His alarm went off, as usual, at 5:00 a.m. Five minutes earlier, his Bodum Bistro coffeemaker clicked on and began brewing two cups of aged Sumatran coffee. By the time he went to the bathroom and got to the kitchen, the air was heavy with the aroma of burnt spice.
He poured the first cup into a black ceramic mug. The thermal carafe would keep the second cup hot until he was ready for it, after he worked out, in 90 minutes. He would sip it on his way to work.
Now, though, he made his way back down the hallway to his study. The room was dark. He reached inside the doorway and felt along the rough, brick wall until his fingertips bumped into a wooden switch plate. He flipped the switch, and a lamp on his desk filled the room with pale yellow light. He stepped across the plush oriental rug, soft and warm on his bare feet, sat down in the high-back leather chair and logged on to his computer.
Then, as he did every morning, he Googled his name, Peter Caruso. As he waited for the search results, he picked up a pencil on his desk and began doodling on a scratch pad. “Who is Peter Caruso?” he scribbled.
Up popped three news stories, two analyst reports and one blog. They had all been posted overnight. He sipped his coffee and leaned in for a closer look.
It was all the result of a presentation he had made at an investor conference the day before. There, he had challenged his fellow investment advisers to “double down” on value investing by “buying far more cheap stocks, then not hesitating to unload them.”
And to support his case, he announced that, by following this strategy, many of his clients were now seeing a 20% return on their investments, more than twice the market average, after only two years.
During the Q&A session, he got plenty of push back, just as he expected. His lively back-and-forth with several investors, and his refusal to divulge his “proprietary formulas” for determining the best “cheap stocks” and when to sell, made for some colorful quotes and good copy.
He knew how to make news. His firm, Taft and Irving, knew that too. Whenever they needed some good PR, they turned to Peter.
And he delivered superbly, making a name for himself in the process. In financial circles, he had become a celebrity. Analysts, investors, journalists—they all wanted to talk with Peter Caruso.
This star quality, and his ability to use it to bring in big-money clients, made Peter one of Taft and Irving’s most valuable assets. No wonder he made partner at 32. No wonder he was now rumored to be a CEO contender.
He smiled, sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. He held his coffee mug in both hands, just under his chin, and breathed in the sweet, earthy aroma. The steam warmed the inside of his nose.
Then he opened his eyes and looked across the room at a large, cherry bookcase. It held dozens of books and an array of exotic objects he had collected from around the world: a white jade Buddha, a glazed ceramic vase, an intricately carved sandstone horse.
But now his eyes focused on a single piece, set back in the center of the bookcase, that was far less refined: a watercolor painting of a small, red-brick house. It was the house where he grew up. He had made that picture when he was six years old.
He remembered sitting in his front yard and sketching it, then going to his room and painting it with watercolors. He remembered how proud and excited he felt when his mother framed it and hung it on his bedroom wall.
It was the only piece in his apartment from his childhood, the only hint of a middle-class world on the twelfth floor of a luxury high-rise on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the only inexpensive thing in the place.
And his eyes were focused on it now because he liked to be reminded of what it felt like to create something. He was no longer creating. Now his days were spent optimizing assets. That’s what his life was about.
But his little painting was a reminder that that wasn’t always the case and that long before he was collecting art, he was creating it.
Looking at it made him feel half-empty. It was a feeling he was having more and more, a feeling he could not seem to shake.
He walked to the door and was about to turn off the light. But he stopped and looked at the solid brick wall in front of him. It was so plain. But this morning there was something about it that made him pause. He reached out and ran his fingertips over it, then pressed the palm of his hand against it.
He closed his eyes and thought of the summer when he was 15, the summer he had worked with his father. His father was a bricklayer. It was just the two of them.
That was more than 25 years ago, and he no longer remembered the details. But he remembered the feeling of creating something real—a wall, a patio, a walkway—of working with something he could hold in his hands.
He never worked so hard. Every day, his whole body ached. Before that summer, he had pretty much decided he would go to college. By the end, any doubt was removed because he knew he could never work with his hands for a living. Maybe that was his father’s aim all along.
Now, though, as he touched the rough surface of the wall, he realized how much he missed it. Not laying brick. But creating something real.
He stepped out of the shower, dried off and stepped onto his Fitbit scale. 157.8 pounds. Good, he thought. Still under 160.
It was Friday. Some in his office had begun to dress casually on Fridays. But he would be seeing clients and always dressed to impress. So he picked out a dark blue Armani suit, a light blue Ferragamo tie and, as always, a freshly pressed, white cotton shirt.
He got dressed, then checked himself out in a floor-length mirror in his bedroom. The dark suit and light tie were an elegant combination. How could his clients not be impressed?
Back in his kitchen, he poured a bottle of water, a scoop of chocolate whey protein powder and a cup of frozen berries into his Vitamix blender, pressed the button for smoothie, poured it into a tall glass and drank it down.
Then he poured his second cup of coffee into a small, stainless steel travel mug, grabbed his iPhone and Maui Jims, shut his apartment door tight behind him and pressed the button for the elevator.
When he got to the lobby, the receptionist and door man, Robert, greeted him.
“Good morning, Mr. Caruso.”
“Good morning, Robert.”
“You’re looking very sharp this morning.”
“Well, thank you, Robert. I’m meeting with some high rollers today.”
“How can they resist?”
Peter smiled. “That’s what I’m banking on, Robert.”
“My money’s on you, Mr. Caruso,” Robert said, as he opened the door for him.
The sun was just rising, and he put on his sunglasses. Robert scooted past him and opened the right rear door of a black Lincoln Town Car that was waiting at the curb.
“Thank you, Robert.”
Then Peter pulled a tightly folded $100 bill from his right pants pocket.
“Have a great weekend, Robert,” he said, discretely handing him the bill. Neither of the men looked down. But Peter looked around to see who might be watching. Sometimes, if someone was walking by, he would unfold the bill just a little and pause for a moment before handing it off.
“Give my best to Barbara.”
“Thank you, Mr. Caruso. You have a wonderful weekend.”
The fall air was crisp, but it was not yet cool enough for an overcoat. It was his favorite time of the year. He especially liked driving past Central Park when the leaves were turning. It reminded him of home.
“Good morning, Mr. Caruso,” said his driver.
“Good morning, Charles.”
“Beautiful morning. Would you like to drive through the park today?”
“That’s very tempting, Charles. But I think I’ll pass this morning. I’ll be running there tomorrow, and I need to get ready for a meeting. But thanks.”
“Very good,” Charles said, taking the hint and giving it a little gas as he headed south toward Midtown.
Tomorrow would be fun. After running in the park in the morning, he would take in the new Matisse exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. In the evening, he would get together at a dinner party with friends.
He bought a new Cesare Attolini cashmere blazer and Bruno Magli shoes, just for the occasion. Trendy clothes had become his signature at these parties. And good wine. Tomorrow, he would bring a bottle of Sassicaia from Tuscany, a 2006 he had been saving.
Now he arrived at his office building. Charles got out, scurried around the front of the car and opened the door.
“Have a great day, Mr. Caruso.”
“Thank you, Charles. I’ll see you back here a little before noon.”
Ariana, Taft and Irving’s pretty and perennially upbeat receptionist, greeted him as he got off the elevator on the sixteenth floor.
“Good morning, Mr. Caruso,” she said cheerfully, looking up from her computer. “And congratulations on all the good PR this morning!”
“Good morning, Ariana. Yes, I saw some of that myself. Do you really think it’s OK?”
“Oh, yes. And the photos of you. Very fine.”
“Thank you, Ariana,” he said, smiling. “You’ve just made my day.”
As he made his way to his office in the corner, several other colleagues congratulated him too. He acted modest. But inside, he was beaming.
“Good morning, Mr. Caruso,” said his secretary, Pam. She was sitting in her cubicle, just outside his office. She had already been at work for more than an hour.
“Good morning, Pam.”
“You’re looking very elegant today.”
“Well, thank you, Pam. It’s a big day, you know.”
He had only three appointments, but all with heavy hitters: one in the morning, one over lunch and one in the afternoon.
Their portfolios were quite different, and his proposals were carefully tailored. But his aim for all three was the same: to convince them to invest more. And if they bought what he was selling, he figured it would net him an extra hundred grand. Not a bad day.
“I’ve inserted a set of all the latest articles mentioning you in the front pocket of each of your binders,” Pam said.
Three binders, each of them sporting the Taft and Irving logo, lay in a perfect row across a walnut credenza that ran along the window, perpendicular to his large, ebony desk. Next to each binder was slender file on that client. He liked to have all his materials for the day lined up there in the morning.
“Thank you, Pam. You’re always a step ahead.”
His first meeting could not have gone better. Now he was sitting at a table at Bellini, his second client’s favorite place for lunch. The two of them were sipping bourbon, neat, and had just ordered food.
He was about to wrap up the small talk and begin his pitch when his phone began vibrating. Who on earth would be calling him now? During lunch, his business calls were automatically routed to Pam.
“Excuse me,” he said, sliding his phone out of his jacket pocket and looking embarrassed.
He looked down at the caller’s name. It was Maria, his sister.
“Pete, it’s Maria.” She sounded upset.
“Maria, what’s up?”
“He had another heart attack.”
“Is he OK?”
“We’re not sure.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s in surgery.”
“She’s here, with me, waiting at the hospital.”
“Do you think I should come home?”
“Maria, do you think I should come home?”
“Yes. Yes, Pete, I do.”
“I’ll leave as soon as I can.”
“Tell Dad I’m on my way.”
“OK. I’ll tell him.”
Peter blinked. He had been staring out the window as the plane took off. Now he looked down and realized he was still wearing his suit.
“Thank you,” he said to the man sitting next to him.
He had stopped by his apartment just long enough to pack a few things before heading to LaGuardia. He had been in such a rush that he forgot to change clothes.
Charles, who had been waiting at the restaurant, took him directly to his apartment. Peter called Pam on the way to fill her in and ask her to book him on the next flight to St. Louis.
After a quick stop at his apartment, Charles drove him directly to the airport. Uncharacteristically, Peter was silent the whole way. When they arrived, he let himself out as Charles grabbed his carry-on bag from the trunk.
“Good luck, Mr. Caruso. My prayers are with you.”
“Thank you, Charles.”
Then he handed him a $100 bill. No one was watching. But he didn’t care.
Now he turned back to the window, looked down at the ships along the Hudson and began thinking about his father.
His name was Dominic. He had come to the United States with his parents, Angelo and Rose, from Italy when he was eight.
Angelo was a bricklayer. No one in his family had ever left Italy. But the war had left his poor town even poorer, and he wanted a better life for Rose and Dominic, their only child. And so Angelo made what was, at that point, the biggest and toughest decision of his life: to leave his homeland for the U.S.
He had heard from friends that there were many Italians living in a place called St. Louis. People were building a lot of houses there. And so in 1950, he sold everything he owned and struck out for St. Louis.
The three of them took a boat across the Mediterranean to Portugal and then a ship across the Atlantic to Ellis Island. From there, they took a ferry to Jersey City and, from there, trains to St. Louis. In all, the journey took them nearly three weeks.
When they arrived in St. Louis, a man at the train station, himself an Italian immigrant, heard them talking. He asked where they were heading. Angelo told him they were looking for a place to stay “in little Italy.” He suggested they go see a priest named Father Capella at St. Ambrose Church in a section of town called The Hill.
Father Capella knew everyone on The Hill. He found Angelo and his family a place to stay right away. Not only that, he knew of a homebuilder, one of his parishioners, who was looking for bricklayers. Angelo went to the construction site the next morning and was hired on the spot.
The crew chief was impressed with Angelo from day one. He didn’t know English. But he needed only glance at a blueprint to understand the scope of a project, and he had an intuitive sense for the flow of the work. He was strong and fast and took few breaks. Among the construction crews in town, all of them scrambling for good talent, Angelo quickly became a favorite.
Bricklaying was in his blood. His father and grandfather had also been bricklayers, and he hoped his own son would carry on the family tradition. And so when Dominic was only nine, Angelo began taking him to work on Saturdays.
Rose was not happy about this, but she had seen it coming for years. When Dominic was a toddler, Angelo would lie on the floor with him and show him how create little buildings with wooden blocks. By four, Dominic was not just constructing, but designing, his own little buildings. By five, he was creating little villages, sometimes sprawling from room to room in their small house. Rose grumbled about the mess. Angelo bought Dominic more blocks.
