It was early evening before I returned to Maggie’s, toting the metal detector like a weapon—the hunter returned from the hill empty-handed and heavy-hearted. She had already locked herself in her bedroom; from behind her door I heard coquettish speech, then laughter. Was she practicing talking the talk for her jewelry customers? The weekend was nearly here; probably another flea market this time of the year. I mentally wrote off the weekend.

Kurt Russell sat at the kitchen table looking glum. I leaned the metal detector against a corner of the hall closet where Frosty had always left it and joined his grandson.

“What’s happenin’?”

“Nobody says that anymore.”

“Well, then, whatever it is they say now, Kurt.”

“Yeah, right.”

We sat there in uncomfortable silence, him drinking a Coke, me clasping and unclasping my hands on the table like a man uncertain how to pray. Finally I said, “Been keeping busy this summer?”

“Bored.”

“Bored? When I was your age my buddies and me could always find something to do around Somerset. Do you fish?”

He snorted with disdain.

“Not a sportsman? Chase girls?”

“What do you care?”

“What are you saying, man? Of course I care. I care about your feelings, Kurt.”

“We were all getting along just fine until you moved in.” He tensed as though fearing I might strike him.

I reached out tentatively and patted his shoulder. He jerked it away. “Look, I know it’s going to take some getting used to, having me live here and all, but your grandma and I”—Maggie flinched whenever she heard the term ‘grandma’—“have decided we love each other and we’re going to get married, Kurt. It happens. That’s what grownups do when they love each other.”

“Oh yeah? What about that other thing you’re doing with her every night? Is that what else grownups do when they say they love each other?”

“We’re getting married, Kurt.”

“Yeah? Set a date yet?” Kurt didn’t look up but the sarcasm barely concealed his subdued rage.

“That’s kinda up to her,” I lied. Maggie had been dancing around for nearly three weeks about a date for the wedding, but I had dragged my feet, always making a joke or blaming my legal problems for my procrastination. “Is that what’s bothering you, Kurt? The fact that we’re not married yet?”

The lock snapped and Maggie’s bedroom door creaked open. She breezed through the kitchen, saying, “I have to go out for a minute. Good to see you two getting acquainted.”

“I’m going to my room. May I be excused?” It was directed to her and her alone. Kurt’s face was always trained on Maggie on those rare occasions when the three of us ate our meals together at the table. It was as though I didn’t exist; in Kurt’s mind I was like an invisible playmate for Maggie. Whenever we’d meet unexpectedly in the hallway he’d fall into an awkward slump and duck into the bathroom.

“Yes, you may be excused,” she exaggerated, mimicking his bored plaintive expression. “I wish you could be friendlier to Johnny, Kurt. After all, he’s gonna be my loving husband—that is, if he doesn’t get cold feet first.” She brushed up against me suggestively. Kurt sighed and left the room.

“Where you going?”

“God, you sound just like a husband already. I was about to ask where you were all day, but then I thought no, that’d make me sound too much like a wife. Don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable or anything, Johnny.”

“You sent me out metal-detecting, remember?”

“Find any pirate’s treasure? Any gold doubloons?”

“I wound up on Meadows Avenue. My Uncle Bo and Aunt Lena’s house.”

“I love that name. ‘Go tell Aunt Lena.’ Lena Weenah.”

“I ran into my sister Ruthie. You didn’t tell me she was living there.”

“I try not to take an interest in things Unruh. I’m sorry, that sounded awful, didn’t it? I have nothing against your sister. If she wants Dave Unruh for a husband, she can have him. I guess I forgot to mention where they were living. Listen, I simply have to get some air.”

“Want company?”

“Relax,” she said, patting me on the hand. “You’ve had a busy day hunting for waluables. I’ll be back before you know it. Give you a chance to think. Think dates. Think rings. Think reception halls. Think honeymoons.” For emphasis, she bent down and gave me a pat in a more sensitive location. Before I knew it she was out the back door.

I wandered into the living room. Maggie’s bedroom door was open, still lit by the glow of her computer. The animated picture of endless piping extended itself like a prison. Sometimes on the run I had nightmares of crawling down a dark length of pipe. The pipe got smaller and smaller until it constricted my shoulders, then squeezed my chest until it was hard to breathe. I was stuck and could go no farther, but couldn’t back out, either.

A gadget I’d never seen before, something flat and plastic like a foot massager with a lid had been wired to the computer this time. Curious, I opened the lid and looked inside. A clear glass plate with a gizmo underneath, and a clear, sharp color picture on paper lying face down. I flipped it over.

A letter-sized snapshot of Maggie, smiling proudly. She still looked really good topless, like a burlesque queen who has aged well. A mess around her mouth like burst bubblegum, only pearly white.

I folded the picture and shoved it in my pocket. Went and sat in the living room.

Nothing made any sense.

Who was the lucky photographer?

And if the foot massager was a sending device, who was, or were, the intended recipient(s)?

Closing my eyes, I saw alternating unwelcome images: the pattern of brown stains decorating my mother’s rear on the way to the bathroom versus the soft-serve residue all over Maggie’s lips and teeth captured on film for the occasion. Never-before-seen pictures, now available for distribution to the sexually curious, the lustful, friend and stranger alike. For what? For money? Thrill-seeking? Porno poses on demand? I pondered the depth and fury of the things my Maggie, my dear sweet intended, could possibly be into.

My father in that coffin of a bed, lying to me about how he never believed I did anything wrong, and wanting to talk about the money. Ruthie leaping to the conclusion that it was the entrancing scent of money drawing me home after a third of a century. Es thinking God knows what, probably resenting me for not even offering to help, me worthless as an underfoot child in the face of the bedpan details, the bedside vigils, the overwhelming sickroom burdens that embitter and divide late middle aged siblings. Did anybody want to hear some words of encouragement in the form of a sermon from my lips, how such service is a form of martyrdom, a tonic for the soul? Refusing Es’s offer to fix me something to eat, I had skulked away at dusk, remembering Frosty’s preposterous metal detector at Uncle Bo’s—I still couldn’t call it Ruthie’s.

When Maggie returned after about an hour, I was still sitting there in the dark with my eyes closed.

“How was your walk?”

“Fine.”

“Look in on the store?”

“Nah.”

“I wanna show you something.”

“What?”

I removed the paper picture from my front pants pocket where it lay beside my set of keys to Maggie’s house and store, unfolded it and handed it to her like a process server. “Hell of an engagement picture.”

“You went in my room!”

“I thought it was our room. Guess I was wrong.”

She studied the picture for a long moment biting her lower lip—her lover’s lip—the same lip from which a loogie of the stuff had dribbled so precariously in the picture. Finally, the words spilling out rapidly, she said, “If you must know, Kurt took this. He made me pose for it. I didn’t want to, of course, because these kinds of things tend to get into the wrong hands, and now it looks like I was right.”

“Mine are the wrong hands?”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“I don’t know what I know any more. My mother’s incontinent, wandering around the house gibbering like an idiot, my dad’s dying by inches, and I’ll probably go to prison any day now as soon as somebody can spare a dime to make the call. But Kurt’s been dead two years, Maggie. This picture’s more recent than that. And what’s it doing in that sending gadget?”

“Thanks for the compliment, but you’re wrong about it’s being recent. And what sending gadget? Oh, you mean the scanner?”

“You know I don’t know computers. I’m eager to learn, though. Will you teach me? Starting with, why are you sending dirty pictures of yourself all over hell’s half acre?”

She sighed with exasperation. At the same time for a split-second her eyes darted as though spying an errant cobweb in a corner of the ceiling. A carny once told me that was called the “grifter’s glance,” a sure sign the glancer is about to lie to you. “I wasn’t sending it anywhere. I was trying to copy it, if you must know. It was supposed to be a surprise.”

“It was.”

“There’s photo studio software that I wanted to use to clean it up. For you. It’s still a good picture of me, without the…other. See, Kurt was into that sort of thing. I wasn’t.” She crumpled the picture into a tight ball and said, “There, it’s gone. Darling, don’t you trust me?”

She rubbed her breasts against my chest and nibbled my earlobe. Grifter’s glancee that I was, I desperately wanted to believe her. Maybe I’d remembered it wrong: was it upward and to the right or to the left that betrayed the liar’s intent? Maggie’s closeness had me confounding my left from my right. The importunate hardness between my legs drew me to her like a magnet. Soon we found ourselves in bed, two horny old farts that we were, and it wasn’t even nine-thirty.

After, lying there in the dark, I resolved not to tell her about the money. Not yet. At least not until we were married.

 

 

As I had suspected, Saturday morning was another flea market. Maggie was up by five AM, and had me loading the van by six. When I asked where we were headed, she asked me if I remembered how to get to the DeKalb County fairgrounds.

The drive could be made now mostly by interstate, replacing the narrow band of two-lane blacktop that had curved and twisted through the countryside I remembered, past the weathered farmsteads and rolling cornfields. We exited onto the last few remaining miles of that blacktop. There was a vista I recalled that looked like a painting—I should tell Ruthie—dominated by an old silo with battlements at the top that made it resemble a castle to an eager child’s eyes.

Maggie smoked all the way to DeKalb, lighting each new Tareyton off the end of the last, cracking the passenger side window an inch from the top to ventilate the truck and flick the butts out onto the road. I was well used to the smell of tobacco smoke from my years with the carnies—it reminded me of incense—but I worried what it was doing to her: those big bulging veins in her ankles, an occasional cough like starting a sawcut on wood, the miserly wisps of smoke she exhaled in tight streams. She wasn’t a showoff smoker like Nellie Barnes; no sideshow of pumps and exhales. A double-pump at lightup and an occasional double nostril exhale were about it.

“Go easy on those things, ok Maggie? I worry about your health.”

“They don’t let you smoke in the Hall, husband dear. I’m trying to build up some nicotine for the long day ahead.”

“I’d get puking sick if I smoked as much as you do for even one hour.”

“They don’t make these things for kids.”

At the fairgrounds Maggie directed me to the rear entrance of a barnlike floral hall where a number of pickup trucks and vans already had begun to unload. She stood watch over the jewelry while I gingerly toted the locked cases to our assigned vendor’s space within line of sight of the truck. No honor among thieves, even though many of them seemed to know each other. Carnies would never mistrust one another enough to keep such close watch. These were stingy bastards, too, most carrying packed lunch and coolers rather than buy food or drinks from the vendors on the premises, all the while holding out for the very last nickel when peddling their cheap attic junk to the Clems.

Once I had set up the tables and cases, Maggie sat in a folding chair and chewed the fat with the baseball card and coin fatsos next to us while I brought in the collectibles, fanning the best of the vintage magazines like playing cards so as to catch the Clems’ eyes, and stacking the rest in piles marked with prices starting at three dollars apiece. On top of the fanned magazines this trip was an old 1970 TV Guide—red, with an artist’s rendition of Glen Campbell on the cover. As soon as we were all set up, Maggie checked in at the office to pay the twenty-five dollars, gave them her dealer’s number, then stood one step outside the main door smoking a cigarette as though it were her last.

DeKalb made me nervous. Even after thirty-three years I scanned the crowd for any familiar face over fifty. I tried to visualize passers-by as through the mists of a fountain of youth. Was that elderly man with the suspenders a former teaching assistant? What about that old bag across the way studying the depression glassware? Didn’t she used to work in the library?

Finally I became exhausted by such paranoid efforts and slumped in my folding chair, returning pleasantries and answering occasional questions as they came. If someone wanted to know whether I’d take less for this or that, I’d lie by prearrangement and say I was just covering for the owner, who was gone for at least a couple hours, but had authorized me to take no less than whatever.

Between the bored rug-merchant lies I prayed. God, you know my heart. God please don’t let me be found out, not today. Don’t let me be recognized, and I’ll marry this woman as I’ve promised. Count not our past fornications—and any more that due to our human weakness may happen in the future—against either one of us. For I, a weak and sinful man, am sorry for having sinned against Thee. O Lord God in Heaven. Bless my father and grant that his passing be without pain, and that he be granted everlasting life with Thee and that he forever look upon Thy Face and that of Thy Blessed Son Jesus Christ in Heaven.

