Beyond by Jim Courter
Although he doesn’t know it, Beyond is about to have his cover blown. He is outside Garman Hall, home to Prairie State University’s Theater Department, talking to Clarence Morgan Sr., a large, endomorphic African American campus groundskeeper dressed in navy blue Dickies. Clarence Morgan Sr. is holding a garden rake upright in one hand; he is a member of a crew at work on the lawn and the flower beds next to the building. Another is on a riding mower near where Beyond and the groundskeeper are standing. What Beyond knows that no one else does—at least he hopes—is that Clarence Morgan Sr. is his father. What he doesn’t know is that J’Amaze is watching and listening through the open window of his second-story office. The conversation is animated—the groundskeeper perturbed, Beyond uncomfortable—and J’Amaze is intrigued to see the two in what appears to be familiar conversation.
The mower makes eavesdropping difficult, but the groundskeeper is raising his voice in anger, and J’Amaze thinks he hears, “Where you get this Beyond shit?” and “Clarence, same as mine,” and “a good name, a name to be proud of.”
Beyond casts his gaze about; he seems concerned with being seen and overheard. J’Amaze steps back from the window to avoid detection. After a moment he returns to find them still there. The mower has stopped, but J’Amaze is satisfied that he has heard enough. Standing to the side of the window, he reaches over and slams it shut, loud enough, he hopes, for Beyond to hear. J’Amaze has always dismissed Beyond as a talentless pretender and has never taken him seriously or paid him much attention. Now he senses that Beyond, insignificant character that he is, may have something to lose after all.
Beyond stands just out of striking range from Clarence Morgan Sr., and not quite squared off to face him; one foot is back and at an angle, as if he is poised for escape, or to show that he is engaged in this conversation against his will. To be seen talking with Clarence Morgan Sr. is potentially embarrassing and compromising to his new identity.
“Your mom’s bad sick, Clarence,” the older man says. “You might show some concern and come by the house.”
“It’s not a house, it’s a trailer. And my name’s not Clarence, it’s Beyond.”
Clarence Morgan Sr. winces and gives a ponderous shake of his large head. “Where you get this Beyond shit? What kinda name is that? Your name Clarence, same as mine. It’s a good name, a name to be proud of.”
Beyond doesn’t reply. He stands with a stolid, stubborn look on his face to show his intransigence on the subject.
As the conversation continues, Beyond never quite faces his father square, but he can’t bring himself to walk away either, not wanting to provoke some dramatic response that would attract the attention of the few people about on foot nearby. He has worked hard to make a clean break from his family; from his father’s violence; from that awful trailer court; from that ridiculous church, the members of which seemed to believe they could shout their way into heaven. Now this—his mother “bad sick” and his father’s using that to try to draw him back. He is determined not to let that happen. His father is still speaking, but Beyond is distracted; he has heard a window shut and wonders if someone has been listening.
If Clarence Morgan Jr. had been as dumb as he looked, he might have grown up happier. As it was, he had just enough insight to give him a reasonably clear view of his limited prospects, but not enough imagination to provide a glimpse of any way to transcend them.
Clarence had his white mother’s gray eyes, his African American father’s oversized head and a nose that wasn’t so much too large or misshapen as simply wrong. Instead of coffee-with-cream skin that one of his bi-racial parentage might have inherited, Clarence’s was sallow, almost suggesting jaundice, cratered by the acute acne of his early teens and painted with large splotches of freckle. He had misshapen and misaligned teeth and a tendency to show them when he gaped and stared, which was the default set of his countenance. Below the neck he was doughy, lumpy, and shapeless, like both his parents. Most people, if shown a photo gallery of Clarence and his peers and asked to pick the one who had been chosen by God or Nature or cruel Chance to be the least likely to succeed for being so homely and obtuse, would point to Clarence’s unfortunate mug and say, or at least think, “Without a doubt, that miserable-looking bastard there.” He was also entirely lacking in athletic, artistic or any other kind of talent, except perhaps a talent for dogged persistence.
His only gift was that modicum of acuity, more curse than blessing because it revealed to him that his inchoate ambition to become something else, something different, something better and more interesting was contingent on his escaping the gravitational pull of his genetic inheritance and his socio-economic circumstances, and that the odds of that were virtually nil. Not that Clarence thought of his plight in those terms; what it mostly came down to for him was standing in front of a mirror, his mouth hanging open, and experiencing dull dismay at what he saw.