He took his son to work with him for the first time intending only that he watch. That was also his promise to Rose. But after watching his father butter the edges of a brick with wet cement, Dominic immediately picked up a trowel and joined him.
Angelo didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. The boy learned just by watching. And he worked alongside his father all day, laying one brick for every two of his father’s, but just as straight.
Dominic was a natural. By 10, he had learned all the basics of bricklaying. By 12, he was sketching interesting new designs for walkways and patios. They were so good that Angelo shared them with his crew chief, who liked them so much that he began using them as a selling point with customers. By 14, Dominic was as strong as his father and, by 15, he could handle small projects on his own. Angelo was thrilled.
In the early 1950s, homebuilding was booming in St. Louis. Builders vied for the best workers. Angelo always had work, and he earned more in a day than he would have in a week, or even a month, back home.
The family had been renting a place, but soon they had enough money to buy their own house. It was a small place, next to a bakery on The Hill. But it was theirs. And there was even enough money for Angelo to buy a used Chevy. He had never owned a car.
All three of them began to learn English. But Dominic picked it up much faster because only English was spoken in school at St. Ambrose. He fit in well there. Many of the other students were also the children of Italian immigrants. And they all lived on The Hill. The whole neighborhood had the feel of a big Italian family.
Life was good for the Carusos until Dominic was 17. Coming home from school one afternoon, he saw his father’s car parked on the street. It was at least two hours before his father ever got home from work.
He went inside and heard a strange voice coming from his parents’ bedroom. The door was open, and he looked in. It was Doctor DeToma. He was examining his mother, who was sitting up in bed. His father was sitting on a chair next to the bed. His mother’s blouse was undone and, seeing Dominic, she quickly covered herself. He had never seen his mother in any state of undress.
His father got up and motioned to Dominic to come with him. He followed his father into the kitchen.
“What’s going on, Dad?”
“Your mother is ill. The doctor says it is serious. He thinks it might be cancer.”
His mother had always been frail, and lately she had not been feeling well. But cancer? It had never entered their minds.
But it ravaged her, and less than three months later, the day after Dominic’s eighteenth birthday, it took her life.
Rose was Angelo’s anchor and, without her, he felt adrift. He was not a man given to introspection. But now his world was rocked, and he began to reflect deeply on his situation.
And he realized that this place was not really his home, especially without Rose. His home was in Italy, the place he had known all his life, near the sea, among family and friends who spoke a language he did not labor to understand.
But he also realized that, for his son, this place was indeed now home. He knew Dominic would be successful here and carry on the family tradition. But he also knew that, as his son became a man, he himself would grow old, and he did not want to saddle his son with caring for an old man.
Moving to the U.S. was the toughest decision Angelo had ever made. But now he made one even tougher: to return to Italy. Fighting back tears, he told Dominic the day after he graduated from high school. Overwhelmed, Dominic said he would go too.
“No,” his father said. “I want you to stay. You’ll make a better life for yourself here.”
A few days later, Angelo signed over the titles for his house and his car to his son. Then Dominic drove him to the train station and kissed him goodbye.
He would never see his father again.
“Sir, would you like something to drink?” the flight attendant asked.
She startled him.
“Yes, coffee, please. Black.”
Sipping his coffee, Peter turned back to the window.
He thought again about that summer when he had worked with his father. He remembered the first day on the job and how odd it seemed to see him in work clothes. He usually left the house before Peter woke up. After work, he came in through the back door and went directly to his bathroom to take a shower. By the time Peter saw his father most evenings, for dinner, he had changed into dress clothes. That’s how he dressed on the weekends too. On Sundays, he even wore a tie.
And it made him wonder: why was his father always so dressed up at home? So he asked him.
“You see me now, Peter, as I usually am. But no one else does. They see the man I want them to see. That’s the Dominic Caruso the world knows.”
His father’s answer puzzled him. And it begged the question: Why? Why did he want people to see him this way?
He didn’t press his father that day. But over the course of the summer, he asked him many questions, and he learned so much.
He learned, for example, that when his father and grandfather were working on larger crews, the loud, rough men who framed the houses they bricked would call them “guineas.” There was a pecking order in construction, and many of the workers looked down on bricklayers. “Only Italians” would do such menial work, they said.
His grandfather didn’t seem very bothered by it, maybe because his English was not good. But it upset his father greatly.
It wasn’t so much the name calling, but rather the idea that his work—and he, by extension—was somehow less. At first, it made him angry. Then it made him wonder if he really did measure up.
And at that point, as much as he loved his work, given the option, he would have gladly done something else. Many of his friends were going off to college. He wished he could join them, then also do something respectable in the eyes of the world. But bricklaying was the only thing he knew and, now that he was alone, the only way he could make a living.
He could not change this. But he could change himself. He could change what people thought of him.
He began taking jobs he could do alone, so that few would ever see him at work in the first place. And when he was not working, he began wearing nice clothes. He sold his father’s old Chevy and bought a new Buick. He began spending less time on The Hill and more time meeting new people, mainly young professionals, downtown. He sold the house on The Hill and got an apartment downtown.
Except for his work, he changed everything and became a new man.
Dominic was handsome, refined and spoke with a slight accent, which women found charming. One weekend, at a party, he met a beautiful first-grade teacher named Marisa. They were each sipping a glass of red wine. By the time their glasses were empty, they had fallen in love.
That evening, Marisa asked Dominic what he did for a living. When he told her, she was surprised, but not deterred. If anything, it made him even more intriguing.
But he was quick to insist that Marisa not talk about what he did for a living. He told her that, if anyone asked, she should simply say he “worked in design.” She found this curious, but it was a half-truth she could live with.
In a year, they were married. They bought a small house in a suburb of St. Louis. Even with two incomes, they struggled to afford it, but no one would have guessed. They carried themselves with such grace.
And to everyone Peter knew growing up, his father was a simply a dashing, dapper, quiet man who always drove a new Buick.
“You become who people think you are, Peter,” his father told him that summer. “You become whoever you want to be.”
“What do you want to do, Peter?” asked Mrs. Henry, his high school guidance counselor.
“I want to be a stock broker and live in New York.”
“That’s pretty specific,” she said, smiling. “Why?”
“I want to make a lot of money.”
“Do you know anything about becoming a stockbroker?”
“Not really. Just that I need to go to college.”
“That’s right. You’ll need to major in business, probably finance. And you should think about an MBA too.”
“Sounds good. What are my options?”
His confidence made her smile. She swiveled in her chair, slid open the top drawer of a metal file cabinet and picked out half a dozen brochures.
“Here are a few ideas to get you started. These are all good business schools. There are a few in the Midwest and few out East. The ones out East are a little pricey. You might want to start with the ones closer to home.”
“Thank you,” he said, grabbing the brochures and heading for the door.
“Remember us when you get rich,” she said, smiling.
He went to his room after dinner that evening and read every brochure cover to cover. All the schools looked good. But he knew which one he wanted right away: NYU. It had a business school and was right in the heart of Manhattan. Tuition was steep. But he figured that between his father’s modest income and his good grades, he would qualify for lots of aid and, he hoped, a scholarship or two.
And that’s just what happened. And with the money he made interning at investment firms in Manhattan in the summers, he covered his housing costs and had spending money left over.
He earned his undergraduate degree in three years, then his MBA in a year, graduating with honors. He was heavily recruited and got offers from several top firms. They were all impressive. But Taft and Irving offered the best starting salary and a signing bonus. Plus he liked the way they called him “Mr. Caruso.”
That was 20 years ago. He had indeed become a stock broker, made lots of money and was living in New York.
“You become whoever you want to be,” his dad had told him. And so he had.
But he still couldn’t shake the feeling of being half-empty.
He called Maria as soon as his plane touched down.
“Is he going to be OK?”
“We think so. They put in three stents. Oh, Pete. Dad had something the doctor called ‘the widow-maker.’ It was a close call.”
“How’s he feeling?”
“Pretty good. He’s sitting up in bed. He’s a strong man, Pete.”
“Good. We should be at the gate in a few minutes. I’ll come straight to the hospital. Tell Mom and Dad I’ll be there in about 45 minutes.”
“OK, Pete. Room 405. See you soon.”
It was early evening when he landed, but the sun had not yet set. He hadn’t been home in nearly two years, and he was grateful for the chance to take in the landscape on the taxi ride before nightfall.
He had missed the low hills, the broad valleys, the rolling prairie. He remembered riding his bike along the back roads near his home as a boy and stopping in different places and pulling out his drawing book and sitting down to sketch a tree or a field or a stream.
It filled him up. There was something about looking at a sunset or horses in a pasture or snow on a grove of pine trees and then expressing these things in his own way that made him happy.
And so he made hundreds of pictures: nature scenes, abstract designs, houses, barns, horses, cars and people, including portraits of his parents and his sister. He signed them all “Peter.” He and his mother, who was his biggest fan, picked their favorites, and she framed them and hung them on his bedroom walls.
But when he was 12, his thoughts began to shift from the act of creating to the idea of painting for a living. Could he do it? Would he be good enough? Should he not strive for more? Would he make any money? What would people think of him?
No one had ever told him to become an artist. It just came so naturally to him. But now, for the first time, he had doubts. And he began drawing and painting less until, for reasons he no longer remembered and maybe never fully understood, he put his pencils and paints away.
He found room 405, took a deep breath and peeked inside. His father was sitting up in bed, eating dinner. His mother and sister were sitting in chairs on either side of the bed.
“Oh!” the women cried and then rushed to him. He wrapped his arms around them, held them close and kissed them on the cheek.
“Peter, I’m so glad you’re here,” said his mother. She looked tired and so much older.
“We saw you on TV last week, Pete,” said Maria. “You looked so good.”
“But even more handsome in person,” said his mother, pinching his cheek.
“Peter,” said his father. “Thank you for coming.”
He walked over to his father and shook his hand. He gripped Peter’s hand tightly with his right, then clasped it with his left too. His hands were large and thick and calloused.
“It’s good to see you, Dad. How are you?”
“Well, the doctor said I made it here just in time. And Father Earl said God doesn’t need any more bricklayers in heaven today.”
“I’m glad you’re OK, Dad.”
“So I guess I need to have a heart attack for you to come visit your mother.”
“No, Dad. I’m sorry. I’ll visit more often.”
“We would love that, Peter,” his mother said.
“We sure would,” said Maria.
“How about this Christmas?” his mother asked, seizing the moment.
How could he say no?
“Yes, Mom. I’ll come home this Christmas.”
“Oh, Peter. That would mean so much to all of us.”
“Amen,” said Maria. “The kids would be so glad to see you again.”
A nurse knocked and stepped into the room.
“May I take your tray, Mr. Caruso?”
“Absolutely,” he said, pushing back his half-eaten dinner. “My compliments to the chef.”
“Now, Dom,” said his mother.
“Sorry,” he said, grinning at Peter.
“You know,” his mother said, “Maria and I were just talking about going down the cafeteria to get something to eat. Maybe this would be a good time for you two to catch up a bit.”
“Maybe Peter’s hungry too,” his father said.
“No, I’m fine, Dad.”
“Can we bring you something?” his mother asked.
“OK. We’ll be back soon. You boys be on your best behavior.”
“We’ll try, Mom. Enjoy your dinner.”
His mother leaned down and gently kissed her husband on the lips.
“I love you, Dom.”
“And I love you.”
Peter pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down.
“Peter, there is something I need to tell you.”
“What’s that, Dad?”
“I was wrong.”
“You were wrong?”
“I gave you some very bad advice. When we worked together that summer, I told you that you become who people think you are. But I was wrong.”
“What do you mean, Dad?”
“You are who you are. What people think doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to be yourself.”
“I don’t think you gave me bad advice, Dad.”
“Yes, I did,” he said, looking away. “And I set a bad example for you too. I’m a bricklayer. But I wanted people to think I was something else, something more. I’ve lived my life as an imposter. And I regret that.”
“Dad, I think you’re being too hard on yourself.”
“This is not just about me, Peter,” looking his son in the eye. “It’s about you too.”
“Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were a boy?”
“Yeah. I wanted to be an artist.”
“That’s right. And do you remember what I told you about that?”
“I told you not to pursue it because there’s no money in it. Become a stockbroker, I said. Move to New York. Those were my ideas, Peter, not yours. I put them in your head. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
“It’s OK, Dad. I turned out OK, didn’t I?”
His father looked at him and sighed.
“You are rich, Peter. But are you happy?”