A guy wanted to know whether I’d take four bucks for the Glen Campbell TV Guide, so I went into my spiel. Like the rich young man in the parable, he went away sorrowful.

Holy God, bless my mother and heal her. If it be Thy will, cure her affliction, nevertheless not my will but Thine be done.

A college-age female, overdressed like my idea of a northern suburbs sorority sister asked me if I had any old sheet music or any movie magazines from the thirties. I told her no, this is all I have today. Maybe next month. See you then. Made a mental note to tell Maggie to keep an eye out at auctions. Maybe there’d be a treasure trove under the seat of an old piano bench mouldering in a barn somewhere.

Merciful Father, grant that my legal problems be resolved without prison. I am heartily sorry for the unintended death and destruction I caused out of dishonorable lust. Forgive me my sins and grant that I sin no more. In Jesus’ Blessed Name, Amen.

A well-dressed woman in her early fifties with long, grey-streaked hair and wearing Gloria Steinem glasses flipped through the box of old photos as though trying to find an address in a Rolodex. I glanced at the clock: only ten AM. Six more hours to go before the teardown and the weary drive home.

“Look closer, you might find great-great-grandpa’s graduation portrait in there,” I joked. “Seriously, folks have come back and told me these old photographs bring them good luck. Like having a guardian angel watching over you.”

“I’m just browsing today,” she said, her touch moving to the magazines. Her nails were professionally manicured, I noticed, with no wedding ring, only a ruby that would knock your eye out glimmering on her middle finger.

“I see you appreciate fine jewelry. Have you taken a look at the selection offered by the lady next door?” She shook her head absently, continuing to compass-sweep her index finger over the magazines, navigating by magnetism. She stopped at Glen. “You know I think I remember this one. Betraying my age, I guess.”

“Thirty-seven’s not a bad age.”

She cocked her head and smiled at me. “You dear man. If only.”

I leaned forward and spoke softly but warmly, under Maggie’s radar: “I’ll bet you can’t guess my age. Go ahead, guess.”

She laughed. “Isn’t this a reverse of that old carnival game?”

“As a matter of fact, you’re looking at a three-year veteran of the carnival circuit.”

“Truly?”

“That’s right. I left just in time, before I got sawdust in my blood like the old-timers say.”

“How fascinating. So you really want me to guess your age?”

“Go ahead and try. Only if your guess is incorrect, you have to tell me yours.”

Her tone one of amusement, she said, “I still haven’t decided whether I’m prepared to risk it.” She picked up the plastic slip containing the Glen Campbell TV Guide. I went into another of my spiels.

“Those hold their value; very popular collector’s items. That one there is in near-mint condition.”

“Fifty-three,” she said.

“Beg pardon?”

“Fifty-three. I managed to hit it right on the nose, didn’t I, Rumplestiltskin?”

“You sure did. Maybe the carnival’s in your future.”

“I’ve stayed too long at the fair already, thank you very much.” She turned to the display of old campaign buttons and asked to see one of Uncle Sam standing behind Tricky Dick with the slogan: He’s Good Enough For Me in ’68.

“God, that’s disgusting,” she said. “Sad and piquant. Four more years of war. Wicked King Dick. I always found Uncle Sam scary as a kid, didn’t you?”

I sat galvanized by her last remarks. Wicked King Dick. She had originated the phrase as far as I knew. But would she recognize me, with my biker hair and beard, sun-beaten look and beer overhang, slumping there in the wooden folding chair? Maggie sat five feet away, chattering to a middle-aged woman about the rich luster of real pearls.

“I always found Bishop Sheen scary as a kid. On black-and-white television, I thought he looked like Dracula.”

“How much do you want for this? I may display it in my guest bathroom—something for my guests to laugh at while they go to the bathroom.”

“Two bucks is about right.”

She reached into her designer purse and extracted a twenty from a wafer-thin wallet. While I was making change, she said, “I’ve never seen you before. Do you come here often?”

“First time here, but you’ll probably see me next month and the month after that.”

“I sometimes find myself in the market for the occasional poster: sixties and seventies nostalgia, classic movie posters, old political campaigns, and the like. Good condition, of course. Why don’t I leave you my card, just in case?”

I took it without looking at it. “I’ll keep an eye out, Beth.”

“How do you—” she began. Her eyes focused on mine, then widened in panic. She dropped, or rather threw, the campaign pin on the table, turned and swiftly walked away flustered, slipping through the gathering crowd toward the side exit.

“Lady forgot her change,” I called out to Maggie. Sidestepping strollers, oldsters and Clems of all ages, I hurried after her, but she had vanished into the crowd. I returned to the tables and sat down dejected.

Maggie barely looked over; engrossed in mid-pitch with her latest fish, gushing about the “azure flame” of lapis lazuli. No doubt she had spied the woman’s diamond cross pendant and her WWJD bracelet. “Most of the time when the Bible says sapphire, it’s really lapis. Especially the Old Testament, but The Book of Revelation, too. Remember in the Book of Revelation where one of the doors of the Holy City—I forget which one, but it doesn’t really matter—is made out of pure sapphire? God’s Throne is made out of pure sapphire. Lapis, right? That’s why I call my lapis ‘Bible sapphire.’ In the ancient world they prized it even more highly than diamonds. Just look at this piece catch fire with beautiful ultramarine light. Ultramarine: that means ‘bluer than the sea.’” And so on. Showing the woman a ring that even to my untrained eye had to be blue topaz.

On the ride home I complimented her on her Biblical, if not gemological, knowledge. “I’d have said or done whatever it took to unload that blue monstrosity,” she sneered. “Looked like it came out of a cracker jacks box or a dime store gum machine. Color of toilet water with one of those blue dye things in the tank. Netted a cool fifty for it, though, didn’t I? Over five hundred gross for the day, but it felt like pulling my damn teeth out one by one for a buck apiece. Goddamn DeKalb. They have plenty money but they’re damn good at hanging on to it.” She turned to ask: “How’d you do?”

I cringed. “Forty and change.”

“Forty and change? My fucking throat’s sore from talking all those women out of their goddamn money and all’s you made was forty and change? For the day? Christ!” She hugged the passenger door while she lit her next cigarette.

“Remember, you’re dealing jewelry while I’m dealing crap.”

“One man’s crap is another man’s treasure. And I’m not dealing jewelry, I’m dealing dreams. Fantasies. Colors that exist only in the mind.” I realized then that she did have some poetry in her, after all.

“Oh, and that woman who left me her twenty without even taking the merchandise. That makes it a little over sixty.”

“Gas money. Why’d she take off on you without her purchase or her change?”

“Beats me.” I patted my shirt pocket for Beth’s business card.

Maggie leaned her head on my shoulder and heaved a smoky sigh. “Her loss.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER NINETEENTHE KIND MEN LIKE

 

The business card said: Beth Trajan-Brennan. Exquisite Interiours. Only that, plus an understated DeKalb prefix telephone number and an email. Elegant raised lettering on ivory. It wasn’t until Maggie left the house to go grave dancing at the next weeknight auction that I tried to call from a public telephone outside Kurt’s Market. I waited until two pedestrians passed by to the next block and well out of earshot before dialing the number and shoving in a pocketful of quarters, expecting an answering machine but not knowing what I would say to one. Were they tapping her lines waiting for me to make contact? Would she betray me to the authorities to save her own skin?

After four rings a subdued feminine voice answered, “Exquisite Interiours. Beth Trajan speaking.” My voice caught in my throat like some adolescent calling for a first date. As I stood there, tongue tied with the mute paralysis of indecision, I heard the automatic doors swing open; I let the receiver drop when I saw Laura Petrie Hahn, formerly Laura Petrie Gross emerge carrying a sack of groceries, her two kids in tow, each slurping on double-barrel grape popsicles.

“Johnny!” she cried. “What brings you out so late? Need a ride?”

“No thanks, Laura.”

“I hope you weren’t calling for a taxi. There isn’t one in Somerset anymore, you know.” She stood facing me with a pleasant but quizzical expression.

“No, just checking to see if your mom’s back from the auction yet. I hate to go home to an empty house.”

“Well, isn’t Kurt Russell home at this hour?”

“Yeah, Kurt Russell’s home. I just felt like taking a walk, is all.”

“Cool. Sure I can’t offer you that ride? That’s where I’m headed, to clean these two little grapesuckers up and put ‘em to bed.”

“No thanks, Laura. I better get me some exercise.”

She shrugged and smiled. “Suit yourself.” I offered her superfluous help putting her package into the back seat, then waved bye-bye until the taillights of her red Cavalier faded out of sight.

Back to the phone. Dialed the number again. Once more the smoky voice: “Exquisite Interiours.” No name offered this time. Then silence. I listened into the evening darkness for any sign of eavesdroppers. None. Finally the voice whispered: “Wolfy? Is that you?”

“Hi, Beth. Long time, no see.”

Long silence, almost a minute or so it seemed. Then she said, “I was so taken aback to see you last Saturday, after all these years.”

“You left without taking your pin.”

Another silence. I thought she might have hung up. “Yes. I forgot.”

“Do you want—”?

“Perhaps we might meet somewhere public but out of the way, where you could deliver it to me. In person, that is. Do you think we might arrange such a meeting? I was moderately fond of the article in question.”

“Name the place.”

“DeKalb’s rather far, but some don’t mind the drive,” she said. “Giovanni’s on the Mall. One hour. I’ll be waiting.” The phone went dead.

“Beth?” How could I arrange to borrow a car on such short notice? As though on cue, Buck Rogers pulled up to the curb and parallel-parked his 1955 Chevy right next to a hydrant.

“Buck! Good old Buck! Remember me? Johnny Wolfe. I used to help you paint your planes when I was a kid, remember?”

Buck cocked his head first left, then right. Then it was as though someone had pulled a light cord in his long-term memory hall of records. “Sure, I remember ya. Johnny Wolfe. Duane’s boy. How’s it goin’, young feller?” He shook my hand with a surprisingly powerful grip for a man in his nineties.

“Great, Buck. Say, I need to ask you a huge favor. I mean a huge favor.”

He twitched his Andy Clyde mustache and said, “Shoot.”

“Well, what I need is to borrow your car. It’s kind of an emergency. I wouldn’t ask only I don’t know anybody else in town. What do you say?”

Buck didn’t even hesitate. With a generosity that put me to shame, he replied cheerily, “Go ahead, Johnny. Take old Rosie for a spin if you need to. Just remember to put gas in ‘er. Drop me off at home first.”

Buck held the driver’s side door for me. As I stepped past him to take the wheel, his breath like an old cigar, he confided:“Don’t worry none about blowin’ up that other airplane years ago, Johnny—that Piper Cub a’ mine. I forgive ya. Yiz was no more’n kids back then.”

 

 

Giovanni’s on the Mall was a franchise restaurant and bar. There was no mall, and I suspected there wasn’t any Giovanni, either, just a steak house and pasta restaurant with fine dining pretensions and a liquor license. I’d spotted the lit sign about halfway between DeKalb and Sycamore on Route 23. The waitresses all were dressed identically like Venetian courtesans from the Italian Renaissance, with blousy sleeves, high cinched waists, daring necklines and exposed cleavage. There were only a handful of cars still in the lot when I pulled the enormous steering wheel—big as the wheel of a ship—hard to the left with armstrong power steering and managed to maneuver the big weird customized BelAir into a parking slot near the door, beside an autumn red Lincoln Navigator with one of those soccer ball decals on the rear window. The propeller of the big model plane attached to my ride’s luggage rack had barely stopped spinning before I was in the door, squinting into the dimly lit cocktail lounge. Its recessed floor was carpeted a deep radish red, set off by the Corsican green patterned foil wallpaper and white tables and booths. It took me a moment to realize that the place was decorated with the colors of the Italian flag.