Clarence had grown up in a college town, and yet the life at the university was as far from his daily reality as if it had been on the other side of the world; it was merely where his father labored in work clothes, never a place of possibility. Without realizing it, he carried with him the unexamined assumption that his natural station in life was in the labor force, living in the trailer court he had been raised in or one like it, married to a woman more or less like his mother. But as he progressed through high school, he heard stories, most of them from classmates with college-age siblings, about student life on campus, stories suggesting, among other things, that even a guy like Clarence could find release through abandonment in riotous, bacchanalian revelries. Those stories fired his imagination with the hope that an avenue of escape might be available after all, and right across town.
His below-average grades, even in this age of grade inflation, would have kept him out of most schools, but his counselor let him know that Prairie State University accepted students that other schools wouldn’t. Merit scholarships were out of the question, but he might qualify for some aid set aside for minorities, and his father’s job on campus entitled him to a discount in tuition, room and board. Thus it was that Clarence Morgan Jr., most definitely not college material, and counter to the expectations of everyone who knew him, moved into a residence hall on campus and went off, such as it was, to college.
Clarence didn’t declare a major because he had never given thought to what he wanted to do or be. In the first semester he took a hodgepodge of classes, none of which provided him with a sense of direction. When casting about for a class with which to fill out his schedule during registration for second semester, he signed up for the Theater Department’s Introduction to Acting course. It was here that Clarence thought that he finally found what, without realizing it, he had been looking for.
His classmates, all Theater majors, affected a mercurial spontaneity in virtually every phase of their existence. In the halls outside of class, going about campus or town, the world was their stage. The males declaimed in stentorian tones; the females seemed to want to turn every moment into a moment of high, hysterical drama; they all struck poses and conducted even their most mundane affairs with exaggerated histrionics. Most appealing to Clarence was their mockery of squares—students and faculty and whoever happened their way that were stodgy or uncool or otherwise not with it. Having got used to being on the wrong end of that kind of mockery, Clarence found it liberating to immerse himself in a crowd that was dishing it out. A few weeks into the semester, he chose Theater as a major. What better place to reinvent himself than where new roles, the donning and doffing of personalities, was daily fare?
At some point during this time, Clarence came across the idea of going by only one name. He had noted the trend among certain entertainers and Brazilian soccer players, and a prominent graduate student in the department was known simply as Rodrigo (although it was no great secret that his true name was Ed Rencher), and Clarence seized on the notion as a key element in his self-transformation. But what to call himself?
Certainly not Clarence. He wanted a name that suggested the exotic, or the flamboyant spontaneity he had come to admire in the theater crowd, or perhaps one that spoke of his yearning for transcendence. Then one day, waiting in the hall for class to start, he found it.
He was standing near a bulletin board to which were attached a variety of announcements, personal ads, pitches for credit cards, grad schools and study-abroad programs. Of that last category, one bore the headline, GO BEYOND. Clarence stepped closer and pondered it as if it had called to him. Five minutes later, he walked into class certain of his new name. Five months later, now a sophomore, his hair grown to his shoulders in dreadlocks, a patchy attempt at a beard on his face, sporting a beret and sunglasses, he was not only Beyond, but had all but forgotten ever having been Clarence Morgan Jr. At a shop downtown popular with students, he got a tattoo, the first of several, on his upper right arm—BEYOND in a multi-colored arc, above it a bird in flight. By then he had broken off all communication with his family, and when he heard nothing from them, he hoped that his father had perhaps caught a glimpse of him around campus and written him off for good. When summer came he supported himself with a job in the department’s scene shop, which kept busy with Summer Music Theater productions, and moved into a rental house with some other Theater majors, with whom he lived cheaply and more or less communally.
After a while, his new name caught on. When Rodrigo left, Beyond was the only one remaining in the department, as far as he knew the only one on campus, who went by one name. That ended when J’Amaze arrived on the scene.