He looked down and didn’t answer.
“We must be who we really are. It’s the only way to be happy.”
“I am a bricklayer, Peter. That’s all I’ve ever been. And now I know that is enough.”
Peter didn’t know what to say.
“Find out who you are, Peter. It’s not too late. And it will be enough.”
He looked up at his father. His eyes were filled with tears. He had never seen his father cry.
“I’m sorry, Peter.”
“It’s OK, Dad.”
He got up and held his father’s left hand in both of his, then bent down and kissed him on the forehead.
“It’s OK. All is forgiven.”
He drove his mother home in his father’s Buick.
“You look good, but a little thin, Peter. Are you sure you’re eating well?”
“I’m eating great, Mom.”
“What did you have for dinner tonight?” He knew she knew the answer.
“OK. I’ll pick something up on the way.”
“Don’t be silly. I’ll fix you some pasta when we get home.”
“Mom, how are you doing?”
“I’m OK, thanks. Your father gave us quite a scare this morning. But he’s going to be OK, and so I’m fine.”
“You look tired, Mom. How’s your health?”
“I’m fine, Peter. I’m just getting old. But I’m fine. Really.”
“Good. Mom, Dad told me something back at the hospital I’d never heard before.”
“Yeah, he said he talked me out of becoming an artist when I was a kid. Is that true?”
His mother stiffened in her seat and looked straight ahead. She didn’t answer.
“Mom, is it true?”
“Yes, it’s true,” she said quietly. Then she started to cry.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“It’s OK, Peter,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “Your father just wanted the best for you. He wanted you to have the type of life he could only dream of.”
“And how did you feel about that?”
“About me not becoming an artist?”
“It broke my heart.”
“It made me sad to see you stop painting. I should have put my foot down. But I hoped you would paint again one day. And then when you did so well in school and business, I started to think that your father was right.”
“Do you really think he was right, Mom?”
“I’m proud of everything you’ve done, Peter.”
“But do you think I missed my true calling?”
She didn’t answer.
“Mom, you don’t have to —“
“That’s yours, Peter, something only you can know.”
He parked in his parents’ driveway. They had a garage. But he knew that, unless it was snowing, his father liked to park outside.
His mother unlocked the front door, and he followed her inside. The decor was spare, as it had always been. His parents had created a Feng shui look long before it was fashionable because it allowed them to buy less stuff.
“Make yourself at home, dear. You can sleep in your old room. Why don’t you go change while I get supper ready?”
“Thanks, Mom. It’s good to be home.”
The house was small, a three-bedroom ranch, with no basement or upstairs. Peter’s old bedroom was about the size of the kitchen in his apartment in New York.
He flipped on the light and looked around the room. Everything was just as it was when he was growing up.
On the walls, there must have been 30 paintings and drawings, each of them framed and signed “Peter.” He had created all of them by the time he was 12.
His old desk stood next to his bed. On it, in a frame, was a photograph of him in kindergarten, his first school picture. It was pasted on white paper, on which was printed “I am Peter Caruso” in crayon.
He pulled out the small wooden desk chair, sat down and picked up the frame.
“I am Peter Caruso,” he said to himself.
Then he wondered aloud: “Who is Peter Caruso?”
He got up and changed into jeans and a sweatshirt. Then he sat down on his bed, grabbed his cell phone and dialed his boss’ number, knowing he would no longer be in the office.
“Bill, it’s Peter. I’m in St. Louis. My dad is going to be OK. But there are some things here that need my attention. I’m going to take a week. I’ll call Pam and rearrange my schedule. Thanks for understanding, Bill. I’ll see you in a week.”
He got up, sat back down in his desk chair and pulled out the drawer. There was his old watercolor set in a white plastic case. He snapped open the lid, revealing a row of eight oval cakes. The paint was dried and cracked, but the colors were still vibrant.
He plucked his old red paint brush out of a groove in the plastic and twisted the bristles between his fingertips. They were stiff. But he pushed them into the palm of his hand, and they gave way and became soft again, like new.
Fallen by Dan Leach
Damn the mirror behind by the bar, backlit in amber with its glass bottle skyline, throwing that unwelcome reflection back at me. And damn that swollen face floating between the fifth of Knob Creek and the almost empty Jack, all fat and pink and sad-happy from the beer. Damn who I’ve become. Damn the suicide-blonde two stools down, sipping her blue sugary buzz, all cellulite thighs and nicotine teeth, lit enough to laugh at Hack Heller’s recycled sweet-talk. Damn sweet-talk. And damn Hack too, Judas Iscariot, two-stepping in here with his JC Penny dress shirt and twelve dollar hair-cut, the gall to shake my hand before he blocks me out and leeches onto the blonde, oh so conveniently forgetting who looked out for who when a certain somebody was a scared shitless sophomore with a birdcage chest and a stu-stu-stutter. Damn them all, I say. May fire rain down from the sky and turn this bar to ashes. May a dam somewhere shatter like glass and send us sputtering to the bottom of a lake. May some sudden and profound act of violence render all of this—the mirror, the face, the blonde, this beer, Hack’s haircut, and me—wholly non-existent, never here and never now, an ugliness that was once but got forgotten, a fart cracked into the wind, an unmarked grave blanketed in leaves, a word nobody knows anymore. May it end, all of it, now.
“Meany!” Hack screams, breaking my prayer in half.
“What?” I say and check my hairline in the mirror.
“Get your ass down here,” Hack says.
“Why?” I say and push forward a piece of hair to cover where my scalp pulls back and reveals a greasy patch of forehead. It began several years earlier, this lowering tide of hair and body and youth. How quickly the waves can turn to sea-foam. How quietly everything leaves.
“I was just talking about our glory days,” Hack says, all laughing and slapping the bar for effect.
I cover the spot perfectly, dragging my thumb along the oily part and wiping it off on my jeans. In a couple more years, it will be past the point of hiding. I will have to shave my head and buy bigger shirts. I will grow some stubble for a jaw-line and talk to women in their thirties. In a couple more years, things will be slightly, but also severely worse. Damn the tide. I know it pulls on everyone, but sometimes I swear I’m the only one really fighting it.
“He says you were some kind of big deal on the football team,” says the blonde, slurring her words not in the sexy, sloppy way but like a dentist just shot her tongue up with two tons of Novocain. “He says you set a record for the entire state of South Carolina. That true?”
“Tell her about it, Meany,” Hack shouts. “Tell her about that game down in Belton. You know which one I’m talking about.”
Meany— only people from my way-back call me that. Everyone else—my parents, my brother in Easley, my sister in Rock Hill, Eddie and all the Mexicans on my crew, Trey and Brian from the track, everyone, in other words, that didn’t attend my high-school– all of them call me Chris. Nobody who knows me as I am calls me something like Meany.
How did I come by it? Accounts vary. Kyle Scruggs, my original partner in crime from Creekside Elementary, said the name came the day I drove my knee into a Wes White’s sciatic nerve—a ‘dead leg’ we called them—causing him to double over into the water fountain and bloody up his gums. Kyle said some little pet, one of those Indian girls with perfect grades and zero tolerance for silliness, poked me with her finger and said, “Why do you always have to be such a meany?” That’s Kyle’s version. Bear, though—and for the life of me I can’t remember Bear’s real name or, for that matter, what happened to Bear after high-school—claimed to have given it to me after a junior high wrestling match in which my opponent, a scrappy hick from Greer, had sunk a half-nelson so deep and come so close to pinning me, I was left with no other option but to reach up, take his nuts in my grip, and squeeze them like they were crackers I was crushing for a bowl of soup. The kid squealed, rolled over, and I sunk a half-nelson of my own. “Meanest man alive,” Bear claims to have said after the match was over, after the referee had disqualified me from the tournament, after the boy, one hand clutching at his crotch, spit at my face and called me something much worse than Meany. There’s a couple more versions I didn’t bother to remember. Personally, I never cared for the name.
“Meany!” the blonde calls out, her voice somehow distant, like someone hollering into a pillow, like a moan from the motel room next to yours.
“What?” I say.
“Come here,” she says, still all Novocain and nonsense.
“No,” I say.
“Tell me that Belton story,” she says. “I want to hear it. I want to hear what you did.”
“No,” I say.
“Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ny!” Hack chants, thumping his fists against the bar in time with that name.
I check my reflection, tilting my head first to the left, then to the right. I’m sweating pretty heavily, but my hair is covering the part of my forehead that shines the worst. I slide the napkin out from underneath my beer. It’s damp and I use it to dab at my temples and wipe the edges of my nostrils—‘stork bites’ my mother called them—which turn red and engorged whenever I drink. I stick out my jaw and grind my teeth, hoping to see a bone poke through. No luck. I am trapped in fat and can’t find my way out. I am bald and sweaty in a bar with no napkins. I make a vow to stop drinking, to eat less, run more, to fight my way back to the body that set those records. I vow to stop vowing, to make this one the real one, the one still alive in the morning.
“Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ny!” Hack continues, the blonde having joined in, now driving her fists into the bar, the metal bracelets on her wrists jingling like Christmas bells.
I stare at the face and think about tomorrow. Tomorrow I will wake up early and eat eggs. I will put on a sweat-suit and run through the streets like Rocky. Tomorrow I will dump all my corn chips in the garbage and do push-ups on the carpet. I will feel myself returning and smile through the pain. It’s settled: tomorrow I will begin to begin. Swear it.
About the time Hack’s chant starts to die down, I finish my drink, ask Kip for another beer and another shot, and tell Hack and his blonde to meet me in the corner booth. Hack lets out a high-pitched cheer. The blonde shakes her hands above her head. They move to the booth. I get my drinks, look one last time in the mirror, and join them. I drink slowly and with care, and tell them stories that once ran in newspapers, stories that old boys two districts over can still recall at the sound of my name, stories that have been kicking people’s asses for twelve years. Shit could I play some football. They shut up, and listen with those trusting white eyes, and buy me several more drinks, and clap their sweet little hands. When I finish one, they ask for more. They tell me they want more and I give them what they ask for. Always am I happy to please the true believers.
When Freedie closes down, we pile into Hack’s car, stop off at an Amoco, get a bottle and a box, and drive around for a while. The stories have Hack wanting to stop by the old football field. Says he has a ball in the trunk we could throw around. Says he wants to have a drink on the fifty. The blonde likes this idea. She talks about the sensation of looking down from the bleachers in a way that makes me wonder if she had ever been to Creekside’s stadium.
We park in the student lot, which has been paved and painted since we graduated, but which still calls to mind mornings when we would cut class to sit in our trucks and smoke, listening to Skynyrd and talking about what we would do when we got out. Free as birds we swore we’d be. We made plans and convinced ourselves that Creekside was the only thing holding us back from making them real. We looked forward to getting out. Figured it was inevitable. Funny, our foresight never saw us coming back.
All my closest friends are back.
Down on the field the lights are on and when we reach the bleachers, we see that there are already a couple of guys throwing a football. They are younger, one of them a half-way decent running back I saw play some years earlier. The other guy I don’t recognize, but judging from the way he throws, he has played some ball. The running back has a jar-head haircut and looks to be in military shape. The other one is big too, but soft. Both are too old for high-school.
“Who are these fags?” Hack says, crushing his can and chucking it onto the bleachers to announce our arrival.
Both guys stop throwing the ball long enough to look up, but neither offer a hello or head-nod. Having registered our presence, they continued throwing.
“Why do they have to be fags?” the blonde says, hopping up onto the top bleacher and balancing like a gymnast on one foot. “Why can’t they just be regular guys? School’s out, man. What is it about this town that everyone other than yourself is automatically a fag?”
Hack ignores this and slapping me on the back, says, “Come on, Meany. Let’s show these fags a thing or two.”
Careful not to spill our beers, we run down the bleachers and, when we reach the fence surrounding the track, we hop it. The green of the grass beneath the milk-white lights, those crisp and measured lines: it’s been a while. Still, it feels like home and I am not sorry for having come.
“Hey,” Hack shouts, cutting across the field and gesturing for the ball.
Jarhead hesitates, looking, for a moment, as if he intends to pass to Hack, before slinging the ball back to Softboy.
“Hit me, hit me, hit me,” Hack shouts again, changing directions and clapping his hands.
Hack is less than ten yards away from Softboy, running his route and screaming for the ball. Softboy fakes, laughs to himself, and sends a tight spiral straight into Jarhead’s chest. Hack, already out of breath, approaches Jarhead and says, quietly, “Give me the ball.”