Beth sat poised and self-possessed at the bar, seeming very much her imperial ‘we’ tonight, studiously ignoring a heavy rocks glass filled with crystal clear untouched liquor. My faded jeans, denim work shirt and general disheveled and hirsute appearance drew a sustained stare from the bartender—himself spiffily clad in medieval woodsman’s jerkin over puffy-sleeved lace-cuffed swordsman’s white shirt and pirate pants—until Beth turned and said something to him. Then he smiled at me with what could only be called professional warmth. A smiling anachronism.

I tried not to shamble as I approached, to render my lumbering gait as unbearlike as possible, my hands not touching the floor. The bartender moved closer toward Beth, ready to serve us. His shirt was one of those you lace up like a running shoe. He made me more nervous than I already was. Beth swung the barstool a quarter turn to face me. The barstools had backs like captain’s chairs. Her legs were long, lithe and spectacular, shimmering in sheer satiny evening hose under a slinky and impudently short black dress. Her shoulder-length straight hair that I had remembered from the flea market—streaked with a dramatic shock of platinum framing either side of her face—she had plaited into an elaborate upswept style that looked positively Roman.

I took her hand as she proffered it, then kissed it like a courtier. It felt cool and lotiony, and smelled like aloe. She rose in one fluid motion and fell into my arms. I embraced her, saying “Beth, Beth,” over and over again. Her hair was perfumed jasmine. At length she said, “Shall we find a table?”

Carrying her drink, I escorted her to one in the darkest corner of the bar. Before I had even helped her with her chair, one of the waitresses appeared at our side, painted toenails peeking out from under the floor-length lace hem of her costume. I studiously avoided eyeing her cleavage and ordered: “Another one for the lady, and I’ll have whatever she’s having.”

“Another Stoly rocks, ma’am?”

“Please.”

The waitress’ costume rustled as she took our orders.

“I hate it when they call me ‘ma’am.’ Especially when it’s addressed to me over cleavage like that girl has exposed.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“My, you have changed.”

“Straight vodka? That’s a switch for you, isn’t it, Beth?”

“You’ve been away a long time, Johnny. I made the graduation from Boone’s Farm about the same time I graduated from Northern. And I do apologize for the intrigue with regard to our meeting. That nighttime call of yours caught me off-guard somehow, even though I’d been expecting it in some strange way for un temps très long. Or as they say in Rome, un tempo molto lungo.

I wanted to ask her straight up about the Brennan in Beth Trajan-Brennan. Instead I said, “I did it for vous, you know.”

“Did you? Did you, Johnny? All I seem to retain of our last moments together is a rather disturbing image of you blowing your cool and stalking out of the house leaving me standing there alone.”

“It all seems so silly now. I’m sorry.”

She took one healthy pull on her drink, then another before responding.

“I’m sorry too, Johnny. For everything. For thirty-three years of being apart, most of all.”

“We’ll always have those thirty-three years between us, even though we weren’t together for any of it. Except in my heart.”

“And mine as well,” she whispered. She reached across the table and took my hand in hers. Beth always had a peculiar way of finding and tickling the pulse point of my wrist whenever we’d held hands. I was gratified to learn she hadn’t lost the habit. She added, “We’ll have the rest of our lives to share stories about those lost years.”

“We do have a lot of catching up to do, don’t we?”

“Indeed.”

“Do you come here often?”

“That sounds like the world’s lamest pickup line, but yes, they all know me here. Especially since my divorce.” The waitress arrived with our drinks. Beth paid by credit card. Good thing, because I didn’t have any money or even an ID with my right name in my wallet.

“So how does Mr. Brennan figure in the life of Beth Trajan-Brennan?”

“Mr. Brennan doesn’t figure at all in my life any more, except for these ample bosoms he insisted I have augmented, and the equally ample child support money he pays me for my youngest, Aimee. Not that I have the slightest need for money, of course. Albert, Andrew and Antonia have all flown from the nest. My work here is nearly finished.” She gave forth an ironic laugh and finished her drink.

“So what exactly is Exquisite Interiours?”

“What is Exquisite Interiours? I guess you could call it my avocation. I bring my lifetime of style and grace to the task of decorating other women’s homes. For an honorarium, you might say.”

“Why might I say it? I don’t even know what it is.”

She favored that remark with a polite, finishing school laugh. “Providentially, my active social life with my former husband as well as my own parents’ prominent social standing have furnished me with a rather impressive network of contacts which I’ve managed to expand over the past several years into a lucrative interior decorating concern. That’s my curriculum vitae, Johnny. What’s yours?”

So I told her about the years on the run: following the changing seasons like a Druid, the farmhand job where I’d had to lie about being able to operate a Kaiser Korn Picker and nearly lost a hand, the Alaskan crab fishing that got me frostbit and crab-bit, the backbreaking migrant work side-by-side with Mexicans, Cubans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans, listening without comprehension to the staccato music of their language under the moon and stars. She sat transfixed while I told her about the job as an exterminator’s assistant, the day labor jobs handling everything from hospital waste to pesticides to slaughterhouse offal, about the dishwashing and car washing, the dust of sweeping, the heat of the incinerator and the din of turkey wrangling, always the lowliest laborer in our latter-day slash-and-burn economy, always moving, always looking over my shoulder for determined well-dressed men closing in, my pride telling me that I was too smart to ever be caught, my three o’clock in the morning soul knowing that someday I would be. I told her about the years with the carnival and how I’d finally found God. It was like a confession, and she held my hand through all of it. When I had finished, all she said was: “So is there anyone in your life right now, Johnny? A special someone? None of us could have expected our Wolfy to take a vow of chastity, now could we? Least of all myself.”

“There is, sort of.”

“Ah.” She delicately pulled her hand away and took a sip of her fresh drink.

“What I mean is, I’m staying with somebody on a temporary basis. An old school friend in Somerset.”

“Is this old school friend un ami or une amie?

“She’s just someone I’ve known since grade school.”

“I see. And your current understanding with this…person is what, exactly?” She leaned back and fixed me with a bemused expression, one plucked and penciled eyebrow arched with interest.

“Nothing,” I lied, remembering the picture in the scanner, and Maggie’s rebuke on the ride home from DeKalb. “The only real ‘understanding’ is that I can stay with her for a while until I get my problems straightened out. That’s about it, except for the fact that she can be a pretty demanding woman.”

“Pretty and demanding? Sounds like a lethal combination. My people should have her investigated. Poor Wolfy. Pauvre petit chien. And are you?”

“Am I what?”

“Getting your problems straightened out, dear heart.”

“My parents are both quite ill. My dad’s not expected to live much longer.”

Her face softened. She took my hand again. “I know what it can be like to lose one’s parents. Believe me, it isn’t easy, but time heals.” She took a serious pull on her drink this time. “Tell me: is the woman you’re living with at all sympathetic to the tragedies going on in your life, Johnny? Or is she simply continuing to make her demands on you?”

So I told her about the flea markets, the clerking and shelf stocking in Kurt’s market, and the treasure hunting. The latter seemed to fascinate her.

“You mean you’re allowed by your captor to roam about for hours, unsupervised and unmanacled, as long as you’re carrying that ridiculous metal detector?”

“That’s right, Beth.”

She laughed aloud, and offered her glass for a toast: “Somerset, Illinois: ¡La città di opportunità!” She drained her drink. It didn’t do a thing to her.

We talked for what seemed like moments, but had to have been hours. At last call the lights came up to find us close dancing to Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle.

“Last call, Ms. Trajan,” the bartender urged from the edge of the dance floor. “Time to go home, folks.” I wondered whether the ‘Ms. Trajan’ was for my benefit, and whether it might have been ‘Beth’ or even ‘Darling’ if I weren’t the one holding her in my arms tonight. He handed her her credit card and a tab, which she signed with a carefree flourish, telling him “Thank you as always, Cliff.”

In the parking lot she laughed immoderately at Buck’s BelAir with its aerodynamic accoutrements. “You know what it looks like? One of those exterminator vehicles, you know the kind I mean? Those ones with the enormous bug on top.” She fell against me, laughing hysterically. I held her and kissed her hard on the mouth, until she shivered, whether from desire or from the night air. She whispered, “Come home with me tonight, Wolfy.”

“I can’t.” I felt like a fool for saying it. Maybe I was a fool for saying it.

“Yes you can. I lost you once, Johnny, I’m not going to lose you again.”

“This sounds crazy, but I have to get the car back. It belongs to a poor old guy I’ve known all my life. It’s his only transportation.”

“So he can call a cab.”

“There are no cabs in Somerset.”

She held my shoulders at arm’s length and surveyed my expression with a mind-reading gaze. “It’s her, isn’t it? You don’t know what you’ll say to her. Wolfy, don’t you know that anything she can give you, I can give you more? Don’t you realize that by now, my sweet?”

“My situation is, well, kind of complicated at the moment, Beth. To tell you the truth, if I were to betray her trust now, she might actually get mad enough to turn me in to the authorities.”

“If she’s that vindictive a person, you’re better off away from her.” She lowered her head as though peeking under the hood of my resistance, widening her eyes to emphasize the obviousness of her point.

“You’re absolutely right. It’s just that I have to be careful. In the short run, anyway.”

“What was it the wise man said? ‘In the long run, we’re all dead’?” She turned to the Navigator and reached into her purse. The chirp of the car alarm made me jump. She popped the locks. I walked her to the driver’s door and opened it for her, talking her hand as she entered. It must have been like climbing into the cab of a semi, only much comfier once you got there.

“So you’re a soccer mom now?”

“Aimee’s team made girls’ state finals last year. We’re all quite proud of her.”

I stepped up onto the running board to kiss her again. She surprised me by activating the power feature, elevating me effortlessly to her level. It was a long and luscious kiss, and neither of us wanted it to end. When it did, she sighed, “You have my card. Call me tomorrow. Hell, call me tonight. Reverse the charges if you’re worried about her phone bill.”

“I will.”

She started the engine, which quickly settled into a nearly silent and expensive idle. The Personal Safety System began to embrace her. Over the soft pinging of the open door alarm, she asked: “When’s your next treasure hunting expedition?”

“Could be tomorrow. Weather permitting.”

“Where do you anticipate fickle fortune might lead you?”

“Lake Somerset, early afternoon. Do you know where that is?”

“I’ll follow the signs,” she said, reaching for the door handle. “Weather permitting.”

I was too excited to call her when I got home after dropping off Buck’s Chevy and leaving the keys in his mailbox. It was two AM by the time I crossed the darkened front room heading for bed. Suddenly a lamp switched on, making me start. I’d never expected to find Maggie sitting in the dark waiting up for me.

“Where in the hell have you been?”

“I took a walk, had a couple of drinks. Maybe more than a couple.”

“Where at?”

“The Deutsch Mark,” I fibbed.

“That’s a joint. A real knife-and-gun club. You walked all the way there and back?”

“Yup.” I decided the taciturnity of Gary Cooper would effect the best defense against further cross-examination.

“I heard mostly Mexicans hang out there now. You know a guy got killed in their parking lot last summer? First murder Somerset’s seen in over a hundred years.” She stood and stretched, yawning, the outlines of her breasts rising against her sheer burgundy robe. “Don’t do it again, ok? Momma worries about you. You don’t want to give Momma worry lines before her time, do you?” She shuffled over and gave me a sleepy kiss and hug.

 

 

Next morning it took a whole pot of coffee to clear the cobwebs. Drinking with Beth Trajan was a competitive sport. I began priming Maggie as soon as she got up.

“Thinking of doing a little treasure hunting today.”

“Feeling lucky?”

“Lucky and plucky. Thought I might go to the park.”

“Good idea. Maybe I’ll tag along with you. Pack a lunch.”

“Don’t you have store duty?”

“Chad Everett could fill in. He’s gonna inherit the damn store, anyway. Might as well get used to standing on his feet working in it day and night, ‘stead of his poor old Momma. Hey, maybe Kurt Russell wants to come, too.”

“How about Laura and her two? Hell, we could make this a family reunion.”

“You don’t have to get mad over it. It was just a suggestion.”