A producer and director with experience on both coasts, J’Amaze came on a short-term contract as part of the Department’s preparations for its upcoming accreditation process. With a goatee and flashing black eyes and an aura of artistic Bohemianism, he projected a kind of caprine, Mephistophelian insouciance. He was talented, charismatic, rakish, and a magnet for the best-looking girls. No one quite knew J’Amaze’s origins or ethnicity, but his coloring and lilting patois suggest Caribbean, mixed-race roots.
Beyond, who had finally begun to feel free and ascendant, felt diminished at J’Amaze’s coming. He at first tried assuming an easy familiarity with J’Amaze, as if with an equal, but J’Amaze would have none of it. He wrote Beyond off as a lightweight and a pretender, out of his class intellectually and artistically, and for the most part simply ignored him; when he had to deal with him for some reason or other, he did so with dismissive condescension.
But when J’Amaze surmised from his eavesdropping that this less gifted fellow had something to lose after all, he decided that it might be fine sport to help him lose it.
After shutting the window on the conversation between Beyond and the groundskeeper, J’Amaze consults the campus directory. In the Faculty and Staff pages, Building and Grounds has a long list of names. With no last name to go by, he starts at the top, sliding a bookmark down line by line, looking for “Clarence.” About midway down he finds a Clarence Morgan. The remainder of the list has no other Clarences. Under the M’s in the student section, as he suspected he might, he finds another Clarence Morgan.
J’Amaze next looks up Clarence Morgan’s phone number and address in the town directory. He lives on Lincoln Avenue, the main street leading east from the square, lined with residences, service and retail businesses, fast food franchises, and, farther out, a Super Wal-Mart.
J’Amaze uses his office phone to call Clarence Morgan’s number. After a few rings someone picks up on the other end. “’Lo.” J’Amaze guesses that it’s a female, but he can’t be sure. The voice cracks and has a rattly-husky quality, the kind that might come from years of cigarette smoking, or from lung or throat cancer, and J’Amaze remembers the groundskeeper telling Beyond, “Your mom’s bad sick.”
“H’lo,” she says, this time with impatience. J’Amaze hears a television in the background, talk accompanied by melodramatic music. It sounds like a soap opera—the time of day is right—and he imagines her watching it from a dilapidated couch or a recliner while smoking cigarettes and drinking beer from a bottle or can.
“Is Clarence there?” J’Amaze says.
“Clarence is at work, out to the campus.”
J’Amaze doesn’t reply.
“You wanna leave Clarence a message?”
J’Amaze plays a hunch. “I mean young Clarence.”
The woman emits a wheezy, exasperated huff that leads to a raspy cough. When it’s finished, she says, “He don’t live here no more. Whatta ya want with him?”
“Sorry, wrong number,” J’Amaze says. Before hanging up he hears, “Whatta mean wrong number? You asked for Clarence, dinchoo?”
Satisfied that he has the pieces in place, J’Amaze returns to work on the short film he is producing for the university’s Office of Anti-Discriminatory Practices. After a while, Beyond passes by in the hall, and J’Amaze calls out to him. Beyond comes back and stands uncertainly in his doorway.
“Beyond, come,” J’Amaze says with a welcoming gesture.
Beyond has always felt diffident and insecure around J’Amaze. The discrepancy in their talents and experience is obvious, and J’Amaze has never disguised his disdain for him. He wonders what this summons into J’Amaze’s office and this welcoming air can possibly mean.
“I’m producing a film for OADP,” J’Amaze says, “and you’re just the guy I need for a certain part.”
Beyond doesn’t know what OADP means, but J’Amaze makes it sound important,
Sensing Beyond’s hesitance, J’Amaze says, “It’s a series of vignettes on sexual harassment. OADP wants it for classes and staff training on campus. Can I count on you?”
Beyond would like to know more, but this sign of acceptance and validation from J’Amaze is almost more than he can believe, and he doesn’t want to risk spoiling the moment, or his chances, by asking questions. “You bet!” he says.
“The script ought to be ready in a few days. When it is I’ll get you a copy.”
Beyond resumes his walk down the hall. The conversation with his father had been a depressing reminder of the black hole he escaped from and fears being sucked back into. Now, only moments later, exhilarated after this exchange with J’Amaze, he feels like he is walking about two inches off the floor.
Alone in his office, J’Amaze smiles. “This,” he says out loud to himself, “is going to be fun.”