Jarhead mumbles a curse and gives up the ball.
“Y’all went to Creekside?” Hack says, stretching his fingers out over the laces and loosening his arm.
“Yeah,” Softboy says, picking his beer up off the grass and taking a sip.
“What year’d you graduate?” Hack says and flips the ball to me.
“Two-thousand and three,” Jarhead says and snaps his fingers at me.
I drop back and motion for him to go out, but he doesn’t move. He just rolls his eyes and keeps his hands where they were. He is snapping. I flick it to him and he hits Softboy.
“Do y’all need something?” Softboy says, fumbling but ultimately catching the pass.
“Just thought we’d play a little ball,” Hack says and steps up to Softboy and tries to punch the ball loose. Hack is successful and the ball bounces away, but when Hack bends over to snatch it, Softboy lowers his shoulder and rams him. Hack topples over, hitting the ground with a thud. He doesn’t roll so much as he flops and when he comes up, grass on his clothes, grass in his hair, his eyes are wild and he swings his forearm into Softboy’s chest. Softboy stumbles backward but keeps his feet. He laughs and passes the ball back to Jarhead.
“You got a problem, boy?” Hack says, brushing the grass off the front of his shirt and approaching Softboy with balled fists.
“Easy,” Jarhead says, stepping in between them and placing his large, outstretched hands on Hack’s chest. “It’s cool. There’s no problem. Everything’s cool.”
I grab Hack’s shoulders and give them a squeeze. They are hard with rage and trembling. He is fire-eyed and primed, staring pure and boozy bitterness into Softboy’s cocky clean-shaved mug. I look at Jarhead and he catches my meaning, pulling his buddy back and whispering tranquilizers. Then, on cue, all four of us turn because the blonde is jumping up and down on the bleachers, sending a shrill metallic echo across the field, and screaming, while waiving invisible pom-poms, “School’s out, y’all! School’s out forever! Don’t you know that? There’s no more school and no more fags and no more need to hold back all our uncool love!”
“She’s drunk,” I say.
“No shit,” Jarhead says.
We laugh—even Hack. She’s still jumping around and screaming when Hack, plucks the ball off the ground and says, “Four downs to a score, ten Mississippi on the rush, one sneak per drive, and watch the knees. First touchdown wins.”
When neither Jarhead nor Softboy respond to his offer, Hack slaps the ball, points it their faces, and says, “What’s the matter? Y’all pussy or something?”
This hooks them and Jarhead takes the ball from Hack. “Our ball,” he says and struts with Softboy back to the goal line.
“You want to rush or cover?” Hack says as we follow them down the field.
“I better rush,” I say, slapping my gut.
“Fine by me,” Hack says.
We line up. The blonde hushes. Jarhead the QB sends Softboy down the field with a muffled “Hut!” I can feel it in my spine: it has definitely been a while.
First down Softboy runs a slant and Jarhead throws a bullet, but Hack bats it away, sending a “Whoo!” into the night-sky that would’ve made Rick Flair proud. Second down, they connect on a button hook and Softboy almost breaks free, but Hack brings him down at the forty. No “Whoo!” this time. Third down I feel certain Jarhead is going to use his sneak and tell Hack as much. I am wrong, though, and another slant puts them on our thirty, Hack having to clip Softboy’s ankles to stop him from scoring. I ask Hack if he wants to switch, but he swears he has it.
“Pussies,” is all he says, jerking his head toward the two of them.
“Give me an M! M!” the blonde shouts. “Give me an O! O! Give me a V! V! Give me an E! E!”
She continues her cheer with surprisingly good volume and cadence, but Jarhead’s “Hut!” cuts her off and I can’t tell if she spells out “MOVE ON!” or “MOVE UP!” It’s fourth and goal and Softboy’s going long, all elbows and shoulders against Hack in the end zone. I don’t bother to look back. Hack’s got him covered and anyway I know Jarhead’s going to run this one in. I know it before he does. Instincts, unlike speed and hair and so much of what makes a person great, stick around for nights like these. Sure enough, he fakes once and breaks to the right. Even with the weight, I’m still quicker than him and he knows it. He knows who I am, recognized it the minute I stepped on the field. He saw the ring and didn’t need to ask my name.
Accordingly he heads for the sideline, looking for space and I am right there with him, almost on him, almost making the tackle, until my feet, probably on account of all the beer, get tangled and I begin to trip. Jarhead sees this and breaks into a sprint. He’s quick and, by the time I’m steady again, he has a good ten feet on me and Hack is hurrying over to stop him. The end zone is ten yards and closing. Jarhead and his Army-issued legs can move. He sees Hack and jukes to his right before spinning to his left. Hack falls for it, nearly coming out of his shoes. Softboy, hopping up and down in the end zone, is screaming “Go! Go! Go!” Jarhead sees the opportunity and dashes forward. All his weight is thrown forward and he, seeing that brighter shade of green just beyond the goal line, surrenders himself to its irresistible promise. What he doesn’t see is me and my arm, and I clothesline that son of a bitch so hard across his neck that it rips his feet out from under him and sends the ball up into the air. He goes down, the force and sadness with which his body hits earth beyond any words I have or ever will. He might be dead, such impact applied to the windpipe certainly not a good thing, but I don’t pause to find out. I catch the ball on the fly and jog down the field, looking back only once, conveniently in time to see Hack level Softboy. I am gone.
When I reach the end zone, I drop the ball and catch my breath. I look up and Softboy is throwing wild, arching haymakers at Hack’s smiling face. Jarhead is motionless on the ground. The blonde is running onto the field, stumbling all around, still screaming nonsense. I hurry back and manage to get in between the two, taking an elbow to the jaw for my trouble.
“You a sore loser or something?” I say, drawing back a fist to let Softboy know that, if he’s of a mind to continue things, then it’ll continue as a two-on-one.
Softboy’s gasping for air and bleeding from his lip, though I don’t know if that came from Hack’s tackle or his fists.
“Y’all are the losers,” Softboy says, spitting blood in our general direction.
“Better go check on your lover,” Hack says and nods towards Jarhead, who still hasn’t moved.
Softboy registers this and hurries over. The blonde is doing cartwheels on the field, singing something in French as she tumbles to the ground.
“Mea-ny, Mea-ny, Mea-ney!” Hack says through his teeth and slugs my arm.
“Let’s go,” I say and head for the car.
“Let’s go!” Hack shouts at the blonde, who is on her back, limbs moving like windshield wipers to make snow-angels in the grass. Grass-angels I guess you’d call them.
Halfway up the bleachers, I look back and am glad to see Jarhead sitting up. It was never my intention to hurt him. The game, for me, has never been about anger, at least not the physical kind. What I brought to the field was only ever a burden, a massive, internal thing begging to be released through sweat and tears and trying. Other people were never the target, although sometimes, like tonight, they got in the way it. I should’ve played another sport. I could’ve been a golfer. Those little white pills would have been better by far in absorbing and ferrying the burden, better certainly than another person’s windpipe.
Hack gets the car moving, the night-air drying the sweat on our skin, the radio some kind of subtext for Hack’s recap. The DJ plays back-to-back Zeppelin songs and Jimmy Paige is three-fourths of the way through his “Stairway” solo before Hack can shut up about it. That’s okay, though. He could go on all night if that’s what does it for him. To me, though, it’s just words, empty easy words floating as freely as cool air that floods the car, moving all around me, but never really touching me. Nothing can touch me where I am. I’m too busy breathing in the backseat, drinking in the dark. I’m too busy listening to my heart, beating like a band inside my chest.
We drive towards the blonde’s place. She promises to cook for us. She says she has a friend for me and places a call.
“Is she cute?” Hack asks, after the blonde hangs up.
“Yeah, she’s cute,” the blonde says, screwing her face up like someone jammed a lemon through her teeth.
“How cute?” Hack says, screwing up his face too, only not half as lemony as hers.
From the backseat I sip my beer and watch their sour silhouettes like it’s my own private nickelodeon. I am here, tonight, but only half-so. The other half is thinking about tomorrow, the promise that it holds: the eggs, the sweat-suit, the way the sun will feel. Damn tonight. Sunrise cannot come soon enough.
“What do you mean ‘How cute?’?” the blonde says and signals for me to hand her a can.
I crack one open, slurp the foam off the top, and pass it up to her.
“I mean,” Hack says and signals for one too. “One to ten, how cute is she?”
The blonde puts her feet on the dash, drinks vigorously from the can, and thinks about this.
“Nine,” she says, nodding her head. “Nicole’s a nine.”
“A nine?” Hack says, incredulous.
“Hell yeah,” she says, all confidence until she burps into her fist. “Nicole’s hot, man. She’s at least a nine.”
“I’m not sure you understand the ranking system,” Hack says, briefly looking back at me for support. “It’s not like nines are just walking around waiting for someone to call them up in the middle of night. A nine’s a rare thing. Especially around here.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” she says.
“No,” Hack backpedals. “It’s just easy to embellish is all.”
“I’m not lying,” the blonde says.
“I know, I know,” Hack says. “Help me out here, Meany.”
“What?” I say.
“Tell her,” he says.
“Tell her what?” I say.
“How rare nines are,” he says.
The blonde turns around in her seat. She cocks her head at me, asking, I think, for me to take her side.
“Nines are rare,” I say and throw my hands up so that the blonde knows it’s just numbers. It’s important that she knows this, knows it’s nothing personal, nothing against this woman named Nicole whom I have never met and whom, for all I know, is the love of my life and the mother of my unborn children. Nicole, whoever she is or isn’t, must be one number or another. Maybe she was born to be a nine. Maybe she’s the six with other things to offer. But nothing’s just for kicks. Whether or not they show it, everyone’s keeping score.
“Well, what am I then?” the blonde says, turning back around and facing Hack.
“You?” Hack says, a note of panic, barely detectable, creeping into his voice.
“Yeah,” she says, crossing her arms and pursing her lips. “Rank me. What am I?”
“On a scale of one to ten?” Hack says, drinking long and hard from his can.
“Duh,” the blonde says.
“Easy,” Hack says.
“What?” the blonde says.
“A twelve,” Hack says and, after throwing his can out of the window, signals for another.
I hand Hack his beer and the blonde says nothing, just smiles and drinks and reflects on Hack’s answer. Then she crawls over to his side of the car and whispers something in his ear. He laughs. She is kissing his ear, probably doing something with her hand. I can’t tell– angles and all. Whatever she’s doing works because Hack swerves the car, not hard, but enough to knock the blond off-balance, sending her flying across the cab and back into the passenger’s seat, laughing at something or nothing or everything.
“A twelve,” she says, more snorting than laughing now, happy, for now, to have some points on her board.
We drive around, drinking and carrying on, listening to our back-to-back classic rock. After a while we pull up to the blonde’s house. There’s a banged-up old Pontiac parked in the driveway, no lights but running. Hip-hop is playing at a volume that rattles the cheap speakers. The driver kills the engine and steps out. The blonde’s porch-bulb, muggy and yellow, isn’t much help, but even in the half-light, I see enough to know. I see the gut slopping out over the waistband of too-tight jeans, the massive breasts, like two butternut squashes stuffed into a sequined shirt, the cigarette jammed between her pouty lips, the short dyke hair hugging her swollen face like a helmet two sizes too small.
“That Nicole?” Hack says, suppressing something, maybe laughter, maybe pity.
“Yep,” the blonde answers and, turning around to face me, says, “What do you think?”
I open the Jameson’s, drink straight from the bottle, watch Nicole approach the car, and say, “Looks like a twelve to me.”
“To twelves,” Hack says, reaching over and scooping up a handful of the blonde’s thigh.
“To twelves,” I say, squinting out into the night where Nicole is lifting her shirt and scratching at her belly-button, her stomach large and pale as a goose-feather pillow. I drink again from the Jameson’s and think about tomorrow.
Inside, the blonde makes pizza in her oven and begins to bake cookies before giving up and dishing out the raw dough into four plastic bowls for us to eat with spoons. The sugary mass does nothing to slow the spinning of the room. I have, without having made a concentrated effort, become savagely and almost sickeningly drunk.
The blonde has a Pomeranian named Rascal that hates everyone and snips at our ankles until Hack flicks it in its little snout and sends it whimpering to its bed in the corner. After pizza and drinks, we sit around watching TV and pretty soon the blonde takes Hack into her room. Alone, Nicole sits next to me on the couch. Springs creak beneath her and she is so close I can smell her. Her hair and clothes smell like smoke, but there is another smell—peaches, I think—that has been applied and it doesn’t overcome the smoke so much as it mixes with it. When she leans in and kisses my neck, I think of peach-flavored cigarettes. I think of a nectarine with lung-cancer. I am dizzy and I want to lie down on her stomach. I am easily drunk enough to ask.