Maggie stayed sullen and quiet the rest of the morning, while I sat and pretended to reread the manual for the metal detector, scheming all the while how to make things right. At least right enough to where I could get out of the house for a few hours unquestioned and be with Beth. When it was getting close to noon I approached her and took her hand in mine.

“Maggie, the thing you may not know about the treasure hunting, I tend to say my prayers while I’m doing it. That way it saves the time when you and me can be together, which is precious to me, Baby. I don’t want to shut myself in a room and close the door to pray, leaving you all alone during our quality time.” It was the opening she had been waiting for.

“You might have said so, instead of flying off the handle and making me feel about this tall.”

“How tall, Baby?”

“This tall.”

“How tall?”

“It’s just an expression. Don’t you carny rats use it?”

“How tall?” I caressed her chin with the tip of my thumb.

“This tall,” she giggled, giving me the finger. “God, I can’t stay mad at you, Johnny. And you know it too, dontcha? You dirty old dog, you. You dirty old drunken dog.”

I massaged her shoulders, saying: “Why don’t we do something special tonight?”

“Such as?”

“I don’t know, think about what you’d like to do, just the two of us. Anything at all. Preferably something we’ve never done before. Then when I get back from the lake, that’s what we’ll do. OK?”

“The lake? I thought you were going to the park?”

“Lake, park, whatever. I’ll let the wind carry me.”

 

The wind carried me to Lake Somerset by twelve-thirty PM. My heart raced when I spotted the red Navigator parked in the shade of two elm trees. Beth, wearing safari culottes, a roomy camouflage pattern blouse, gold belt and sandals, half-reclined nearby on a playground merry-go-round.

“So this is where you grew up?” she asked, regarding me from behind the mirrored glint of designer sunglasses when I was still twenty paces away. “Cute little town.”

“Hi, Beth.” I couldn’t wait to kiss her, and she was worth the wait, the apricot texture of her tongue searching my mouth for its mate.

“When you didn’t call, I thought about calling you, but you forgot to leave me your number. I wanted to ask your roommate, woman-to-woman, what she would recommend as being appropriate attire for a casual treasure hunt. As opposed to a formal treasure hunt, which of course would be viewed as a black evening dress and pearls social occasion in lovely Somerset.”

“Very funny. Ha ha.”

“Seriously, Wolfy, it’s worrisome to me how much you appear to be in this other woman’s thrall. I’ve never even met her and already I dislike her intensely. Oh, is that your treasure thingy?” Beth ogled my metal detector, touching it on the shaft and even insisting I turn it on and let her try it out, earphones and all. I draped my arm around her shoulders while we walked around the perimeter of the lake, nodding to the occasional elderly fisherman along the bank. Mother redwing blackbirds guarding their broods would dive-bomb us as we encroached on their nesting turf. There was enough wind across the lake for us to hear the gentle slap of the waves against the algae-blackened rocks along the bank.

“I love being here with you,” I murmured. No response. Then I remembered the earphones, the low hum contrasted with the high-pitched squeal of discovery. I pulled one black sponge earcup an inch away from her ear and repeated what I had said. The wind chose that moment to sweep through the weeping willows as though to shush away a forbidden thought. She slipped off the earphones altogether and stopped to face me.

“Beg pardon?”

“I said, would you like to sit down for a while?” There was a picnic area with some tables in a secluded birch and poplar glade nearby. We sat down on the nearest.

“Have you ever actually found anything with this contraption, Wolfy? I mean, no offense, but after an hour of that mind-numbing hum, I’m beginning to think I’m trapped in a Buddhist monastery or something. Not exactly the ideal remedy for a hangover. You sure this thing isn’t some kind of alpha-wave biofeedback device instead of a metal detector?”

“You may be sweeping it too fast.”

“Really.”

“Lake Somerset is usually full of potential.”

She leaned against me playfully. “You don’t say. Romantic or otherwise?”

“Treasure hunting potential. Both kinds.” I kissed her again. Each time I felt less guilty, as though for all these years I had been an errant runaway husband, now finally returning to his rightful, abandoned wife.

“That was nice,” she sighed. “You know I feel instantly at home with you, Wolfy? Didn’t you feel it too, right away I mean?”

“Then why did you run away at the flea market? Afraid of me?”

“Not at all.”

I asked her the question I had been silently asking myself since our meeting. “And why aren’t you afraid?”

“As I said, I’m thoroughly at home when I’m with you. Comfortable, like an old shoe.”

“I mean, afraid of the authorities? What went down at Northern in 1970. Isn’t that the reason you ran?”

She pursed her lips and gazed out over the lake. “Let’s not talk about that, Johnny. Not yet, anyway. I’m enjoying this reunion with you too much to spoil it with a lot of bad trips, you know?”

“I have to know, Beth. Why did nothing happen to you? There were four of us involved in that plan. Hell, the whole thing was your idea.”

“Why do we have to ruin everything now, Johnny? Don’t you get it yet? You took the rap for all of us.”

“I don’t understand. Explain it to me.”

She looked at her hands like Lady Macbeth. “It was just the way things shook out.”

“‘The way things shook out’? I spend thirty-three years on the run and all you can say by way of explanation is that’s ‘the way things shook out’?”

“The firemen at the scene identified you from your yearbook photo. Then the crime lab lifted one of your fingerprints from a beaker or flask or something. Since they wash that stuff daily, it tended to show recent activity. Which was suspicious because you’d already been expelled. They traced the call to a pay phone and found the note with the two phone numbers in your handwriting”

“You seem to’ve followed this with a great deal of interest.”

“Does that surprise you, Johnny?”

“A little, given the way things ‘shook out’.”

“It was all written up day after day in the Northern Star. Come on, I was scared to death. We all were. Arlo especially, because that girl you brought along got a look at him in the ROTC building. By the way, who was that girl you brought along, Johnny? She never came forward and was never identified.”

I puffed my cheeks and blew a stream of air. “Just some girl I met in a bar that night. She made the calls. I truly cannot remember her name.”

“It wouldn’t have been Bec by any chance, would it?”

I struggled to catch my breath. “Might have been. How would you know?”

“Bec Resnick.”

“I’m amazed. I never knew her last name. How do you know it?”

“Because Arlo married her. It’s Bec LaVine now. Both very active at temple. I understand Bec’s Hadassah chairwoman this year. Small world, huh? Now if you and I get married, it’ll make the perfect musical comedy ending.”

“Sounds good to me.”

She crossed her arms as if she had felt a cold breeze. “If only you meant that.”

“I do.”

“Ah. If only you’d say that in front of a church filled with five hundred of our closest relatives and friends.”

“I will.”

“Let’s walk, Romeo.”

We circumnavigated the lake another time before she spoke again. “You know, you’ll need to extricate yourself from the situation you’re in.”

“Meaning what?”

“I mean, you’ll have to get your legal problems straightened out first.”

“Did you know the word Hadassah means Esther in Hebrew? And that the Book of Esther is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God?”

“Don’t change the subject. If what you said a moment ago qualifies as a proposal, consider it accepted. Consider yourself affianced.”

I embraced her until she dropped the metal detector. We fell to the ground and wrestled passionately as a couple of teenagers. She laughed from deep in her throat, holding her hips to mine, undulating without restraint but still in control.

“I love your hair that way,” I blurted, fumbling for something to compliment without seeming like the lout I felt.

She laughed again in the same lusty way, then explained, “I saw it in an antiquities catalogue, crowning a bust of the Empress Faustina, and copied it. Glad you like it.”

“I love everything about you, Beth.”

“Dear boy, I love you, too, but won’t we risk grass stains and chigger bites in difficult-to-explain places on our respective anatomies unless we reconsider what we’re about to do?”

“I love how you can rattle it off, Beth. That was always a particular gift of yours.”

“Why thank you, Wolfy. Now why don’t we collect ourselves and brush each other off as need be? So to speak? It’s still a bit premature to announce our engagement publicly.”

“There’s a secluded motel a stone’s throw from here along the highway. We can celebrate there if you like. Privately.”

Quelle nostalgie de la boue.”

“Meaning what?

“Rough translation: fondness for the gutter. No thank you.” She rose and began brushing dried grass clippings from her culotte-upholstered backside. “Since my divorce I drink too much, and I’m spoiled by being so filthy rich, but une rencontre d’après-midi in such squalid surroundings is not my idea of romance. Shall we go?”

We walked without speaking for the rest of the way to Beth’s vehicle. She quickened the pace after releasing the anti-theft alarm. I said, “So it’s over?”

“Over? Dear heart, you give up much too quickly. No, I want you to get in and direct me. Don’t you think it’s time I met your folks?”

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTYTHE DINOSAUR IS SLOW TO MATE

 

The Navigator parked by the house drew Ruthie almost at once. She loped over and met us on the porch. Always clumsy with introductions, I said, “My baby sister Ruthie.”

Beth extended a self-assured businesswoman’s handshake. “Beth Trajan, Dear. Johnny and I are old college chums. From your brother’s introduction, one would have thought you’d be sporting Buster Browns and peeking at us from behind an all-day lollipop.”

“My brother still thinks of me as a child, I’m sure. It comes of his having been away so long,” Ruthie replied, casting a pointed look at me before smiling cordially at Beth. “Come on in.”

My dad’s labored breathing sounded like a cooing pigeon. Es poked her head in from the kitchen when she heard the door, then held an index finger to her lips and pointed to him. For the first time I noticed how ill-kept the place looked. The floors were dull and scuffed, the windows almost opaque from inattention, and there was dust everywhere. My mother had maintained everything with spotless care for years. Es’s ministrations had probably made improvements; I wondered how filthy the place had been before the extent of my mother’s illness had become radiantly apparent. The couch had been moved next to Dad’s bed. Ruthie gestured for Beth and me to sit there, then joined us, taking the spot beside the head of his hospital bed.

“How’s he been?” The question sounded vacant coming from me. Ruthie shook her head for a reply.

“Is he under hospice care now?” Beth asked in a low voice.

“Yes, for the past three weeks. He’s in much less pain, thank God.”

“Yes, that’s a blessing.” Beth gripped my hand. “You know Ruthie, my own father passed away from cancer of the lung two years ago. He chose to die at home, surrounded by those he loved amid familiar surroundings. My mother passed less than a year later, as so often happens.”

“How did she die?”

“From an aortic aneurism. Literally a broken heart. I’m sure it means a great deal to him that you’re all participating and sharing in his care. I gave my father his last sponge bath, you know, and it was like bathing a newborn. It was an astounding epiphany, an eye-opening rite of passage to be there with him while he died with dignity.”

“Are you visiting in the area, Ms.—?”

“Trajan. Call me Beth please, Ruthie. After all, I am engaged to marry your brother. Oh, my, have I encroached upon your prerogatives, Johnny? I am a pushy broad, aren’t I?”

“Not necessarily. I mean, the thing about encroaching on prerogatives. That’s ok.”

“I thought it only fair that your family should know. And I am rather excited about the prospect, as I’m sure you all can imagine.”

“I’m happy for you both,” Ruthie murmured, owl-eyed. “Excuse me, won’t you? I’ll see if my sister Esther needs any help in the kitchen.” She made her exit in two long steps.

“Hadassah,” Beth said under her breath as soon as Ruthie had left the room. A moment later Es, wiping a dish with a towel, shot me an incredulous look from the kitchen, just outside Beth’s vantage point. Soon we found ourselves flanked by both sisters, full of excited questions and volunteered suggestions. When did all this happen? When was the big date? Would it be a formal wedding?

“You have got to get married in Mom and Dad’s church. You’ve just got to,” Es insisted. “If you didn’t, Dad would simply turn over in his—God, listen to me.”

Ruthie went over and hugged her. “You’re only saying what’s been on all our minds constantly, Es—putting our worst fears into words. Don’t worry about it.” So we sat and talked while my father slept his morphine slumber. It was almost as though we were already seated at his wake, sharing reminiscences about the dear departed.