Wanting to see firsthand the reality behind Beyond’s façade, J’Amaze sets out in his car. On Lincoln Avenue, he checks the numbers on buildings as he drives east. He passes Midas Muffler; Kentucky Fried Chicken; McDonald’s, one of two in town; Auto Zone; a variety of other non-franchise businesses. Then come some houses. One has a number lower but close to the one he is looking for. He slows. The number on the next one is higher, but a narrow lane leads south off the highway between the two. A sign in faded block letters on the side of the higher numbered house says SERENITY VILLAGE MOBILE HOME PARK, with an arrow pointing down the lane. He turns in.
As he passes the house with the sign, he sees some lettering on the window of the front door that indicates that it’s the main office for SERENITY VILLAGE. Behind it, he finds himself at the entrance to a small trailer court, with no more that a couple of dozen units. The crumbling, weedy asphalt lane goes off in two directions at the head of a long oval.
J’Amaze goes right and drives slowly. Most of the trailers are on the outer perimeter; they are old and undersized by modern standards, weathered and dented and in need of fresh paint. Each has a rural-style mailbox—dented and weathered too, they look like miniatures of the trailers—sitting atop a pole at the head of a gravel parking pad. Some have names and unit numbers, some only one or the other. J’Amaze feels as if he has entered the surreal realm of the lower working class, and can hardly credit that this place and the university exist in the same town.
After rounding the curve at the far end and coming about halfway up the other side, J’Amaze sees a green mailbox ahead with the worn but legible name Morgan in hand-painted lettering.
On the inside of the oval is a small utility shed. J’Amaze parks in a space next to it. He waits and watches. After a while, a mail truck pulls into the trailer court and begins making its way around. Soon after the driver deposits mail in the Morgans’ mail box, a woman comes out.
She is white. Rolls of fat bulge and bounce under sweat pants and top as she walks. She has stringy, mouse-gray hair that hangs straight to her shoulders and looks as if it needs washing. J’Amaze guesses that she is in her upper forties, but imagines that she has looked that way for at least twenty years. She waddles out to the mailbox, hands flapping at her side as if paddling through water. Before she opens the mailbox she coughs—a prolonged, deep, hacking cough. She peers into the mailbox and removes the contents. She stands there a moment, rifling through the three or four envelopes with a look of disgust on her face—“Bills!” J’Amaze imagines her thinking—a then goes back into the trailer.
J’Amaze has seen enough. He drives off and goes to the town library on the square. A librarian accompanies him to the archives section and shows him copies of high school yearbooks. Guessing at the year, he looks at a handful until he finds a senior picture for Clarence Morgan Jr. in the one from three years previous—younger, but unmistakably Beyond. J’Amaze wonders if the photographer who took it, instead of saying “Smile,” said “Try to look as stupid as you can.”
Beyond is disappointed when he sees the script J’Amaze sent him. He is in two scenes. In the first, he is one of a group of young guys in a class that targets an attractive female student for verbal sexual harassment. Beyond’s only lines are “Oh, baby,” accompanied by a lascivious facial expression, and “Hey, girl, how about some action?” In both cases, his voice is joined simultaneously with others, each of whom expresses his desires in his own terms. She complains first to her professor, then to the department chair. When they brush her off, she goes to someone in OADP, where she finally gets a proper hearing. In the second scene, again as part of an ensemble, Beyond and the others express vigorous, indignant denial when the OADP officer approaches the offending male students with the charge that the girl has brought to her.
But the more Beyond thinks about it, the more he takes encouragement. He remembers J’Amaze’s warm, welcoming manner toward him in his office, almost the first sign that J’Amaze even knows he exists. And it was a film, not a live play, which meant that it would be viewed over and over by lots of people for years to come. During the filming, Beyond put his whole self into his part.
When Beyond thinks the piece is finished, J’Amaze recruits him for one more scene. It is outdoors, where the female victim and a friend have gone to discuss her plight in privacy. J’Amaze says he needs to fill in some ordinary elements into the background for the sake of realism, and asks Beyond to be a groundskeeper. Beyond’s hackles raise, especially when J’Amaze produces a rake for him to use and a set of navy blue Dickies to change into. But again, encouraged that J’Amaze sees fit to call on him and wanting to contribute in any way he can, he goes along.