“Meany a nick-name or something?” she asks, still kissing all up and down my neck.
“Nope,” I say, closing my eyes and trying to will the spinning to stop. It doesn’t, though. I am hammered, sloshed, well on my way to oblivion. The room is a windblown whirl-a-gig and I can’t make it stop. Vomit is in my future.
“That’s your real name?” she says, biting my ear-lobe just a hint too hard. “Meany?”
“Yep,” I say.
“Your parents gave you that name?” she says and stops kissing me but starts rubbing my chest and shoulders with her hands.
“Yep,” I say.
Her hands move down to my stomach and I don’t bother to flex. In middle-school girls used to pay me a dollar to lift up my shirt and flash them my six-pack. In high-school I would walk around shirtless all summer, my pants riding low to show the deep creases that started on my hips and disappeared like two black threads into my boxers. Ate entire pizzas and drank soda with every meal and still as lithe and golden as a Greek god. There is, I am sure, a god still buried inside of me. “Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,” I think but do not say.
She rubs my belly like a genie’s lamp and starts kissing me again, this time on the mouth. Her tongue is more smoke than peaches. I can smell the makeup on her face. Her body is warm and soft as bread.
“What does it mean?” she says, between kisses.
“What?” I say, having fallen asleep.
“Your name. What does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“You never asked your parents?” she says, fingers digging into my biceps, followed by a moan.
“Nope,” I say.
“Hmm,” she says, running her nails down my arms. “Maybe they thought you’d be mean or something.”
“Sounds about right to me,” I say.
“No,” she says, locking her fingers in mine. “You seem pretty nice to me.”
I close my eyes and hold her hands. I breathe in her scent and wander what time it is. I spin through seven shades of black and fight the urge to spew. A trip to the bathroom would serve me well. Take a knee in front of the porcelain. Two fingers to the back of the throat. I close my eyes and think about my stomach emptying itself like an upturned trough. The great cloud of a couch envelopes me and I let it, leaning back and letting Nicole put her hands wherever she would like.
When I open my eyes, she is gone. There is a bar of light beneath the bathroom door. There is the sound of water running. I get up, and I fall down. I get back up, and I fall back down. My eyes are spinning in their sockets. The darkened house is tearing at the seams, hazy and askew. My head is a tin can full of angry bees. My limbs belong to someone else. The urge to vomit overcomes me. I am full of old things that need purging. I am ready to be emptied. I tell my feet to move and miraculously they listen. I am up, moving. Behind me, I hear the bathroom door open. Nicole says something, but her voice is a poorly tuned trumpet, all noise and no poetry. Everything’s messy. I don’t understand her words and anyway my feet are moving, my hands swatting at furniture like insidious vines that try to entangle my limbs and keep me here. Instinct kicks in and I sprint, as if for an end zone, one arm protecting my stomach, the other outstretched before me, stiff-arming all that would stop my run. Something breaks beneath me. Nicole is screaming. I crash into the door, fumbling at locks and knobs, trying to break through it but unable to decipher freedom’s combination. I step back, ready to ram the door with my shoulder, certain that I could reduce the door to matchsticks. “Nothing can stop me!” I think and say aloud. “Nothing can hold me back! Stop trying to hold me back!” I lower my shoulder and brace for impact, but a pair of hands clutches at my collarbone and a voice like clanging cymbals fills my ears. It is Nicole. She has stepped in front me and is blaring bunk at full volume. I fall to my knees.
“I’m going to be sick,” I say to her large and gracious stomach. “Please let me out. I am going to be sick.”
I don’t know how many times I say it, but eventually she vanishes from my path, the door swings open, and I am wrapped in stars and grass and cold, forgiving air. I breathe for the first time all night, breathe deeply and with sincerity. The ground beneath my feet is moving and I run to keep up with it. I run unobstructed, away from the house and everyone in it. I run until the vomit explodes out of my stomach, filling my mouth and pouring forth from my lips like a busted drainpipe. I collapse beneath a massive oak, its forked branches cutting the sky into spinning thirds above me, and water its roots with my vomit, sending out burst after blessed burst, falling backwards into blackness only after the last of it has left my body. I surrender the right to stand and sleep like a dead man in the dirt.
I am resurrected by the distant slam of a screen-door, my mouth like cotton, my mind like tired rusted cogs. The blonde’s house is closer than it should be but exactly where it is. Hack is slipping out of the front door like a thief, easing the screen door shut behind him and tip-toeing across the pavement. I half expect him to put his car in neutral and roll it down the drive, but he doesn’t. He revs it up and peels out, gravel spraying in all directions behind him. Then, in the window, hardly visible from such distance, a curtain peels back and face appears for a moment before vanishing forever. No sign of Nicole.
I stand, and stretch, and feel my strength returning.
Bless them all, I say. Bless the sun. Bless the sky. Bless Jarhead and Softboy and any boy who ever left their blood on a field of grass. Bless my brother Hack, keeping score for all the world. Bless this boundless, forgiving world, willing as it always is, to pick you up, no matter how far you’ve fallen. I have fallen, it’s true. I am not the beaming boy from the papers. But in the east, the sun is rising, spilling out golds and pinks onto what was blue and soundless and misty. I begin to run, my legs still strong and willing. Maybe it’s impossible, but I swear I can smell eggs. I swear my veins are full of sunlight and a god is waking up inside of me. Morning: my favorite time of day. Everything seems possible. And it is. Damn anyone who says it isn’t.
Murder by Invention by Tom Sheehan
Looking down from his second floor window in his Charlestown townhouse, fifty-year old, athletically handsome, Max Kulkeen saw the old-time politician Georgie Bettencourt get out of a black car parked tightly against the curb. There were times when he knew Georgie Bettencourt would have to slip and shift sideways through spaces in life. This, he said to himself, is a new assignment, and chauffeured no less. A dim flash of a Boston Herald obituary page slid across the back of his mind. With it came a listing of towns that death in the past had come to visit, a regular daily feature of the Herald, days without end. There was a time, back in the Linotype era, when he knew what the lead would say before the typesetters did. Now there were times he knew before the computer set-up jockeys went to work.
Max Kulkeen was a killer, no two ways about it, but he made it, as he said on a few occasions, an art form. He thought of himself as a classicist, a most sophisticated designer of death; he could bring new ideas and new ways out of the ether. Pride of accomplishments was continually measured by this man who had not even graduated from high school. Philosophy on death came out of his mouth: All this is just a short cut to the end that’s coming down the road right at you whether you like it or not. On a number of instances he had referred to himself as The Tempered Torpedo, punctuated with a smirk or a giggle, depending on the listener. Despite years of worry, of unbelievable concentration on targets, hundreds of hours on his own brand of stake-out, Max had kept his dark-eyed handsome looks, his Florida tan always highlighting a Florida golf shirt, and a face free of the work lines some jobs put in place for visage keepsakes and remnants. Some people said he looked like a just-retired professional ball player, hard-jawed, determined, ready to take on the world anew. Just a missing hunk of ear put a hole in his good looks, a jagged cut that a premature explosion had exercised, feeling himself noble and lucky for all the noise that had come at him that time, and the instant matter of shrapnel.
Now, for a change of pace and a kick for a hot Sunday afternoon, here’s the head of one of the state’s major political parties coming to stand in front of him, hat in hand, ready to kiss my ass if need be. Sometimes Kulkeen took a year to put into play his mortal standards; they were studied endlessly, programmed, projected. Nobody had ever been short-changed and nobody had ever been caught, neither him nor those who put him up to his art. His reputation was nation-wide, in the right circles of course, which meant, no doubt, that the cops knew about it all along but could never get him tied into anything. Yep, master of it all, he was, the clean killer, Rinso bright and all that white. It was a quick tune Max Kulkeen whistled whenever he was alone, which was most of the time. He’d known early that death has few acquaintances and fewer friends on this side of the grass.
“What brings you to my door, Georgie boy?” Max thought he best give it to Georgie right from the get-go. “Want me do your mother holding on to her three digs in Charlestown so you can get your hands on them?” Kulkeen pored his eyes right through flabby George Bettencourt, enough so he could see the pimples on his ass or his limp frog. One man he’d never liked was fat ass Georgie Bettencourt all the way since way back when. He remembered Georgie in grade school, at the old Kent School in Charlestown, wiping down the blackboards every day, swapping great lunches for special favors just because his old man had some connections and had the dough coming in, sometimes barrels of it.
Georgie’s wattle wiggled when he talked, his eyes changed colors between green-blue and a great summer sky blue, and Max thought he could make a pig sick by hardly trying, his little stubby fingers so sticky.
“Max,” Georgie said, shifting his weight, “we have a serious problem and I have been directed to you by the powers to be.” Like coming out of a long skinny pipe, this messenger’s voice was alto and then some and Max would bet it could make some people wince, like at the old blackboard with a hunk of chalk, just to get your hair up on end.
“You mean to tell me, Georgie boy, that you’re not one of them sitting at the top. All this time I thought you was one of the biggies and now I see you’re just an errand boy who’s gonna get his hands dirty if this thing you’re looking for is in my line of business and the boys up top, not including you, want my services. Give me a name and a location.” Hit ‘em like a gunshot. Make ‘em part of the package forever. Never let them be free of any of it. Murder One has wings and covers us all.
“It’s Sparks Gregson. In Peabody, near the Liberty Tree Mall. He’s been collecting dirt for years and has a whole computer run full of it. We think he’s holding it just in case he gets swung up by his heels and needs some ballast, his hands’ve been in so many tills. So we aren’t in any great hurry, but it’s got to be clean and his file system has got to be wiped out, too. That’s specific, from up top. He’s got data on the lottery we don’t want in anybody’s hands, no way. They think he has hard copies along with PC stuff. They say you can go your own speed, but have to get one guarantee from you, that if he threatens action or something starts to shake the crap out of the trees, you’ve got to do it within 24 hours.”
Max put a phony glare on George Bettencourt. “You mean you guys aren’t playing the lottery clean either? I should have known, bet a few bucks and it’s money down the damn drain. You telling me it’s all throwaway money, Georgie? Oh, well, I’ll tell you this, it’s gonna be double, Georgie. That’s two bodies you want from me. The price is doubled. And no room for argument.” He paused, letting the 24-hour thing sink in, measuring response, thinking about his bad knee, thinking about being hindered, thinking about some innocent getting caught up in the mix if he had to do it fast. “That last clause makes it a triple play, Georgie, right out in Red Sox country. And I get paid two thirds, in my dukes, before I do the fast-food stuff. You know damn well MacDonald jobs are not on my menu, not even for lunch.”
“I’m prepared to go that much, Max, double your usual, or triple if need be.” Shit, if he didn’t say Max like he was praying to him, Max was thinking. “That’s the word they’ve given me. Half now, and half later, after it’s done. That’s double your usual ante, or triple, the way it figures.”
“You think I can’t friggin’ add, Georgie? Give me an outside date, if you’ve got one.”
“They think the County Stakes trial, maybe in six months, now forming for Grand Jury, might be some kind of cut off point, but not for sure. Sparks’ files would be a blockbuster if the jury got hold of them.”
“Why not just get his files?”
“He has back-ups, no doubt, beyond the hard copy crap, floppies or CDs or whatever, and we don’t have any computer whiz to find that out. We want to knock a hole in all possibilities.”
“You friggin’ guys are way behind the times. Even the Spicks on the dope run have a computer, and a whiz kid to run it for them. Kid just bought a house out in Melrose on half a goddamn hill, gets paid so good. That’s why they are going to own Charlestown and Chelsea and Everett and Malden before you guys know it’s gone right out from under you. E plurubus siccum, if you know what I mean, Georgie boy, Boston Latin boy. Like the old doc had on the wall in his office, Doc Lindsay. Remember him, the old lead removal specialist before there even was the lead removal law? Illegitimus non carborundum, Georgie. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, Georgie.”