“He’s not afraid to go,” Ruthie shared. “You know what he said to me the other night? He wants to ask God whether Velikovsky was right. You remember that crackpot book about the planets colliding or whatever? He was always reading that.”

“And the woolly mammoth quick-frozen above the Arctic Circle with buttercups still in its mouth.”

“The saber-tooth tiger ‘torn all to hell,’ as he put it, quick-frozen the same way.”

“He read Velikovsky, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the Bible and synthesized them all into his own theory: that when the Devil was cast out from Heaven, he fell to earth and that was what made the dinosaurs all die. He even had a dream about it, didn’t he, Ruthie?”

“That was before my time. I just remember not eating pork for years because some preacher said it was a sin. Not even so much as a hot dog at a church picnic!”

“You’re kidding, right?” Beth said.

“No, there was this radio preacher who said things like, the common market was the Beast of Revelation and God wants us not to eat pork, if you masturbate you go to Hell, stuff like that.”

“Ruthie!” Es exclaimed, scandalized.

“Well, that’s what he preached. Blame him, not me. Daddy always says two things now: the thing about asking God about the dinosaurs, and catching up to that preacher so’s he can kick his pork-prohibiting ass all around Heaven.”

They continued to talk back and forth across me; meanwhile I regarded my dad’s quiescent face and pondered how my life after so many years on the run had begun to fast-forward now. It seemed so natural to be sitting here with my sisters and Beth, everybody breaking out the family snapshots, talking about family things, the walls of my compartmentalized life finally coming down, and everyone more or less comfortable with it. At one point Es left to help my mother to the bathroom. As she passed, Mom peered into the living room at Beth seated there and called out, “That you, Maggie?” Both sisters visibly flinched at that. I hadn’t noticed before how much Beth did resemble Maggie physically. Es put Mom back to bed and resumed her conversation with Ruthie and Beth. They were still chattering when Dad awoke.

“Who’s this?” he inquired, in a joking tone that seemed somehow encouraging.

“Dad, I want you to meet Beth Trajan. Beth and I have known each other since college. Brace yourself, Dad: we’re engaged.”

“Engaged in what?”

“Engaged to be married, Daddy! Garsh!” Ruthie chimed in.

“Well, glad to know you, young lady. Any friend of Johnny’s, et cetera, et cetera.” He tried to reach for Beth, but the IV limited his range of motion. She half-stood, leaned over the bed rail and kissed him on the cheek.

“Thanks; may I call you Dad?”

“Call me anything you like, just so’s you don’t call me late to supper. So’ve the two of you set a date yet? Neither one of you’s getting any younger.”

“Dad!” Ruthie and Es in unison.

“We’ll probably take the plunge quite soon, Dad,” Beth answered for both of us.

“Now’s as good a time as any,” he said. “Don’t know as I’ll make it to the church on time, though, regardless.”

“Oh, Daddy!” Ruthie sighed.

“Oh Daddy, hell. All that’s left of my world is the four corners of this damn bed. Your poor mother’s mind is already gone to Heaven ahead of her. I’m looking to get out of here and be with her wherever she is. I’ve done my bit. Forty-four years working at Kaiser’s, breathing that welding smoke, feeling as how Kaiser’s owned me outright, lock, stock and cock. You familiar with Kaiser’s, Miss?”

Looking him right in the eye, Beth said: “I should be: I own Kaiser’s.”

Es was the first to speak after that revelation: “Johnny’s hooked himself a rich girl.”

“Indeed he has, and indeed I am. Rich, that is. And hooked.”

Beth turned to me; she used thumb and forefinger to raise my chin enough to close my gaping mouth. “That’s right, dear. Daddy in his later years consolidated his holdings by acquiring a number of carefully selected industrial properties as going concerns, all of which I ultimately inherited as his and mother’s only child and sole heir. Kaiser’s was one of those holdings. So yes, I own Kaiser’s, although I must confess I’ve never actually taken so much as a brief tour of the facilities.”

“Johnny’s about to inherit a whorehouse full of dirty pictures, painted by the horniest old fart that ever held a paintbrush in one hand and his prick in the other,” Dad chortled. “Go ahead and take that tour, Miss. Only you’d better hold your breath from all the welding smoke; that is, unless you want to wind up a goner like me.”

Beth stood and tenderly wiped his face with a cool wet washcloth, speaking to him in a soft and soothing voice: “None of us are goners, Dad. I know you wouldn’t talk like that if you really believed any of it. We go on, don’t we? There’s another, better life after this one. We’re all mere sojourners here. That’s what my experiences with my own father’s and mother’s passing taught me. Your son believes that, and I know you do, too.”

“I was watching the television the other day and they had this TV psychic; the way she put it, we’re all thirty years old over there. And we stay that way, forever.”

“There’s an old Irish folk belief to the same effect,” Beth added. “I’m not sure I believe all that, but I do know there’s an afterlife. Nature is the model of efficiency, and God created Nature. I’m enough of a businesswoman to be sure that nothing so marvelous as the human intellect made wise by a lifetime of learning and experience would ever be discarded by Nature and scrapped for a few pennies worth of hydrocarbons and whatever other cheap chemicals our poor bodies contain. God created us a little lower than the angels. Our Father won’t let us down. Will he, Dad?”

All in all, it was an incredible life creed coming from the Beth Trajan I thought I knew, and I was impressed. So was Dad.

“You want to know something, young lady? That’s about as beautifully put a statement of faith as I can think of, and I’ve heard ‘em all. They all come around here now, you know? Kind of like well-meaning buzzards, the lot of ‘em. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists. When Es answers the door I let ‘em all in to chew the fat and argue about religion. Every last one of them thinks he’s got all the answers; that his is the True Religion and the True Church, whatever that is, but you want to know something?”

“Yes, Dad,” Beth answered, “I do want to know something.”

“Well, then, I’ll tell you what I think: it’s like the blind men and the elephant. One’s got ahold of the elephant’s trunk, another one’s got his foot, and a third one’s got his tail. Why, one or another of ‘em probably’s got a pretty fair grip on the elephant’s dick and balls.”

“Dad! Not in front of company,” Ruthie giggled.

“Better get used to me, Ruthie,” Beth chided with a smile. “I’m not company, I’m family.” She turned to my father. “You were saying, Dad? Something about the elephant’s dick and balls?”

“That’s right. You ask any one of them to describe an elephant for you, and he’ll get it right, up to a point. But none of ‘em has the big picture, and that makes ‘em a lot like us. It takes every man, woman and child’s personal experience of Jesus Christ to make up the body of the True Church. Anyway, that’s my opinion. And I’ll tell you one thing about taking the word of a cancerous old cripple like me with one foot in the grave: I may be crazier’n Hell, but I ain’t likely to lie to you.”

We stayed until half-past nine; my mother never rose up again from her nap. It would be twenty-four hours before anyone would think to inform me that she had died in the night.

 

 

Beth drove with quiet assurance until she reached the next main intersecting street and asked me: “Which way?”

“Better let me off downtown, Beth. I’ll make my own way back.”

“God, she has her hook in your nose, doesn’t she? She’s got you snared. Come home with me tonight. It’s not that I don’t trust you, Wolfy, but try and look at the situation from my perspective. I can’t stand the thought of you spending another night under that woman’s roof. And why should you? My God!”

“We can’t tell her anything now; it’ll turn into a full-scale confrontation. I told you, I’m afraid of her getting mad enough to turn me in to the authorities, Beth.”

“So when are you planning on telling her? The wedding night? Our wooden anniversary? I can see your situation is not going to change until you see a lawyer and straighten out this damn mess you’re in. I have several good ones on retainer, although most do exclusively corporate work. One of them will certainly be able to recommend someone top drawer in the criminal arena for you. In the meantime, come home with me, my love.”

“One more night, Beth. Just one more night before I set everything right. I swear to you that I will not even touch Maggie Paderborn.”

“God, I wish you hadn’t said that to me, Johnny. And I wish you hadn’t told me her name.”

“What’s wrong?”

She hesitated. “I don’t know, it’s just so much more…worrisome when you protest too much, make too many unnecessary vows of chastity, and then on top of it personalize her for me by telling me her name.”

She drove around town aimlessly while we talked. Finally, although less than convinced, she let me off in the dark midblock of a side street two houses down from Maggie’s, after giving me a kiss to remember, one to carry me throughout the night.

Kurt Russell was sitting at the kitchen table with the lights off staring at the five-inch black-and-white. Some show about celebrities I didn’t recognize conquering their fear of vermin by being buried neck-deep in vermin or in some cases by eating vermin. Despite in the near-darkness I noticed that he had shaved a notch in his left eyebrow.

“Even John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey,” I shrugged.

His tone hostile as ever, Kurt Russell said: “Yeah, well. I spent the afternoon out by the lake today.”

Here it comes. “I didn’t see you.”

“No shit you didn’t see me.”

“So what are we talking about here, Kurt?”

“Looks to me like you’ve been fishing out of both sides of the boat, Preacher Man. You must have forgot what it’s like living in a small town. And Somerset’s a small town. Smallest of the small.”

“So’s Galilee. Always has been.” A rat scurried across the face of a beautiful screaming woman. That’s entertainment. “What is it you want, Kurt?”

“What do I want? What do I want? I want you to take your sorry, hairy, lyin’ sumbitch ass out of town the same way you came in. We don’t need you around here.”

“Shouldn’t your grandmother have something to say about that?”

“You wanna bring my grandma into this? Go for it, carny rat!”

I hadn’t heard her bedroom door open. “Kurt Russell? What’s going on around here?”

But all I heard was the angry noise of Kurt Russell shoving his chair away from the table, stalking off and slamming his bedroom door upstairs. Maggie stared at me, her eyes searching my face in the light of the television for an explanation. My expression told her I didn’t know of any.

“Find anything?”

“What? Uh, no. Wasted afternoon.”

“Awful hot for treasure hunting. Humid, too. Go see your folks?”

Why deny it? When fashioning a convincing lie, mix it with the truth as much as possible. “Later on I did. My dad’s bad off.”

“Yeah. I know. Good thing he has his will up-to-date, I guess. Sad.” Maggie opened the refrigerator and removed a bottle of chilled water. She held up the bottle and waggled it in the air with her eyebrows raised to offer me some. The refrigerator light shone through her filmy nightgown; she still cut a striking figure of womanhood. I waved her the ‘No thanks” gesture, meaning I wasn’t thirsty. She set the bottle on a counter, stood facing the light and fanned herself a couple times with the refrigerator door; the condiment jars rattled. I could smell the knock-off Chanel No. 5 she always wore. She opened the freezer compartment, slid out an ice tray, broke out a couple of cubes and slid them over her neck. “Goddamn, it’s hot.” Looking over her shoulder, she slid them down between her breasts.

“I wish school would start up sooner. Kurt Russell’s bored, and he’s taking his boredom out on us. Wish the worst I could say about my life was that I was bored all the time.”

“Are you, Maggie?”

“Am I what?”

“Are you bored all the time? When you’re not on your computer I mean.”

“Computer time is the most boring of all, you ask me. Why?

“Then why spend so much time on it?”

“Why do you spend so much time treasure hunting? Makes the time pass, I suppose.”

“Maybe you’re getting a little bored with me? Me hanging around the house not earning a regular paycheck?”

She took another swig, filled the water bottle at the sink and replaced it in the fridge. “How can you earn a regular paycheck being a wanted criminal?”

“I did it for years.”

“Yeah, but you had to keep moving and keep changing your name. And working shit jobs nobody else would take. No, I want to be Mrs. Johnny Wolfe. That’s the promise you made me, and at this stage of my life that’s all I want. That and setting a firm date so’s I’m not too old to enjoy myself on my honeymoon.” She took a swig right from the bottle after shrugging, as she always did, saying, “We’re all family here. Don’t feel like washing another glass.”