The shooting finally over, J’Amaze announces to cast and crew that a screening will take place in about a week, after editing.
The screening is held in a specially equipped electronic classroom in Garman Hall. The cast and J’Amaze are all there, as well as some people from OADP. J’Amaze darkens the room and puts in the DVD. The title appears—SEXUAL HARRASSMENT ON CAMPUS, AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT—but no credits. Beyond fidgets with anticipation.
The half-hour drama unfolds. When it comes to the scene in class in which the girl is sexually harassed, Beyond doesn’t recognize it. The group of offending males is a different mix. He bends forward and looks hard. He isn’t there. It appears to be an alternative version, filmed he knows not when. Then comes the second scene; it too is different, and again he is missing.
Beyond is confused. He wonders what’s going on, but feels he doesn’t dare interrupt the showing.
Then comes the outdoor scene, and there is Beyond in the background, raking leaves as the two females talk. He is facing away from the camera, out of focus and almost off the edge of the screen.
And that was it. The rest plays out to the end, and, finally, credits roll. Beyond peers intently. He surmises that J’Amaze must have filmed alternative versions of his scenes and for whatever reasons, technical or otherwise, chose the ones that didn’t include him. He holds out hope that he still might be credited for his work.
The names of main characters appear one by one, then the minor ones. Among the latter, at the end, Beyond finally sees
Groundskeeper . . . Clarence Morgan Jr.
The screen goes blank. The lights go on. Still sitting, Beyond watches as the others gravitate to J’Amaze, then as they exit the room as one, intending, it seems, to gather at some local watering hole to celebrate.
How, Beyond wonders, did J’Amaze learn of his connection to his father and of his true identity? And why would J’Amaze want to use that information to hurt him? How to account for such gratuitous malevolence? Beyond feels strangled frustration and rage. He wants to curse aloud, and not only at J’Amaze. He wants to curse his father, fate, God.
Days later, still in a funk, Beyond is sitting on some steps outside the back of Garman Hall, his head in his hands. He has been missing classes. Whatever appealed to him in the Theater Department no longer does; it has ceased to be a place of magic and transformation. He realizes that his name change hasn’t accomplished what he hoped it would, and that no amount of tattooing or outlandish garb or sunglasses or dreadlocking of hair or affected spontaneity has materially altered who and what he is or how some people insist on responding to him. He doesn’t know what to do or which way to turn. He only knows that he can’t bear to go back to where he came from. He wants somehow to go beyond being Beyond, to something . . .
Before he can conjure the word that represents his yearning, he hears his father, who has approached quietly from the side of the building. “A wayward son is an abomination to the Lord, a stench in his nostrils.”
It sounds to Beyond like something from the Bible, but his father has a way of making anything sound Biblical by assuming the commanding voice and persona of an Old Testament patriarch. Beyond looks up to see his father standing in front of him, over him, only a couple of feet away.
The moment reminds him of the first time he saw his father in the pulpit. The church they attended had no permanent pastor; instead, the men shared the preaching on a rotating basis. He was very young and, from the front row, looking up at his father declaiming with such vehemence and authority, he actually wondered if he was God—or Jehovah as some in the congregation called him. He even remembers his father’s words: “To everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away.”
Beyond never understood how someone with nothing could have something taken away, but now he thinks he does. But what he didn’t understand then and doesn’t understand now are the cruel, arbitrary ways of this Jehovah, if he even exists. Why would he do that to someone with nothing? Why make the miserable more miserable?
“I know you better than you know yourself, Clarence,” his father says. “You not meant for this place. I axed out to the physical plant and learnt they got openings. You could get on. We could work together, son.”
Beyond sees his father’s vision of his future: navy blue Dickies, that trailer court, a wife like his mother who will bear him children like himself, that church.
“Look to the Prodigal, Clarence. Come home to your own. Your ma ain’t got long to live, between the diabetes and the cancer. She your mother, boy.”
Beyond stands. “I don’t think the Lord has nostrils,” he says.
He begins to walk away. As he passes in front of his father, he steels himself for the blow that he is sure will come. But it doesn’t.
“Clarence,” he hears his father say. Then, in a pleading voice, “Beyond.”