“How will you do it, Max?” Fat Georgie’s invisible hat was being twisted out of shape in his fat little hands. Max noted his little pointed nose that was too small for his body and too small for his face and thought about a terrier, a fat terrier, trying to get a rat, only he couldn’t get in the rat hole. The nose had a shine on it. One side of Georgie’s shirt collar was not buttoned and it had curled up, looking like a comma out of place, but pointing itself at the shiny nose. The shirt was blue and was another case against Georgie, definitely looking out of whack against his brown suit. “Not that I want to know your business. I was just wondering how you get started in something like this.” Georgie was standing mostly on one leg, teetering a little bit, off balance, not wanting to be right where he was at the moment, in the frigging firing pan now and forever. Max thought he might have hot coals under the souls of his feet; least, he can feel them, he thought. Life was changing all the time, and all the odds with it. He was willing to bet that Georgie was measuring his own chances in all of this, the old Rinso white theory at work.
“You want to know, but you really don’t, do you, Georgie? No track, no trace, that’s the way it goes, isn’t it? Well, I haven’t got the slightest, Georgie, and if I knew I wouldn’t tell you. Not that I don’t trust you guys, but that’d be the way to get rid of me, wouldn’t it? No track, no trace, but there’d be my fingers in the ink, and you guys could give me up without trying. I go about my work like a kid doing a science project. I study, take notes, get ideas, make plans, see what a dummy project looks like, pull the fucking trigger or drop the bomb or let cyanide get in the guy’s fridge. Piece a cake, Georgie boy.” Georgie, he knew from way back, had a thing for ice cream, for cake, for Jell-O with whipped cream on top.
Max could see Georgie having a hard time swallowing the last part, the cyanide in the ice cream or the bowl of Jell-O or in the tapioca pudding. The cake, even. The ice cream cake. The coals were too hot under the one foot, so Georgie shifted that whole frame of his to the other foot again. When he left Max’s place, a silence followed him down the hallway.
For thirteen days Max had watched Sparks Gregson, could mimic his walk, direct his taste selections, and even pick out the kind of women he’d take a second look at. From inside his panel truck, solid sides, he could watch with ease, half a dozen field glasses at hand for special viewing. Sparks had an office/apartment where he worked, slept, brought an occasional woman and weekly groceries, and most likely sat for hours in front of a computer. Now and then, as if determined by the space of days, a visitor came by, spent a few minutes, left as he came, unobtrusive, indistinct, near indistinguishable. Max could picture some kind of minor business transaction taking place: a pay-off, a special bet without benefit of phone, information being sold, green stuff swapping wallet compartments. Sparks lived where darkness abounded.
On two of those days, both of them Sundays, and from a distance, Max heard the high whining sound of small motors, a dizzying sound, sometimes high-pitched and sibilant, a whishing leaping through the air. The puzzle took him on the second Sunday back through a break in a tree line, through the swings and slides and jungle-gym bars of a small neighborhood park, and onto the parking area of a garden-type industrial complex. A four-story, red brick building, with many wide windows, fronted on one whole side of the lot and appeared clean and new, two wide doors shiny with aluminum. Its small lawn was trim and green. A small sign read Halverstrom Laboratories in plain letters.
Max’s approach was hailed by a swooping dive of a model plane that buzzed but feet over his head, then winged away, above the trees, the whine of its engine trailing out a small spitzing sound, much as a sewing machine or a blender gone crazy he thought. Thin and faint as whispers, a slight blue line of exhaust trailed out behind the aircraft.
Amazement came to him when the plane effortlessly glided in for a landing on the hot-top and halted at the feet of a group of men clustered in a corner of the lot, a variety of gear, tool boxes and containers in their background. A dozen other planes, of all models and shapes and colors, sat on the pavement as if they might be parked on some foreign tarmac out in the world. He introduced himself as Craig Winslow, new to the area and brought to the area intrigued by the sounds and dexterity of the small planes, all controlled by radio and all gas-powered. A sole image came to Max, and that was a true whippet of a greyhound coming out of the box at Wonderland looking for the rabbit, looking for Swifty.
“Name’s Syd Colpits, Craig,” one of the group said as he held out his hand. He spit off a few names of others in the group and they all nodded in their turn. Syd Colpits’ head swung around as he saw a big black limousine swing into the far end of the lot. “Oh, oh, here comes the target shooter.” He turned back to Max, “Wait until you see this guy do his tricks, Craig. We call him Wrecks Waco, originally from Texas and wrecks a model every week, he does. Must have a hundred of them backed up. Drops it like a Smart Bomb into one of those trash barrels over there, then leaves.” He pointed at a collection of trashcans at the opposite side of the lot. “Some honeys he’s wrecked; Spitfires, North Americans, Northrups, F-86s, Grummans that look like birds coming in for a landing. Sweet pieces, every damn one of them. Wish I had his kind of dough. If he makes them, he’s an artist.”
That final qualification got Max’s attention.
The limousine stopped, two men got out, one of them waved at the group and took a model out of the back of the limousine. Placing it on the ground, holding it firmly in place, as if it would take off on its own accord, he fired it up. The propeller spun smoothly after moments of the engine’s coughing small clouds of fumes. The second man held a radio-control device, with an antenna pointing upwards, in his hands and looked at the group of model makers. They nodded back. The plane ran down the pavement as quick as chipmunks move and took off.
“That’s a P-51 Mustang,” Syd Colpits said. “Aint she a sweet son of a bitch.” The engine spun out its Mixmaster-cry as it leaped into the air, the pale blue flume of smoke out behind it like a wake of a sleek sailing ship. It flew like a demon, doing loops and dives and wide swoops about the air, its engine throwing off those high-pitched sounds across the whole sky it seemed. Then, minutes later, looking at his watch and as if bidden by a weird desire, by some malevolent calling out of nowhere, the man at the radio controls turned the plane over in one sweet arc, and dove it, unerringly, into the mouth of a trash barrel fifty yards down the parking lot. There was a small explosion, as if a small canister had emptied its powder.
Max Kulkeen, standing stock still, breath deeply locked in place for long moments, was enraptured.
Next day, out of town, Max bought himself six model plane kits, complete with engines, and the latest in radio-control devices. He listened to the men of the Sunday gatherings, taking in all ideas, suggestions, and hints. Two months later when he brought out his first craft at another Sunday gathering, a British Spitfire, camouflaged as of old, the other model builders almost held a celebration. The Spitfire was authentic, right down to the supercharger exhaust Max had designed using spent .22 caliber shells, the casings at a hard shine on the nose of that sleek craft.
“Hell, man. That rig looks like it could take on a Messerschmitt ME-109 right now. Marvelous job, Craig. One marvelous job.” He shook Max’s hand vigorously and turned and smiled at the others. “We got ourselves one helluva convert, gents! One helluva convert!”
“I have to admit,” Max said, “I snuck in a little practice on you guys. Got it off the ground during last week, at a hockey rink parking lot over in Bedford. Had it up for a while, but still learning.”
The half dozen model makers stood by when Max’s turn came. His Spitfire hurtled down the hot top and rose quick as a bug to a height of 100 feet, and veered in a wide curve around the parking lot. A vague stream of exhaust was visible behind the plain.
Colpits said, “My god, it goes like Paddy Finucane was flying it! The great ace, he was. You got a pretty good fuel mix too, Craig. Running like a damn pocket watch.” He watched as the plane in ethereal elegance straightened out its curve, and went into a hurtling run across the top of the parking lot at a mere sixty feet off the ground.” He twisted around to warn the new flyer. “Watch it, Craig!” he yelled as the plane crashed into the limb of a tall and stately but old elm tree and fell in pieces to the ground. It had crashed right where Max wanted it to crash.
“Ah, shit, man,” Colpits said, “Sorry about that, Craig. You gotta admit, that was one helluva maiden flight.”
Max said, “I’m still learning. Got another one almost done. Be here in a few weeks, I’d guess. He retrieved all the broken parts and departed. That night, under cover of darkness, with a large Bowie knife sharpened right to the hilt, Max cleared off a six-inch ring of bark around the tree. It was another death move. A month later the tree warden took down the old elm, certain to die on its own hook. A small sign warning off vandals and those who would destroy trees soon appeared in the small park.
Sparks Gregson’s patterns in the meantime were so firm that Max could say without doubt when he’d be in his rooms, for the next three months continuing his watchdog look at the target. Sunday was one day that Gregson remained somewhat fluid in his habits. But Saturday, not Sunday, was as sure as the bible; Sparks would be at home every Saturday, until late noon.
Just after noontime on a Friday, Sparks off to his sister’s place in Saugus where he’d spent most Friday afternoons, Max saw the black limousine touch at the curbstone below his window and fat Georgie Bettencourt slide out of the back and look up at his window. Max waved him on.
Georgie’s invisible hat was still in his hands, being wrenched and twisted. Max thought that the possibilities of connection were gathering in force in Georgie and making their demands, politically, spiritually and morally, and probably in that order. “What’s got you out on the weekend starter, Georgie? You not going over to Mom’s place to keep the claim open? Sister and the kids gonna be there ahead of you?” That’d get Georgie to really start thinking about his part in all this, Max thought. He’s in it up to his peckerwood. And he knows I got a live line on him. Make the fat son of a bitch do some of the sweating too. I’ve never been alone in any of this, except in the doing, except in the drop of the Guillotine, the hammer, the awl driven home.
“Max,” Georgie said, a twisting gone to fidgeting, legs at imbalance, his collar still loose and awry, sweat maps moving glacially on his suit coat, “some things are starting to fall apart, plummeting. Sparks is getting in the soup, really in the soup, in a couple of days. Now he’s marked more ways than one. It’s got to be this weekend. That’s what they say, this weekend.” Little balls of sweat poured off Georgie’s red brow and were dripping on a light blue shirt stretched over his gut. The underarms of his gray suit coat were darker yet with the spreading sweat maps, and the legs of his trousers looked like he was wearing shin pads under them. From one foot to the other he kept moving, as if he’s still trying to get out of the line of fire, thought Max, the personification of cringe.
“It will be this weekend, Georgie, per the contract.” He stared at Georgie Bettencourt, seeing the pimples again, the limp frog tucked away forever.
The invisible hat was seriously being wrenched out of shape. “How will you do it, Max? How will you do it without being traced? How do you always get away so clean? I can’t begin to imagine whatever you’ll come up with. I couldn’t come up with any kind of plan other than just plain shooting him in the dark and walking away. They say you’re so good at this you’ve never even been questioned. They tell me you’re an artist, Max. I sure hope it goes that way this time. Sparky’s done a twist on things and it has to be done. I sure as hell hope it’s clean and quick. He’s not a bad guy, Sparky, just got his nose in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Max understood Georgie had removed himself somewhat from the line of fire with his take on Sparky Gregson.
“Oh, Georgie boy, remind me never to play the lottery again. It sure ain’t worth it from where I sit. It’ll be clean, and quick, guaranteed. I got nothing against Sparky either. Me and you are together on that.” He whistled the Rinso tune and saw the recognition in Georgie Bettencourt’s eyes. “You go back and tell them your part in this is done, Georgie. It’s almost all over for you.” The double entendre was a stroke of the needle for Max Kulkeen, and it went right down through the total fabric of fat Georgie Bettencourt.
Just after dawn, Max Kulkeen, in the area where he was known as Craig Winslow, convert to the model flyers club, slipped out of his car on the deserted parking lot and set a clumsy-looking USAF Fairchild PT-19 Cornell on the pavement that he had taken carefully from a special cradle in the trunk of his rental car. The four story building had a few maintenance lights glowing in the depths of hallways beyond windows, yet the neighborhood beyond the small park was generally without lights on a Saturday morning sleep-in. A lone bright light showed through a break in the trees from the rooms occupied by Sparky Gregson.
With minor prompting the PT-19 Primary Trainer slid down the runway of the empty parking lot and went airborne. The engine purred in its loud morning chatter and Max Kulkeen swung the craft out over the parking lot in a swift arc. Then, as if he were playing a game at the computer, the joy sticks in his hand, he circled the bulky-looking Trainer in a last pass over his head and aimed it for the light in Sparky Gregson’s place. The model arrowed through the air loaded with its deadly little cargo and smashed right through Sparky’s picture window, and ten feet inside exploded in a great ball of fire and the sound raced back to Max Kulkeen getting into his car and slipping away in the dawn of a new day.
Georgie Bettencourt came with the final payment. “Don’t know how you did it, Max. No witnesses, no traces, and Sparky and his files all gone. Poof! You are an artist, Max. A real artist. Nobody will ever track anything back to you on this.”
Or to you and the mucky-mucks, thought Max, the money heavy and solid in his hand.