Spotlights out in the yard; headlights in the driveway. Harsh intruding lights at all the windows. A banging, battering ram noise hammered on the front and back doors. I peeked around the corner to the screened-in back porch. Uniformed men shone a flashlight through the darkness, its powerful sweeping beam catching me right between the eyes. There were at least two men in dark jackets and bill caps, one of them just outside the back door screen holding a shotgun at port arms, the other shining the flashlight while he monkeyed with the latch. Shouts of: “Police officers! Search warrant!”

Not now. Not when things were finally going so well. Who turned me in? Was it that weasely Bud, leering at us while we rode, kissed and pet on the simp-heister? Was he jealous of me, maybe? What about Lonnie from the girlie show? She’d do anything for money. Was there a price on my head? Could it have been Kurt Russell? Maybe even Maggie herself, desperate for the reward money to save the dying store. Et tu, Maggie?

They swarmed inside in no time. Maggie tried to run, but two of them grabbed her arms behind her back and threw her against a wall, face-first. I must have charged them after that, the way I’d charged the ROTC cadet decades earlier; this time I collided with the floor, slammed down by three-hundred-ninety foot-pounds of manpower concentrated in one knee against my left kidney. Finally, they let me sit on the couch after one of them flashed me his State Police badge, searched me and got me to promise I’d be a good boy.

“What’s your name?”

“John Bohannon.” I knew it would check out. I also hoped they wouldn’t find the extensive and varied collection of alternate ID’s in a baggie behind a loose brick in the basement.

“You live here?”

“No, just stopped by to say hello. What’s all this about, anyway?”

“How well you know the lady of the house?”

“Casual acquaintance, I guess you’d say. Why?”

“How casual?”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean? Maybe I should be talking to a lawyer.”

“Why would you want to talk to a lawyer? You guilty of something?”

“I’m innocent as the driven snow.”

“A smartass. Your girlfriend ever ask you for money, smartass?”

“Never. I don’t have any money.”

“You can’t afford a shave and a haircut, I can see that.” The cop’s knuckles tapped out the shave-and-a-haircut rhythm on the end table. “So what’s she see in you, anyway? You pimp for her, maybe?”

“I’ve got no record. Check it out.”

“Don’t worry, we will.”

“Knew her in high school. Just stopped in to say hello, like I said.”

“You live here in town?”

“I travel. My dad’s dying, so I came home to be with my family.”

“Sorry to hear that. So how long you been in town?”

I knew my clothes were upstairs in Maggie’s closet, my underwear and socks in her second bureau drawer. There were few enough of them to be missed in a haphazard search. “A couple days, is all.”

“Well, I wouldn’t come around here no more. Your girlfriend’s into some heavy-duty crimes. We’re charging her with felony theft, criminal fraud, and whatever else the state’s attorney and the feds decide. Maybe wire fraud. Misusin’ a post office box. Runnin’ an unregistered charity. You name it. I’m a married man myself. Hope they throw the book at ‘er.”

“Maggie? No way!” I remembered Beth’s seemingly idle remark over drinks at Giovanni’s: My people should have her investigated.

“Way,” the cop replied. “She’s been peddling her ass along the information superhighway. Starts out with chat room play-by-play with loser married men until the guys’re so hot they can’t wait to leave their wives. Then she clinches the deal with a dirty picture or two—you know, the kind men like?—emailed from an anonymous location.”

“Don’t you mean ‘cinches’?”

“Cinch, clinch, whatever. She arranges to meet the salivating scumbags somewhere, then stands them up claiming car trouble, landlord trouble, hospital bills, whatever. Some of these assholes have sent her thousands of dollars hoping to get a little. One old fart even signed a house over to her. You know how it is. Computers.”

A female cop brought Maggie out through the kitchen, hurriedly dressed and flex-cuffed. Maggie’s nose was a little out of joint, a single drop of dried blood under one nostril, a blood smear under the other. For some reason, I flashed on the orange tempora paint moustache she had applied forty-plus years ago during the Halloween Window-Painting War Between Protestants and Catholics. One of her eyes had already started to blacken. “Where you taking her?” I asked.

“County, for starters. You got anybody to watch the minor? If not, he goes into foster care tonight,” the lady cop told Maggie.

“Johnny, can you watch Kurt Russell?” Two cops sniggered upon hearing the name. “At least until Laura gets home with her kids? I don’t know where she’s at, and she doesn’t have a cell phone.”

“Sure I will, Maggie.”

“Bail me out, Johnny!” she pleaded over her shoulder, the female cop at her elbow escorting her out. “Bail me out tonight, they’re taking me to Ottawa!”

“No chance of bail for about forty-eight hours, travelin’ man,” the cop who had interviewed me said. “It’s gonna take that long while the prosecutors decide what charges to prefer. Plus, the weekend’s comin’.”

It took three men to carry out all Maggie’s computer equipment and a box of what looked like little shiny records. They took her cell phone and photographed her caller ID. They took Kurt Russell’s computer, too and all the cameras they could find in the house. There were three. They took all her checking and savings account books and records, the personal ones and those for the store. They didn’t check with me or account to me while they were doing it; all that came later when they left something called an inventory at the house.

When they were through, my cop talked in a low voice to an older cop who seemed to be in charge. I heard the younger one say things like, “agg battery” and “obstructing,” then get exercised when the older one shook his head and said something else. The younger one struggled to put on his game face when he finally came and stood in front of me. “We could book you for aggravated battery and obstructing a peace officer. But my commander wants us to go easy on you for now, so that’s what we’re gonna do, provided you cooperate in the investigation. Just remember, we can still change our minds and arrest you later, if you haven’t been completely forthcoming with me, or with the other officers who might want to question you later on down the line in the course of the investigation. Understand? You’re catching a major break here, Bud.”

“I won’t leave town.”

“See that you don’t.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONEMIGHTY MEN OF OLD

 

There it was: a corner storefront office not two doors down from where Red and I had set up the Tilt-a-Whirl—Peter H. Fuchs Law Office. How had I missed it? Because I wasn’t looking for it. It was Old Man Dobbs’ law office to me; same scales of justice window decal, only the gilded name beside it had changed. Did lawyers in Somerset still apprentice like in Lincoln’s day? No big firms with benefit plans and 401k’s and hundreds of junior associates sprinting the rat-race partner track in this tank town.

The place looked closed and darkened at first. The front door yielded when I tried it. A soft ding-dong sounded in the back. Dusty metal-frame furniture with dull green plastic seats. Linoleum floor. Lamps from the fifties. A little window with sliding frosted glass like a doctor’s office. I sat down and leafed through an old magazine. Some new DNA study showed that we hadn’t descended from the Neanderthal after all; our two subspecies hadn’t even interbred.

The Nephilim. Giants in the earth. It was angels who had sired the Neanderthal—the “mighty men of old,” the noble savages. My dad had been onto something after all, standing before the diorama in the Field Museum in Chicago, the long early morning train ride on the Burlington behind us, hearing him expound about the ancient Hebrews’ terror of the Nephilim, how powerful a race of supermen the Nephilim had been, mightier than David’s Goliath, and all the while staring into the beetle-browed countenance of the hirsute adult male replica in the glass case. What a masterwork the angels’ cosmic lust had conceived—the Neanderthal, surveying the barren and hostile terrain, crouched against danger but head unbowed, protective of his Sasquatch squaw and sinewy offspring. Bringing down a mammoth the size of a house with no more than a crude stone arrowhead and a spear; composing his feral music on a flute fashioned out of demarrowed bone; mourning his dead and burying them anointed with flower petals and boughs of plants now long extinct; eulogizing them in the mystical predawn, uttering what strange tongue of ejectives, glottal clicks, hisses, trills, and implosives—phonemes of a lost language. Spawn of true angels, maker of star maps and designer of animal skin clothing, his race had survived nearly two hundred thousand years, through ice ages and climatic upheavals, until he had at last succumbed to the predations of modern man.

Fuchs opened a door. We stood there regarding one another: him having gained perhaps eighty pounds, mostly in the soft neck and gut; me, unkempt hair past my shoulders, beard like a crazy man’s—the modern Neanderthal facing the latest descendant of homo sapiens sapiens.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” was the best he could come up with. We shook hands, then somberly hugged each other like brothers, awkwardly whacking each other on the back.

“Where you been hiding, man? You know I heard you was in town.”

“Really? Who told you?”

He appeared to reflect for a moment. “Shit, you know I can’t remember? How the hell are you, Johnny? Long time no see. I bet you get that a lot these days.”

“You practicing law?”

“Like the sign says.”

“Heard you got yourself into a little trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Rumor has it you tried a little cold calling and some ladies got mad at you for it, Bugs.”

“Goddamn, nobody’s called me that in years. I kind of like it.”

“So anyway, I’m curious, Bugs. What’s the story with those obscene calls?”

“I’ll tell you something: those calls were blown all out of proportion. First of all, they weren’t obscene calls. Since you ask, they were more in the line of sympathy calls to lonely women I figured needed to hear a mature man’s sexy, amorous voice every now and then—you know, what they termed ‘sexual banter’ back when they were busy trying to string old Slick Willie up by his balls for what he did with that Lewinsky broad. How in hell can you call it an obscene phone call if the woman wants it? And take it from me: every one of them wanted it or I wouldn’t have called in the first place. Show me the woman who I can’t talk her out of her bra and panties by the time my first three minutes are up and I’ll show you a dyke. Anyhow, all that’s ancient history. Reinstated a week ago Wednesday.”

“So that’s all it was?”

“That’s all it ever was; a misunderstanding, swear to God. Who told you about that shit, anyway?”

“Maggie Paderborn. Maggie Gross now.”

“Maggie Gross. She still has a fully inflated set of bagpipes on her, that girl. Wouldn’t kick her outta bed for eating crackers.”

“We’re engaged.”

“Christ. Sorry, Man. No shit, though? You two are engaged?”

“Well, we were. She’s gotten herself into some trouble. And I’ve gotten myself engaged to marry another woman.”

“And they call me a horned toad. You sonofagun, you.” He gave me a congratulatory punch in the meat of my left shoulder before asking, “What kind of trouble is old Maggie in this time?”

“This time?”

“Oh, yeah. Her and Frosty were always getting busted around town for public indecency, disorderly conduct, you name it. The gal has absolutely no notion of privacy and no shame about her body. Heard she likes to get it on in some of the strangest places. I think she’s got a healthy attitude, really; it’s the rest of us who’re sick, you know? Sometimes I think that’s what killed old Frosty: she fucked him to death. Word was he died in the saddle. What a way to go, huh?”

“Well, now we’re talking major felonies.”

“Oh-oh. What’re the charges?”

“Let me ask you something first. Did you and Maggie ever discuss the law of—what’s it called—when one spouse can’t testify against the other?”

“Interspousal privilege? Come to think of it, we may have. Maggie’s a curious gal with an inquiring mind. Yeah, I think I remember explaining to her that it’s a common misperception one spouse can’t testify against the other. Actually, it’s that one spouse can’t be forced to testify against the other. Potentially big difference. That’s why you should never forget an anniversary. Consider yourself warned.”

I described visiting Maggie at the jail that morning. Maggie’s hair looked tousled and dirty; she kept running her hands through it and complaining about roaches. She made a crack about me visiting captives in prison, then told me her plans.

“First thing I’ll do as soon as I get out of here is go see Pete Fuchs.”

“That’s a good idea. You’ll need a criminal defense lawyer.”

“Defense lawyer, shit. I’m going to sue the goddamn County. Look what those motherfucking pigs did to my nose—I’ve been blowing chunks of blood and I don’t know what else out of it all night. And you think they’d give you so much as a Kleenex? Hell, no. That’s all right: I’ll have the deed to the fucking courthouse before Fuchs gets through with them. But first you have to bail me out, Preach. I can’t take one more night in here.”

“Your bail’s a hundred thousand, Maggie.”

“So pay it.”

“Pay it? Just like that? Who do you think I am?”

Her eyelids narrowed, lips tightened into a mean bottom line. “I think you’re a guy who’s about to inherit millions of dollars. That’s who I think you are.”