Slowing but not stopping, he says over his shoulder, “My name is Extreme, and I don’t know you.”
Why Can’t He Be You? by Steve Young
“Guys think I’m too easy,” Leanne Bartlett said, then shook her head, as if to contradict herself. Her black curls shivered over her tiny, heart-shaped face, hiding her freckles momentarily. “And I am too easy.”
“Naah, you just like guys” said Deedle while she thumbed through one of Leanne’s old Entertainment Weekly magazines. The two of them were huddled on Leanne’s bed talking in low voices, while Mrs. Bartlett made supper and listened to old tunes on WSNO in Montpelier, the tinny AM station. It was January and Leanne’s room was chilly, but Leanne wouldn’t open the door to let in more heat.
“I just like some guys.”
“Not always the right kind of guys, is all.”
“Mortie, Joe, Ronnie. They’re all the same. They come sniffing around here like dogs. Woof woof.” She giggled.
“Ronnie Prevost? Jesus, Leanne, I heard he’s just out of rehab.”
“I’m his rehab now I guess.” She giggled again, then sighed. “See what I mean?”
Deedle snorted in disgust. “You really ought to think about getting a life.”
The Bartlett house was a tiny one-story rectangular box of flimsy construction, painted a pale pink, on a half-acre of land along a dirt road in East Barre, Vermont. It had a roof of metal flashing and a small front yard, and a noisy frog swamp in the backyard which might or might not be interfering with the septic system. Deedle grew up in a large white Colonial on Upper Camp Street on the outskirts of Barre until she moved out after high school and attended the University of Vermont. Now she worked as a teller at a Fleet Bank in town and had her own apartment. She believed her real life was just around the corner.
For most of Deedle’s life, from before her earliest memories, in fact, the Bartlett house had been her home away from home. Leanne’s father, Clyde, built the house when Leanne was five, right around the time when the girls first became best friends. Two years ago, when the girls were 19, Clyde fell down the basement stairs, drunk, breaking his neck.
A copy of Clyde’s obituary sat in a small black frame on Leanne’s paneled bedroom wall. The headline was in larger type than the usual newspaper obits, “CLYDE BARTLETT, WAR HERO, WAS 58.” It noted him as a Captain in the Army during the Korean Conflict, mentioned medals, a citation from the Secretary of the Army. The rest was brief: worked as a supervisor at the Splitt Ball-Bearing Plant in Barre for many years, retired three years before, VFW, American Legion. Married former Virginia Bellefleur, one daughter, Leanne.
Except for Clyde’s obituary, Leanne’s bedroom walls were bare, without even a mirror, only the smoothness of the artificial woodgrain and thin black grooves, running from floor to ceiling. The room had a single bed and three open suitcases, which Leanne used as clothes drawers, in case, she told Deedle, of the need for a quick escape.
“You’ll find someone real. Someday it’ll just happen,” said Deedle.
Supper was spaghetti with sauce out of a Ragu jar, green beans from the small garden plot in back, blanched and frozen, thawed and recooked. The taste gave Deedle an odd sensation of summer.
Mrs. Bartlett kept up most of the conversation, like she couldn’t tolerate silence for long. She was short and thick waisted and over the years Deedle had known her, had developed a large rump, a cap of gray hair permed into place. She had a heart-shaped face, like her daughter, as well as Leanne’s small features and freckles, only on Mrs. Bartlett, they appeared chiseled in rough stone. She wore a striped apron over her plain brown work dress. She was a secretary at the Tax Department in Montpelier.
“Girls, you’ll never guess who I ran into the other day. Mr. Cross from your grade school. I know you remember him. He remembers you both, of course. He asked about you, Leanne. When I told him you’d graduated from high school, he shook his head in surprise. His hair’s gone gray and he stoops, but otherwise he still looks the same. He was in Campion’s, the lingerie department, I have no idea why. He looked kind of lost in there, being the only man.”
Deedle and Leanne exchanged a look and smothered a snicker.
Mrs. Bartlett went on, oblivious. “You used to like him, remember? He’d put stars on all your papers. I remember once you came home with a red star, all upset because it wasn’t a gold or silver one. Penmanship, I think it was.”