It was early Monday morning, near the end of his shift, when the third shift security guard at the Halverstrom Laboratories began to examine the weekend film from the motion-activated TV security cameras.
When one film rolled out in front of him, he jumped off the seat in amazement. Even as he played the film back again for another look at the parking lot, Saturday at 4:45 A.M., he reached for the telephone.
Lookalike by Mehi Loveski
A philosopher produces ideas, a clergyman sermons, a writer books. What an average man produces is litter – tons of it during his lifetime. I often ask myself which category I fall into, but the answer is always as ambiguous as it is unsettling. For I am a man of letters and litter. True, I may sometimes find solace in a liter of Stolichnaya but drinking is not my sole occupation. In fact, it is secondary to my job – my temporary job, I keep reminding myself. For you wouldn’t think that I was born to be a street-cleaner doomed to sweep litter and fallen leaves or shovel snow. Once you have taken up the broom or the shovel, you are an outcast. Not in the sense of having to do unskilled work held in so little esteem and getting mere pittance in return – I am too self-contained to be bothered by that. Now, what I mean is that being a street-cleaner one is incapable of fully admiring the beauties if nature with its changing seasons – falling autumn leaves or the miraculous transformation of landscape after a heavy snowfall. Any delight you might feel then is ruined by the simple realization that you are paid to destroy the very things that evoke such aesthetic pleasure. Many a time have I trodden through deep virgin snow, torn between admiration and disgust at what I was to accomplish. For, like it or not, labor is, in the first place, a process in which man regulates and controls Nature by opposing himself as one of her own forces. Small wonder other guys I know, whose curse, like mine, is to carry out that destructive work, tend to develop melancholy bordering on hatred for the entire mankind or, health permitting, persistent drinking habits.
Having read this far you may wonder how a man of such gentle and observant nature as myself has fallen so low. Well, I don’t really think you want to hear another tedious story of an early marriage and divorce with all the accompanying misfortunes. Certainly not. You wouldn’t be able to hear it, even if you wanted to, anyway. As for my family background, it is quite typical. My parents belong to the generation of winners who built the great empire which now spreads from the Baltic Sea to Kamchatka and who found strength to accomplish their feats in the very sacrifices they made. Mine, on the contrary, is a generation of whiners, “rootless cosmopolitans”, despicable admirers of Western consumerism (which, in a sense, is the consequence of our parents’ deprivations). True, I, too, could fork out a small fortune on a pair of contraband Levi’s, but my adherence to Western values hasn’t been merely about craving for imported goods. Ideas, that’s what I value most. But let me proceed with my tale.
My boss and the district sanitary inspector Lavrenty Vissarionovich is a typical bureaucrat, and for the likes of him the world is a mere object to be manipulated. But being manipulated is not my idea of fun and I guess he learned as much when he once tried that on me. Though as far as other things are concerned, we get along just fine. On one occasion, on the Holy Great October Revolution Day, we even had a drink together, something he could well afford without the fear of being embarrassed by my getting too familiar under the influence. One day, a couple of weeks after the festivities, Lavrenty Vissarionovich calls me to his office on the second floor of an old mansion where, as rumor has it, they kept the last Russian tsar and his family before “terminating” them. Offers a seat – no vodka this time. “Gerasim, – he addresses me, – you know how much I value your sustained and thorough efforts to keep the territory allotted to you nice and clean.” You bet! Where would you find another fool to work for peanuts?
“But let us not forget, – he goes on and meaningfully purses his lips. – that honest and productive labor is not the only aim, however lofty, we should aspire to. We should do our very best to measure up to the high moral standards set by the Party.” Oh, no, not again – you drink way more than I do! And you are a party member!
“The Moral Code of the Builder of Communism, of which I’m sure you have heard… read I mean, urges us, among other things, to be unpretentious and modest in social and private life. We should not forget about the impression our appearance and manners might produce on other members of society.” Which bombastic bug has bitten you, dear Lavrenty Vissarionovich? Have you had one too much today? Come on, stop pissing me around, I’ve got work to do!
“You come of solid stock, Gerasim, and your manners, though lacking in refinement, have a certain crude charm. Reserved, too. Silence is golden, you know. You dress neatly, you do not smell like the rest of your buddies, you don’t forget to flush the toilet and wash your hands afterwards, but…” he puckers his lips and looks at his hairy chubby fingers. How about you, Lavrenty Vissarionovich? I bet you are one of those “neatnicks” that flush the toilet before but forget to wash their hands after! As for the smell, you’re right, buddy, I smell like a fragrant rose compared to you!
“Just let me ask you, Gerasim, when did you last go to the barber’s? Look, your hair’s a bit… longish. People stare at you. They wonder what a “hippie” like you is doing in a Soviet establishment. And I find it increasingly difficult to convince everybody that you are an excellent worker despite your little… idiosyncrasies.” Well, well, so that’s what it is! Bald with envy, dear Lavrenty Vissarionovich, aren’t you? Involuntarily I look up at the flyblown portraits of Karl Marx and Lenin on the wall over his baldpated head and chuckle: the founding fathers look just like the two of us – one long-haired and bushy-bearded, the other baldish with a thin little beard and moustache.
He catches my glance and flares up: “Comrade Marx was a great thinker and the founder of Theoretical Communism! You can’t just walk around like a cheap impersonator – with a broom in your hands!” What do you expect me to have in my hands then – a copy of Das Kapital? If what you want is productive labor, a broom is certainly more instrumental. And, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ll ever make a good impersonator. From each according to his disabilities, you know.
“Take my words as a firm recommendation that you should do something about your appearance. Look, I can even lend you some money. But for God’s sake – do as I say!” And why, for God’s sake, don’t you begin with yourself, dear Lavrenty Vissarionovich, – buy some antiperspirant and hair lotion?
“And one last word, Gerasim. Should you fail to oblige me, I’m afraid we won’t be able to continue to work as… a team, you know.” Last words are only for fools who haven’t said enough. Team, my foot! What do I care about being your “team”? And what, pray, do I have to lose but my chains? Has it ever entered your bald head that changing man’s appearance won’t change his mind – nor will it unchain him, for that matter. And hair has nothing to do with that. It’s what inside this very crane it grows on that determines man’s personality! I guess I become somewhat agitated then and may have even given that hairy crane of mine a couple of bonks to get my message across – bad idea, for poor Lavrenty Vissarionovich suddenly grows red in the face and jumps to his feet crying: “Out! You cheeky brute! How dare you?!”
Though reason has always existed, it has not always existed in a reasonable form. What could I do in that “hairy” situation but leave my boss to fume and pour a stiff one from the decanter he always keeps in his closet? Sure, I felt pity for the poor pathetic bugger. History, I thought, repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. There will always be a specter haunting you, Lavrenty Vissarionovich, be it the specter of Karl Marx or his lookalikes – doesn’t matter.
And so I quit. Gave up the street-cleaner’s job altogether. Shed the hateful chains, so to say. I now work as a night-watchman in another establishment. My new boss, Iosif Pavlovich, doesn’t seem to mind my pseudo-Marxian looks. Nor does he mind the absence of a burglar alarm. As I walk to my new work I enjoy the sight of trees covered with snow. I smile to passers-by: what a gorgeous day, comrades! Blessed be Mother Nature! But if I see a haunted, tormented look in somebody’s eyes, I know immediately that they belong to the race of hairy outcasts, of which I was one just a short while ago. How I wish I could speak to them! How I wish I could share with them what I know! But no – damned determinism! And so at night, in the dimly lit lodge, with the rest of the huge building quiet and dark, I write what is going to be my Capital Work, my contribution to the liberation of the oppressed. Nothing can stop the onward march of history! So stand up, ye, workers of the broom! Ye, workers of the shovel, unite! The future belongs to you and, in the long run, you, the poor and deprived, will rule the world! For nothing can stand in the way of those who can tame Nature itself! And come to think of it, you really have nothing to lose – but your hair.
Poetry by Ruth Z. Deming
This is about a sparkling water I purchased at the Shop-Rite, whose label reads: Cap may forcefully eject. Point away from face and people when opening. Product of Germany.
My nimble fingers
gilded in blood-red nails
bring you from the supermarket
to my kitchen
naturally sparkling wasser from the
of your vast lands.
Beethoven once stood there
memories spun like gold
rivaling the songbirds.
I twist off your cap
so like a head
and pour you,
waters of the Rhineland,
into my glass
splash my face
This is my toast
to the chastened people of Germany
we have all made mistakes
not quite like yours
but yes we are mortal
and allow the river of time
to staunch the grief unstoppable.
Is that you, Anne Frank
pushing a baby carriage
across Tristan’s fair land?
Your father beside you
hand on the arm of his honeycake
“We made it through, proud daughter,
and dwell together in a finer land.”
I’ve chosen this morning
to become one with my people
their skulls and shinbones
eroding in the pit
lending flavor and legend
to the underground spring.
trying to forgive my captors,
bewitched in gaunt times.
I hold up my glass:
a river of joy
the simplest wish of all:
Here’s a glass of water.
and let joy reign
as my people’s sorrow
flood me with every
I’m the German
And the Jew.
Poetry by Ernest Williamson, PhD
day is her smile.
night in tandem with a light of purple.
milky blue eyes coated in hazel urbanity;
find me lost and found in the willows nearby.
sing to me,
make love music
as it can be,
for the hearty gasp
of the lonely freckled boy
smothered in literature
not of his own,
as infirmity levels the listless cloudy nights;
only when that lady sitting on the cobblestone
sleeps and assuages the hush of her contentment,
lovely and happy,
all without the bothering nodes
Poetry by R.T. Castleberry
THE STORY (EACH DAY)
There is always a story at the end of a rocket.—Marie Colvin
Take an Elvis smile,
take a stare—long, impudent,
nothing offered but impulse and wiseass wit.
I carry every word of
Garryowen and Staggerlee in my memory,
mass them tenderly in a Beale Street bar,
match them like highway miles beneath a Cadillac’s tires.
Like a prisoner consenting to his chains,
I take my terror straight Delta—
black cat bone and a Memphis curse.
I ignore the soldier’s toll on TV,
wounded, worn-out, KIA;
ignore the sense of a gunman stalking
with a Starlight scope and a minister’s consent.
Dawn a deathbed drone, a weary wearing moan,
I listen for the helicopters chop.
Flight plan low,
they dust rooftop, phone line, intersection.
I stand in the wind, waiting for walls to fail.
Stucco and stone are stained with fire.
Caught with a camera and the pictogram machine,
I count my coins in that blizzard.
The dead make their claim, elusive, insistent.
I share my debts with a victor’s moon.
TO THIRST (BENEATH THE SUN)
the seasons read as unsettled,
wither into wariness.
Whether service, tithing
or strength of witness,
the right shape of redemption eludes me.
I wake to my resentments–
short rations, a silent phone,
the bristle of poverty’s labor.
I take a sunrise turn,
cigarettes and cinnamon gum
to cover the morning drinks.
Hard hat workmen at
homestead building sites,
sleepy runaways in the homeless park
begin their rising rounds.
The newspaper I stole from a neighbor
smudges my hands with colored ink.
“A War Declared” is the headline.
IN A SEASON OF USELESS PRAYER
Every day a difficult smile.
Like a migrant’s prayer through misery,
I practice the craft of sunrise survival.
I watch a feral dog giving birth
at the edge of a grave.
I dream of river geography,
maps away from canyon sand,
a cross posted with names—
Internet aliases, graffiti tags, felony blood.
Lies can make a life.
Tired of confessions,
summer’s heat, fall’s clenching shadow,
I’m soured beyond spite.
I feel like I’m failing,
as if each next breath slits me, cell to cell.
I state my case:
I want to radiate danger,
disregard the petty lover’s séance,
the madness drenching every compass point.
I want a punishment phase that fits.
Poetry by Ross Knapp
Desire died long ago
Dionysius both sadistic slavemaster
and masochistic victim
Lonely lustful need remains
In the nightlife
Flashing crimson and turquoise lights
Sight narrows to tunnel vision
Single minded pursuit
Pursuit of happiness I know is fluid
Temporary rush of the game
A clean, pure high, momentarily releasing
Not for power fame or even pleasure
But to turn off the maelstrom that is my mind
It takes little more than a few witty words,
A few suggestive entrancing glances
A quick brush of the back of the hand
And that’s it, no longer an angst or craving.
Reptilian mystery beds or my rented villa
Tapping my clammy hands on their pastel backs
While we crush and pin each other like cold business associates-
Or antisocial killers.