In an instant it all came clear for me. Fuchs knew all about my windfall of a prospective inheritance—what he called an “expectancy interest.” Bored with his suspension from practice, Fuchs had probably been the first to recognize me while gawking out his window watching me set up the Tilt-a-whirl. And Fuchs knew Maggie, knew more than he was telling, had probably slept with her himself. And my poor mother, voluble as ever before her illness, had worked alongside Maggie at the Salvation Army thrift shop. Maggie probably worked there for first crack at the donations to clothe her big family. Kurt’s Market was a black hole of failing need. No doubt Maggie listened with avid ears when Mom had proclaimed the exciting news of my father’s sudden inherited wealth.

I put myself in Maggie’s shoes: whether Frosty’s demise had been by chance or by design, Maggie had surely been disappointed by her lack of any real inheritance. None of us were getting any younger. She had grown weary of the jewelry hawking, imitating the television saleswomen’s patter. The lonely hearts con was risky, and it disgusted her. A wanted fugitive worth millions would be just the ticket. She could feign romantic interest in me—her con woman’s guile was perfectly suited for that. She could even agree to marry me, meanwhile keeping a vulture’s vigil over my father’s deathbed. Once I came into my inheritance, she would be free to betray me to the authorities through an anonymous tip, confident that I’d be safely put away for years, maybe even executed for murder.

“Right now I’m poor as a church mouse.”

“Then you better pass the collection plate and find me a hundred thousand in bail money. Or I know one church mouse who’s going to turn into a jailhouse mouse. Catch my drift, Preacher? A hundred grand. You got twenty-four hours.”

“Jesus Christ,” Fuchs remarked.

“Do me a favor: don’t curse.”

“Whatever you say, Johnny. Remember when ol’ Maggie couldn’t say her R’s? What the hell—heck—was that all about, anyway? ‘A hunwed gwand,’” he mimicked. “Elmer Fudd’s wife shakin’ you down.”

“The thing is, I want to pay her.”

“You what?”

“I want to pay her. She can ruin me with one phone call.”

“No shit.”

“Besides, I owe it to her.”

“Say what? Just how do you figure you owe it to her, man?”

There was no use explaining to Fuchs how I felt, that I had been using Maggie even as she was using me, that I truly believed I’d gotten no better than I deserved by fornicating with her to gratify my own lusts. So I told him it was only because I was scared she’d turn me in.

“About your situation. Let me make a call or two,” he said. “As to the other, what if your old man were to agree to an advance on your inheritance? One itty-bitty titty painting? I’ll write it up. He’ll never miss it, and with my influence over at the Sheriff’s Department I can probably sweet-talk them into letting you pledge it as bail security, so long as there’s a valid recent appraisal. Plus it’ll give the deputies something to look at in the break room besides each other. I’ll enter my appearance and defend her for a bond assignment. That way Maggie keeps her mouth shut long enough for me to resolve your prehistoric legal quandary.”

It sounded simple. Fuchs must have stayed on the phone for an hour, even made an unscheduled house call to my father’s bedside for him to sign the advancement papers. I was still sitting in Fuchs’ waiting room reading about Neanderthal man when Ruthie arrived carrying one midsize microclimate case. Without a word she handed me a certified and notarized appraisal document signed by a Doctor Somebody, Professor of Fine Art at Northern Illinois University. Water Wings, circa 1965, an original oil painting signed pseudonymously as Biff Roayale, a known pseudonym of Wilhelm Besenstiel, a/k/a Bo Stiel. Verified as late-period Biff Roayale. Provenance: per probate records on file at LaSalle County Circuit Clerk. Current market value Seven Hundred Fifty Thousand Dollars.

It was like looking through a patina of nostalgia into a past that might have been: our past. Maggie perched atop her lifeguard’s chair in the summer sun, wearing her faded red Catalina suit and broad hat, the pool’s shimmering reflection lighting up her face. A cute smudge of zinc accentuated her nose, making me feel fifteen again. Uncle Bo had even gotten the foot thing right, one foot modestly covering the sign of the mermaid on the other, exposing a barely visible stripe of tan line. Every muscle, every curve had been tenderly drawn from life, spied by his voyeur’s eye for detail, prairie Michelangelo’s instinctive and unerring mastery of human anatomy and shy courtly lover’s worship of the female form for its own sake.

“He was kind of a dirty old Norman Rockwell, wasn’t he?” Fuchs mused, studying the painting. “He’s captured the essence of Maggie in that one, though, I have to admit. You can practically smell the pool chlorine and feel it stinging your eyes. I’d like to get a copy of it to hang it in my office. What about it, Ruthie? You got any cheap copies for sale? Say for considerably less than three-quarters of a million?”

“We’re going to sell lithographs of some of the more popular paintings when the web site is up and running. I’ll save one for you.”

“Thanks. You’re going down there with me then, to the governmental complex? I’ll need you as curator to sign off when we pledge this one for Maggie’s bail.”

“Seems only appropriate since she modeled for it years ago. However unwittingly.”

“I mean, as curator of the collection, in my opinion you’re within your rights, Ruthie. You can argue it potentially adds to the commercial value by beefing up the provenance with a hit of scandal, right? The model herself pledges the painting to the LaSalle County authorities to secure bail? Gives them something to write about in the catalogs. You coming along, Wolfe?”

“Think I’ll head back to Maggie’s, so I’ll be there to meet her when you bring her home.”

“Makes sense. Hey, I got some good news on that other deal, too. You got a minute, Ruthie?”

“I’ll sit out here and try to get inspired. This place has a sense of the past. It’s like a way station for anxious ghosts.”

“Yeah, that sounds like some of my former clients. Step into my orifice, Johnny.”

Fuchs had no sooner closed the door behind us than he began chortling and rubbing his hands together. “DeKalb County State’s Attorney owes me a favor or two, but I never expected nothing like this: he’ll do probation. Probation! You plead guilty to one count—any felony, say mob action, ok? They dump the arson and everything else. He says the feds are not interested in you, period. Guess they only want to go after Arab terrorists these days, not war protesters and draft dodgers from the Nixon era.”

“How is that possible? You mean they won’t even prosecute me for murder?”

“Sit down. That’s what’s beautiful.” Fuchs flopped into his executive’s leather chair. It bumped into a well-worn divot in the wall behind him. “Lucky for you, you did your thing before all the federal terrorism laws were on the books. Murder’s strictly a state charge, prosecuted by the local state’s attorney, see? And this particular state’s attorney says Alvin’s autopsy came back heart attack. Lungs were as pink as a baby’s bottom. There was no smoke inhalation, nada. Ergo, death by natural causes. Ergo, no murder. Not even felony murder because no proof of causation. Read between the lines: you’re the major luck-out story of all time. You just won the plea-bargain powerball, my man.”

“But why are they doing this?”

“Why? Why is there air? How the fuck should I know? Witnesses unavailable or dead, memories faded, piss-poor investigation, heavy caseload. What’s the difference why?”

“You mean Alvin was dead before the fires even started?”

“You have been listening, unlike most of my clients, who tend to sit and drool and stare off into space. That’s right, Wolfe, my man. Alvin woulda died anyway; his number was up, fire or no fire. Hey, remember that time you put the cherry bomb in old Buck Rogers’ model airplane? I thought I’d piss myself laughing.”

 

 

I returned home to anxious questions from Laura and sullen ones from Kurt Russell. Reassuring them as best I could that Maggie would soon be home, I petted the dogs for the last time, closed the bedroom door, stepped over the drawer contents rifled and dumped all over the carpet, and dialed Beth.

“Good news.”

“I know. You’re getting a plea bargain.”

“How did you—?”

Un petit oiseau told me.”

“Can you drive me up to Sycamore this afternoon? They want to meet with me right away.”

Avec plaisir, mon amour. Pick you up dans une heure.

“That’s an hour, right?”

Mais oui.”

Beth pulled up within forty-five minutes behind the wheel of a champagne Jaguar with beige interior.

“I’m impressed by your taste in cars, and flattered by your promptitude.”

“Don’t let it go to your head. On second thought, do let it go to your head, my darling. Shall we to the courthouse?”

She drove at least eighty by the speedometer, but the Jag rode so quietly we could have been traveling under the limit but for the fence posts whizzing by at shutter speed. “Remember the old way to DeKalb? Once you’d get out into the hinterlands, a certain number of miles away from Chicago, they’d have these ancient concrete or stone obelisks for mileposts, with the mile numbers stenciled on in black. That and the Burma shave ads kept the ride interesting. And the old barns protected with their lightning rods and hex signs from dangers natural and supernatural. And advertisements painted on those huge ski-jump sloping roofs: things like Chew Red Man Tobacco—not exactly Currier & Ives, and politically incorrect, right? Nowadays it’d have to be Chew Native American Tobacco.”

“No, they still make Red Man.” I told her about Red and his partiality to the chew.

“And See Rock City. See Ruby Falls. Remember those? Used to be all over. Wonder what they paid those old farmers to make billboards out of their barns. I used to imagine what it would be like to paint those signs, the traffic going by honking their horns at a little ant like me, suspended from the peak of the roof by ropes and pulleys, painting in the crooked leg of the R in Rock City. And remember those charming little signs out by the sides of the road shaped and painted like ears of corn advertising some seed hybrid or other?

“I sure do.”

“Wouldn’t it be marvelous to live out here in our own funky old farmhouse, waking up to meadowlarks in the cherry tree outside our window, both of us feeling rested and excited as children? One of those farmhouses you see from the highway, with an extravagantly huge rolling expanse of lawn it’d take a tractor half a day to mow? And a wraparound porch, dormer windows on the third floor, a darling gingerbread cupola and Kelly green shutters that really opened and shut over multipaned stained glass upper window sashes? Interior woodwork to die for, with a built-in butler’s pantry, sideboard and china cabinets? And a Wizard of Oz storm cellar that doubles as a fruit cellar, one of those mounds of earth with bulkhead doors? Stately old oak shade trees, catalpas, and cottonwoods that give off that angel’s hair cotton to float and dance along the pure cool country breezes? And a mother-in-law house for guests who are traveling and stop by unexpectedly, and a horse barn and covered exercise arena. And an elegant white rail fence that runs the length of the frontage, like a bluegrass Kentucky thoroughbred horse farm. Big as a bed and breakfast, so we could make love and sleep in a different bedroom every night of the week until we decided which bedroom we loved best.”

“You sound like you know exactly what you want.”

With a sidelong glance she replied: “I’ve always known exactly what I wanted. Tell me, do you still want to write?”

“Nobody’s mentioned that to me in years.” I realized that I had barely confided in Maggie and never once to anyone else except Beth my life’s unrealized dream: to write novels and short stories.

“You could have a room with an early American desk and a bay window looking out over the fields just for your writing. Why not? I can afford it, and soon you’ll have the means to afford it, too—so you don’t have to feel like a kept man.”

“Something about it all makes me feel—”

“Feel what, Darling?”

“Well, guilty would be the word.”

“Why guilty?”

“After all I’ve done, the people I’ve hurt for so many years along the way.”

“You mean this Maggie? She hurt herself; you had nothing to do with it.”

“How did you know about—?”

“Never mind that now; it’s all been arranged. I want to hear more about your guilt. Take it from a woman who’s had more than her share of therapy: guilt is a caustic emotion no matter what the cause.”

As the miles unfurled I tried to defend guilt as an emotion to Beth; she would have none of it. “At some point in your life, my dear, you have to ask yourself: Does God want me to be poor or does he want me to be rich? Did he create me to suffer or to rejoice? Will I have the wherewithal to perform more charitable works, more corporal acts of mercy, if I have money or if I have no money?”

“Maybe God creates us to suffer in this life.”

“Why? Because it feels so good when it’s over? Darling, I have absolutely no patience with martyrdom when it’s self-imposed. I came to the realization some years ago that God gave me a talent for making money—a head for business, if you will—and that He’d compounded that gift by staking me to a fortune. Therefore, I rejoice and give thanks every day. Honest, I do. And incidentally I also manage to contribute vast sums of money to a broad range of worthy causes. Do I do all that to assuage guilt feelings over having a wealthy industrialist father who got that way in large part by selling weapons of war? Not anymore; I’m past that particular hangup, thank you very much.”