In all the childhood years Deedle had known her, Leanne’s mother had sat at this same supper table as quiet and quiescent as a hamster, never uttering more than a monosyllable, and sometimes not even that. Clyde hated talk in the house, except what came over the police-band scanner. He was a volunteer fireman and so his radio would crackle and buzz and snarl for hours while he sat beside it in his black Naugahyde easy chair, drinking whiskey sours, smoking a pipe. He was a small, thin man with a triangular jaw, and a nose the color of raw rhubarb. His chin and neck were often imperfectly shaven, so that the skin was blighted, a mess of short white whiskers and scabbed over blood. He always wore green work shirts and pants, what Deedle’s mother referred to as “janitor clothes,” faded from hundreds of launderings, and heavy maroon Dunham boots on his feet. He had chalk-white hair, yellowing at the ends, a tuft of which would sometimes fall over his left eye as he sat motionless in the chair and monitored the scanner, listening to the laconic exchanges, the short metallic bursts of code words, nonsense phrases. Occasionally, an excited series of shouts would erupt, amidst plumes of static, from out of the vast emptiness. At these times, he would lean slightly forward in his chair and puff a little faster on his pipe. But that was all. It was as if he were recording these hours and days and nights of electronic information in his brain for some later use, known only to him.
On the other hand, Deedle had never imagined Mrs. Bartlett capable of sustaining memories, of keeping a record of so many of the finer details of her life lived in such a silent and oppressive house. But after Clyde’s gruesome death, something opened up in Mrs. Bartlett, and ever since, the details of that life had come spilling helplessly out.
“I used to tell you how important it was to have neat handwriting, what kind of impression it would make in the business world. You would practice your capital ‘Qs’ and ‘Zs’ for hours, remember? Because they’re so hard in cursive. Your cousin Wendy had the same trouble as you. Oh, I remember how you girls used to tease her about her backwards ‘Ss’ and ‘Es.’ The way she would cry and carry on? Heavens! She was always a sensitive girl, couldn’t stand to be criticized. Such a girly-girl, too. I never did understand how she ended up in the army.”
A week later Deedle was trying to watch a PBS Frontline special on insider trading when she dozed off on the couch. The phone woke her up.
Leanne whispered, “Deedle, you’ve got to get over here right now. I really need you.”
“Leanne,” Deedle said while massaging her eyelids, “What are you talking about?
“It’s Mom. I don’t know where she is.”
“What do you mean you don’t know where she is? Where could she be? And why are you whispering?”
“Because she might be downstairs. I think she’s in the basement but I’m scared to look.”
“You mean she’s in the house?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I think so. Listen Deedle, something bad happened and I really need you here right now.” She started to cry.
“Just calm down and tell me what happened.”
“I had Mortie Michaelson in here. I was screwing Mortie in my room this afternoon, okay? And we must have lost track of time because all of a sudden, right in the middle, I heard the front door slam and guess what? It’s Mom, home from work.”
“Oh Jesus.” Deedle said.
“So I hear Mom come in and I tell Mortie to quit it and be still but he keeps whispering things and giggling and moving around. Then Mom knocks on my door and says, ‘Leanne, is that you?’ Mortie freezes up where he is, which is right on top of me, of course, so I can barely choke out the words, ‘Yeah, Mom, I’ll be out in a minute.’ She’s quiet for a second, then she says, ‘Are you feeling alright, dear?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, Mom. I’m just reading a book.’ Which wasn’t the most brilliant thing to say, I know. When do I ever read a book? But it was all I could think of at that moment. She’s right outside the door; I could tell she was thinking about opening it and checking on me. Finally, she says, “Okay, dear, I’m starting supper.’
“Meanwhile, Mortie’s all over me again, you know the way he is, and before I know it, my old bed starts squeaking away again, up and down, up and down.” Despite her tears, she chuckled and after a minute Deedle did too. Deedle recalled her own mother saying, years before, “Leanne’s so small and beautiful, but she has such a dirty laugh.”
“Leanne, you are certifiable,” Deedle said.
“No, wait, wait. So I’m underneath him and I’m whispering in his ear, ‘Mortie, you got to be quieter’ and he says ‘I’m trying, I’m trying’ but the bed keeps on squeaking, as loud as ever. I’m expecting Mom to burst in any second. But old Mortie, he keeps on going and going. So I decide to let him; I mean, what else could I do? Then, as he’s approaching the big moment, my head starts banging up against the headboard.”