For a short while we are solid matter, real
The absence of racing thoughts fills me up
Ripped skinny bodies, useful but hollow commodities
Sold to the highest bidder at the bar
Poetry by Michael H. Brownstein
BUDDHA COMES TO HIGHLAND PARK TO VISIT A TREE
When the Sorokku tree came to us—
was it the change of air, the foreign soil,
the strange language we used around it?
We anchored it with a ring of candles,
jasmine and sunshine, the greenhouse
blossoming with leaf and hornet,
flower and beneficial. The tree held
its breath. We researched, googled, asked
young girls to take turns kicking its bark
(and when my wife joined the line,
heard a no from somewhere, a you’re too old,
and she stepped away). The greenhouse
gathered moisture, let insects lay eggs
on scale and mites, welcomed butterflies,
beetles, ladybugs, the smell of soap,
sandalwood, peppermint, pickle juice.
Still the tree refused to breathe,
and so we talked to it, stood before it,
and finally listened. It was then we found
the piece of crystal, small and inexact,
with just a hint of the Buddha shape.
We buried it between roots and trunk
and soon, first leaves, new shoots,
and we celebrated, offering more candles,
spices and sugar, water from the homeland,
young girls with broad feet and we thought
to bury another crystal, but did not
understanding now the value of understanding.
The tree, satiated at last, let its leaves flow
to their length, and we began to feel its breath,
marveled at the way it held itself as if in prayer,
its leaves the palms of hands rejoicing
as if it too had need of reverence.
TURNING INTO A GHOST
One moment you feel a weight of gravity,
A blanket, for example, the first light,
A slight draft and then, out of focus,
You come into yourself and understand
The confusion of ghosts. How unsettling to be
Alone. You were dreaming and now
you are watching yourself sleep.
When they come, you will not be ready.
In those minutes, in those days, in that first week,
Can you not hear the thunder? The watcher?
The making of the pyre? Nails to wood?
Sorry, there is nothing here—just wind
You now control, a wall no longer in the way.
How do you make a ghost? Someone was not there
When someone was needed. You are alone
And in your aloneness you began to weep.
Let the thunder roar, let the sitter sit with you,
Let a candle light your way, let the warmth come near,
Let your lack of weight make it that much easier.
Somewhere there must be a home for you.
Somewhere there must be a brightness to grow into.
Poetry by Lowell Jaeger
This Sounds Crazy
but here it is:
the dictionary is down-right seductive. Not
something you want to say loud
in the locker room, or after
no-matter-how-many vodka tonics
with a babe you hope to woo. True,
some places words just get in the way.
But the dictionary has room
for them all, sort of a huge boarding house
for nouns, verbs, and their extended kin.
An orderly establishment,
everyone lined up alphabetically.
Each has a place at the table,
a cup engraved with his name.
Penurious priests perchance perching
in the pantry with a profusion of perfumed
Persian prostitutes. How they all pack
in there is predictable, predestined, preordained.
Or just plucky?
Key, Francis Scott: American lawyer, author
of the “Star Spangled Banner” kvetching
with Khrushchev, Nikita: first secretary
of the Russian Communist Party. Both (for once)
on the same page.
kibitz, kibbutz, kibosh, kazoo. Kinky, maybe.
But like the keister loves it,
the kisser does too.
See? Gets me all worked up. Like
conning my way out of seventh grade
study hall with a library pass
to sit at a back table, studious
pretext to drool over the sounds of
genitalia, vagina, nipple, cock.
I’ll push even further profane.
You might think I’d relish a celebrated word like “God”
but I do not. Way too much a proper noun:
“The single supreme agency
postulated in some philosophical systems
to explain the phenomena of the world,
having a nature variously conceived
in such terms as
prime mover, an immanent vital force,
All of which
drains the blood out of any fun whatsoever.
I hereby propose we agree on one thing
bigger than there’s a word to name it.
It’s everywhere: lint in your coat pocket,
water dripping from the tap, bubble gum
stuck to your sole. Tsunami, earthquake,
tornado. A bug’s anus. Siren’s howl.
The curve of a woman’s hip and thigh. Collective
moan of lovers everywhere, ever.
Sounds crazy, and does no good
to look it up. It’s
on the tip of your tongue.
Book Review — Gruel
By Bunkong Tuon
Review by Scott Holstad
Gruel by Bunkong Tuon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bunkong Tuon is a very good and skilled poet. This, his first book, is an excellent start to what will likely be a long and talented career. It’s a biographical book arranged largely chronologically about his life as a Cambodian refugee escaping the Khmer Rouge with his grandmother, coming to America to a new life and the challenges that presented. He describes growing up on the East Coast, being teased and bullied because of his Asian heritage. He describes his family’s dedication to one another and his mother’s death at the hands of Pol Pot. He gives us his moving to the West Coast, to Long Beach, with family members, to a new life there as a teenager. He describes his (bad) career as a student, his jobs working in warehouses and as a custodian. We learn of his going to the Long Beach City Library and his discovery of Charles Bukowski, which changed his life and his learning forever. I can certainly relate to that because I, too, hated most poetry and literature until I discovered Bukowski myself and he opened up a whole new world to me, one in which any type of poetry with any topic was possible. It kick started my career as a poet.
Tuon went on to go to Cal State Long Beach (my alma mater), graduating and going on to graduate school back on the East Coast. Along the way, he meets his wife, who is also an academic and they enjoy discussing literature and academics. After he gets his doctorate, he’s surprised to be given a job at a small liberal arts college in New York, where he is today and writes of his students and his teaching, his wife’s efforts to finish her own studies, and her attempts to learn Khmer culture. There’s a lot of sadness and humor in this book and it makes for a nice, comprehensive look at his life. The book is divided into sections, many of which are titled things like “East Coast” and “West Coast,” etc. However, I think his last section, “Cambodia,” stands out the most for me. In it, he writes of his relatives in Cambodia and his birth, the destiny of his wife’s and his births and lives, his uncle and his aspirations, and what I think is the most powerful and impressive poem, “Inheritance,” in which he gives us the Cambodian dead, destroyed temples and monks, child soldiers, and more. It’s quite moving.
Overall, this is a strong book of poetry, especially for a first effort. It’s narrative poetry, free verse, but not as lively as Bukowski, so if you’re expecting gambling, drinking, and whores, you won’t find it here. What you will find is a unique perspective on a Cambodian man living in a world different from the one of his youth, a person dealing with ghosts, trying to make a new life with a new spouse in a new profession and enjoying life in the process. And it’s a good process to read about. Recommended.
Michael H. Brownstein has been widely published. His work has appeared in American Letters and Commentary, Skidrow Penthouse, Xavier Review, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, and others. He has nine poetry chapbooks, including The A Period of Trees (Snark Press, 2004) and Firestorm: A Rendering of Torah (Camel Saloon Press, 2012). He is the editor of First Poems from Viet Nam (2011). Brownstein currently is the English specialist for Lincoln University, Jefferson City, Missouri.
A former Ray’s Road Review contributor, R.T. Castleberry’s work has appeared in the Comstock Review, Green Mountains Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, The Alembic, Pacific Review, and RiverSedge, among other journals. He’s a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is a co-founder of the Flying Dutchman Writers Troupe, co-editor/publisher of the poetry magazine Curbside Review, an assistant editor for Lily Poetry Review and Ardent. His work has been featured in the anthologies Travois-An Anthology of Texas Poetry, TimeSlice, and The Weight of Addition. His chapbook, Arriving At The Riverside, was published by Finishing Line Press in January, 2010. An e-book, Dialogue and Appetite, was published by Right Hand Pointing in May, 2011.
A former Ray’s Road Review contributor, Ruth Z. Deming is a psychotherapist and winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction and writes poetry, nonfiction, and fiction from her home in Willow Grove, PA, suburban Philadelphia. Her poetry has been published in journals including Metazen, River Poets, Bellowing Ark, and Innisfree. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Ray’s Road Review, Haggard and Halloo, Creative Nonfiction and Writing Disorder. A mental health advocate, she is director of New Directions Support Group – www.NewDirectionsSupport.org – of Abington, PA, for people and families affected by depression and bipolar disorder.
Scott Holstad is the poetry editor for Ray’s Road Review.
As founding editor of Many Voices Press, Lowell Jaeger compiled Poems Across the Big Sky, an anthology of Montana poets, and New Poets of the American West, an anthology of poets from 11 Western states. His third collection of poems, Suddenly Out of a Long Sleep (Arctos Press) was published in 2009 and was a finalist for the Paterson Award. His fourth collection, WE, (Main Street Rag Press) was published in 2010. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council and winner of the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize. Most recently Jaeger was awarded the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award for his work in promoting thoughtful civic discourse.
Zuzu Keller’s short story, Daisy Chain, was published in the September 2015 issue of The Reading Hour. Her poetry has taken first place in slams; semi-finalist in the Atlantic Review Poetry Contest; Honorable Mention in the Bay Area Poets Coalition National Contest. Her fiction and poetry have been published in numerous anthologies. Zuzu is currently completing a memoir.
Ross Knapp is a recent college graduate with degrees in philosophy and literature. He has an experimental literary novel forthcoming and various poetry publications in Blue Lake Review, Poetry Pacific Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Burningword Literary Journal, Belle Reve Literary Journal, Carcinogenic Poetry, Blood and Thunder Literary Magazine, Verse Virtual, Storyacious, Tipsy Lit Literary Magazine, Hobo Pancakes, Clockwise Cat Literary Magazine, and The Corner Club Press.
Dan Leach’s short fiction has been published in various literary journals and magazines, including The Greensboro Review, Deep South Magazine, and The New Madrid Review. A native of South Carolina, he graduated from Clemson University in 2008, and taught high-school in Charleston until 2014 when he relocated to Nebraska. Floods and Fires, his debut short-story collection, will be published by University of North Georgia Press in 2016. Visit dan-leach.com for links to published stories and poems.
Allen Long‘s memoirs have appeared in The Copperfield Review, Eunoia Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Literary Brushstrokes, Milk Sugar, Scholars & Rogues, Stepping Stones, and Verdad. Allen is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and he has recently completed a book-length memoir, Less Than Human. He lives with his wife near San Francisco.
Mehi Loveski (Oleg G. Mikhailovsky) has a BA in English and literature and works as an English instructor at Ural Federal University. His essays and short stories have appeared in a number of American literary magazines. He lives in Yekaterinburg, Russia, with his wife, son, and a dog.
Tom Sheehan served in 31st Infantry, Korea 1951; graduated from Boston College, 1956. Poetry books include Ah, Devon Unbowed; This Rare Earth & Other Flights; The Saugus Book; and Reflections from Vinegar Hill. Books include Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; A Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; In the Garden of Long Shadows; The Nations; Where Skies Grow Wide; A Gathering of Memories; Of Time and the River; and Sons of Guns, Inc., recently released by Nazar Look Books in Romania. eBooks include Korean Echoes and The Westering,(each nominated for awards), Murder at the Forum, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment, An Accountable Death, and Death of the Phantom Receiver. He has 28 Pushcart Prize nominations and has work in hundreds of magazines and online sites.
Don Tassone lives in Loveland, Ohio and teaches public relations at Xavier University in Cincinnati. His latest stories have appeared in the Olentangy Review, TWJ Magazine, Red Fez, Five 2 One Magazine and The Zodiac Review.
Francine Marie Tolf has published two poetry collections, Rain, Lilies, Luck(North Star Press of St. Cloud) and Prodigal (Pinyon Publishing), as well as a memoir and five chapbooks. Her essays and poems have been published widely in journals including Water-Stone, Poetry East, Under the Sun, Christian Century andContrary Magazine. A collection of essays, JOLIET IN MY BLOOD, is pending from Port Yonder Press.
Dr. Ernest Williamson III has published poetry and visual art in over 500 national and international online and print journals. Professor Williamson has published poetry in journals such as The Oklahoma Review, Review Americana: A Creative Writing Journal, and The Copperfield Review. Some of his visual artwork has appeared in journals such as The Columbia Review, The GW Review, and Fiction Fix. Many of his works have been published in journals representing over 50 colleges and universities around the world. Dr. Williamson is an Assistant Professor of English at Allen University and his poetry has been nominated three times for the Best of the Net Anthology. Williamson holds a B.A. and an M.A. in English/Creative Writing/Literature from the University of Memphis and a PhD in Higher Education Leadership from Seton Hall University.