“The Apostle Paul said: ‘We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance.’ I like to believe we’re like pottery and God is the potter. He creates us out of clay and then fires us in the furnace to harden us so we can endure the trials of this life and be proof against sin and temptation.”

“That’s the trouble with metaphors, Wolfy. Every one of them limps a little bit under analysis. See, you’re assuming God wants us all to be miserable. And I’m saying He doesn’t.”

‘“Take up your cross and follow me.’”

‘“My way is easy and my burden is light.’ Wolfy, you’re like a guy who gets handed a present all beautifully gift-wrapped, but you’re afraid to open it because you think there might be a bomb inside.”

“Bad choice of words.”

“Tactless, maybe, but not bad. Look, Wolfy, I know you. I know your heart. That means I know you didn’t bomb those buildings because you wanted to protest the war: you did it because I wanted you to. You did it because of me. And now I’m offering you everything you ever wanted: this fifty-three-year-old surgically augmented bod and all that goes with it. I’m inviting you to share all my worldly goods. I’m not saying I’m God’s gift to men, but what more can I offer you than that, when you come right down to it?”

I tried one more on her: ‘“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter. Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.’”

“Wolfy, I’m impressed. Only a man suffering under a world-class guilt trip would have committed all that to memory. I’ll bet you made a hell of a preacher. But you see, I haven’t defrauded any laborers, or hoarded money, or been wanton—at least not lately, until I met up with you again. I haven’t condemned or killed the just, either. So we’re still left with the original question: how are riches bad in and of themselves? It’s not money but the love of money that’s the root of all evil. I rebelled against money for a long, long time before I learned to accept it, to use it for doing good. But I don’t love it.”

“What about the rich young ruler? Christ told him: ‘Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Then he says: ‘For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’”

‘“What is impossible with men is possible with God.’ You’re not the only one who went to Kid’s Klub every Tuesday, you know. I’m not going to carry the world on my shoulders. That thing with the rich young ruler may have been an individual call. He chose riches on earth rather than treasure in heaven. But why assume it should always have to be either/or? ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.’ Or how about this one: ‘ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.’ Did you know, the word ‘martyr’ appears only three times in the New Testament, never in the Old, and nowhere does the Bible expressly command us to be martyrs. The word ‘martyrdom’ doesn’t even appear in the Bible.”

“You seem to have made a study of the subject.”

“I felt awful for a long time that you were a martyr and that I had made you one.”

“I take it you don’t feel that way anymore.”

“I’ve forgiven myself, and been forgiven by God. And I take it you’ve forgiven me as well. You have forgiven me, haven’t you?”

What could I say? A latter-day Major Barbara, her positive self-assurance seemed absolutely caustic in its revelatory power. In the side-view mirror I recognized myself exposed in a new and unfamiliar light, a light even more stark and unflattering than the one I had skulked around in for thirty-three years on the run. Pride and conceit were my sins; the pride and conceit I had clung to in remaining poor, in taking the jobs no one else wanted and for which I was secretly so overqualified. The light God had originally created in me I had hidden under a bushel out of cringing fear; now He had given me Beth all over again to kick the bushel over and let my light shine forth once more. When I shed tears at my father’s bedside they were for my self-pitying heartbreak at a wasted life—my own, and for the realization that at bottom, it was only Johnny Wolfe I ever truly cried for.

“There’s nothing to forgive you for, Beth,” I said. “It’s myself I can’t forgive.”

“Oh, give me a break! You know how sick that overdramatized self-loathing mea culpa act makes me? Sure you do. Enough already! Save your suffering saint’s attitude for the tent show suckers; you’re getting me depressed with it.”

“Beth, I—”

“You made a big mistake, all right? I know because I put you up to it. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend the rest of my life moping around in sackcloth, throwing ashes over my head merely because I talked you into setting off a couple of bombs the same night I conned a few other freaks to raid the physical plant and shut off the campus water supply. Hell, it was the seventies, Wolfy. It was college. What did our generation’s crimes amount to, really, in the grand scheme of things? An exaggerated form of goldfish swallowing when held up to the misdeeds and holocausts of Wicked King Dick. And don’t tell me two wrongs don’t make a right. You remember how it was back in the seventies—how we were all so cocksure we held the moral high ground? As I got older I began to realize that sometimes a little moral ambiguity and spiritual ambivalence are good medicine for the soul. I accepted the fact that a certain tepidity of nerve tempers the psyche and keeps us from becoming too proud for our own good.”

“Christ said: ‘So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked….’”

“But I am wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. We all are. I’m saying it’s time you realized it too, along with all the rest of us Christians. Who gave you the right to corner the market on suffering? You’re nostalgic for a lost paradise that lies somewhere in the irretrievable past; that’s what drew you back home from your wanderings at last. Nostalgia literally means ‘homesickness’, but did you know it can also mean ‘you can’t go home again?’ Going home is bound to cause us pain, Johnny, if we insist on making our home in the past. Let it go, Johnny; paradise may have been in the past, but now it’s waiting for us right up ahead, in the future we’re going to share together—even better than we ever remembered it.”

She pulled up alongside the DeKalb County Legislative Center in Sycamore. While we sat in her car and waited for Fuchs to arrive she held me in her arms like a heartbreaking new babe.

 

 

 

EPILOGUE

 

The driver’s door of the Mercedes swings shut with a subdued hearse like thunk that vanishes in the April mourning air. With characteristic German pragmatism, the car has a serial number for a name—SL55 AMG. The leather soles of my handmade Italian shoes—Florentine, not Florsheim—tread softly, as though unaccustomed to the familiar cemetery path of trodden-down pea gravel. Thin as slippers, they feel every pea. I must seem a traitor as I slip past the World War II Memorial, flaunting Italian shoes and dangling the keys to a German sports car in my hand. I carry one other by-now-familiar implement: my Bounty Hunter Land Ranger top-of-the-line metal detector. Having parked the car at a respectful distance, I know the way by heart; up ahead towers the monument to the Civil War dead; two paths up and one path over lies my destination. The situation calls for a walking approach; I have always considered it a serious breach of cemetery decorum to drive directly up to a grave as one would a menu speaker for ordering tacos. And yet I have become famous—all things being relative—as the cemetery man with the metal detector. So comfortable am I with my Bounty Hunter that I never visit the cemetery without it at my side, like a mercenary shifting and shouldering his weapon. And I visit this particular cemetery often, paying my respects at least twice a week in fair weather, nearly as often in foul, making one-sided small talk before reciting the usual prayers.

As Beth and I rode the elevator hand-in-hand to the State’s Attorney’s Office on the second floor of the Legislative Center, she kept her eyes on me with an odd, This Is Your Life co-conspirator expression.

Beth no longer chides me about the metal detector on those occasions when she accompanies me on my vigils. We share an understanding, not unlike the understanding that one day she and I too will share our final rest here, that the trademark metal detector serves as both a sign of respect and an adornment of accomplishment. My parents, Uncle Bo, Aunt Lena, Robin, Grandma Broomstick and the rest would be disappointed in me were I to abandon this particular eccentric accession to vanity. And from the Neanderthal on down, we know that it doesn’t do to disappoint one’s departed ancestors.

The frosted glass doors to the office flung open that day to reveal the duly elected incumbent DeKalb County State’s Attorney—a neatly groomed and manicured middle-aged Arlo LaVine in a navy blue three-piece suit—beaming as though the four of us were enjoying a private joke.

“By rights I suppose I should recuse myself and appoint a special prosecutor,” he confided behind the closed doors of his office to Fuchs, Beth and me.

“But you’re not going to, are you, Arlo?” Beth said. Arlo rattled off the same garbage Fuchs had mentioned before about faded memories, disappearing witnesses and slipshod investigations. We signed fewer papers than it takes to lease a car, after which Arlo and Fuchs darted out, saying they’d “run it by the judge.” While we waited, Beth asked me how it felt to be a convicted felon. I told her the question had come thirty-three years too late. Arlo returned with the paperwork signed and file-stamped. The goldenrod copies were mine to keep. I’d have to report to probation; Monday was soon enough. There was no fine imposed and no restitution ordered due to the defendant’s indigence. In the corridor Arlo gave me a bear hug and a freak-brothers handshake from out of the past. It was Monday before I discovered that Shauna from the Roach Hotel would be my assigned probation officer.

Beth and I live now in a gentrified farmhouse so close to her fantasy I suspect she may have sealed the deal with a down payment before the trip to Sycamore. Every new spring day we awaken wide-eyed as children to the morning chorus of meadowlarks’ song and cooing of mourning doves through the open dormer windows. Out of all the bedrooms, we finally chose the biggest one on the third floor after robustly test-driving them all. There is a fireplace opposite the foot of our bed, and as a nod to modernity we have installed a plasma big-screen TV suspended from the vaulted ceiling. By day Beth tends to her business interests and to the horses while I write in the great room facing the open fields. My first screenplay—about a treasure hunter who wanders into a cemetery carrying his metal detector and discovers he can use it to talk to the dead—was optioned by one of the majors and made into a summer blockbuster. You may have heard of it: The Corpse Whisperer, released in Mexico and Latin America as Llamar Todos Ataúdes— which, roughly translated, means Calling All Caskets. Now more and more curious fans brave the expansive lawn with its broad, winding lane, climb the front porch steps carrying personal notes or copies to be autographed, and knock on our door, hoping for a glimpse, perhaps an encouraging word from me, the H. P. Lovecraft of rural Somerset. And unlike other, more reclusive horror mega-authors, I never disappoint them.

I finish my prayers. Rising again to my feet, as I beg my leave of resting parents and kin, I gaze past the grand dowager century-old hedges newly aflame with the lilacs of spring and across the plowed and harrowed fields beyond the trees.

 

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 

 

 

Malachi Stone is a practicing attorney. He is the author of eleven novels and RUDE SCRAWLS, a book of short stories. All are available online.

 

 

CONJURER’S OATH

DEAD MAN’S ACT

DEVIL’S TOLL

GREEDY AS THE GRAVE

HARD BREAK

HEARTBALM

OZARK BANSHEE

PRIVATE SHOWINGS

SHARP FORCE TRAUMA

ST. AGNESEVE

WICKED KING DICK

and

RUDE SCRAWLS

 

 

 

CONNECT WITH ME ONLINE:

 

 

Facebook:

[+ Malachi Stone+]

 

Email: mailto:[email protected]

 

 

Be sure and listen to the FREE MP3 version of the first ten chapters of HEARTBALM performed by the author. Start here:

 

 

[+ http://archive.org/details/MalachiStoneHeartbalmChapterOne_AndNowaWordFromMySponsor+]


Wicked King Dick

Here's a nostalgia piece, my personal foray into Jean Shepherd Americana. WICKED KING DICK is the story of Johnny Wolfe, a kid from a small town in the American Midwest who goes away to college and falls hopelessly in love with Beth Trajan, a goddess from the Olympus known as the Northern Suburbs of Chicago. Beth cannot be won without a full-fledged commitment to her student radical activities, so Johnny--more Dobie Gillis than Che Guevara--joins the Movement on campus. His devotion to Beth gets Johnny expelled and into full-time bomb making. Deeply conflicted, he masquerades as a graduate student in the chemistry department and slips into the chem lab every night, pretending to make bombs while he tries to delay the inevitable confrontation with Beth and with his own conscience. The bombing of the ROTC building is intended to cause no more than property damage. When a man dies in the explosion, Johnny panics and goes on the run for thirty-three years. On the road he becomes an itinerant evangelist and hooks up with a carnival, which brings him back to his old home town and to Maggie, the girl he left behind. But will his past ever allow him to truly go home again?

  • ISBN: 9781311818768
  • Author: Malachi Stone
  • Published: 2015-11-26 16:20:11
  • Words: 94658
Wicked King Dick Wicked King Dick