“Oh. My. God.”
“I’m frantic but I can tell that it’s too late; Mortie’s eyes are bulging out of his head, like a big old bullfrog.”
Deedle burst out laughing.
“It’s not funny!” Leanne said but she was laughing too.
“Alright,” Deedle said after they’d settled down. “Alright, So then what happened?”
“So, after he’s done, he’s lying on top of me, panting. But now I’m worried about Mom. I listen, but there’s nothing but silence. No sounds at all coming from the kitchen or anywhere. Mortie’s kissing me all over but I push him off me, tell him to get dressed, to leave through my window, which he does, eventually. Then I put on my robe and go out into the living room. I call, ‘Mom, are you okay?’ But there’s no answer. There’s just this weird silence. I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit, we must have driven her right out of the house.’ But I look out the front window and the car’s still in the driveway. Deedle, please, I’m begging you. I really need you here!”
The drive to the Bartlett house took just fifteen minutes but Deedle used the time to wonder, not for the first time, if this should be the final act in her long, tumultuous friendship with Leanne Bartlett. High school was high school; now maybe it was time to move on.
At the top of Trow Hill, the woods came right up to the road — thick pines heavy with snow, birches and maples stripped of their leaves, limbs webbed together above the road against the starless winter sky. She flipped on the radio for company, searching for some decent rock n roll. But all she got with any clarity was WSNO, which was in the middle of a cornball Patsy Cline song.
“He never fails to call and tell me I’m on his mind
And I’m lucky to have such a guy, I hear it all the time
And he does all the things that you would never do
He loves me too, his love is true. Why can’t he be you?”
Despite herself, the melancholy mood of the song made her reflect upon her own three and a half boyfriends who’d inhabited her life, one by one, since high school. The advice columns even had a technical term for such a love life: serial monogamy. The term sounded as dreary and clinical as the affairs themselves had, for the most part, been. The exception had been the one-half, her big adventure, the tall sleepy-eyed, leather-clad guy who, preposterously, called himself Tex. They shared an eight-hour Amtrak ride in a sleeper car from Burlington to Penn Station and then three wild days and sleepless nights in the bars and borrowed lofts of Manhattan before he abandoned her without pretense on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He told her it had been fun but he had an appointment he couldn’t be late for and she never saw him again.
The problem was that except for Tex she always saw the end in the beginning. Only with Tex she never saw it coming.
Leanne greeted her at the front door of the pink house, dressed only in her flimsy robe. She whispered, “I heard this noise from downstairs, like someone sobbing. I think it’s her.”
“Of course it’s her. Who else would it be?” Deedle said.
“It could be the septic tank. It sometimes makes noises like that.”
“Yeah, the septic tank.”
“Go down and talk to her, okay?”
“You and me both, gal pal.”
They went down together. It occurred to Deedle that she hadn’t been down those wooden rickety steps since Clyde had taken his fatal tumble. The thought jolted her a little. The cement cellar was cold and damp and smelled of heating oil and very old mildew. They found Mrs. Bartlett over by the water tank, sitting on an old milk crate, her head in her hands.
Deedle put her hand on her shoulder. “What’s the matter, Mrs. Bartlett? Are you okay?”
Mrs. Bartlett looked up at Deedle, her eyes shiny with wetness. She didn’t seem surprised to see her. “Oh, it’s not me, dear” she said. “It’s just the septic tank is acting up again, banging away to beat the Devil and I don’t know what’s wrong, how to fix it anymore.”
She looked away and said in a low, shaky voice, “Leanne’s father would know what to do about this. He always knew just what to do about everything. I miss him so much. Every day I miss him more, it seems. Isn’t that strange?”
Leanne was hovering at the bottom of the stairs, shivering in her bathrobe. Deedle looked at her and pointed toward Mrs. Bartlett. Leanne shook her head. So Deedle said “Mrs. Bartlett, Leanne has something she wants to tell you. Something important about the septic system.”
With great reluctance, Leanne sidled across the room and knelt down next to her mother, “Mom, mom, please.” She sighed. “The septic system is fine. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Mrs. Bartlett shook her head firmly. “Oh no, no, Leeanne, it’s not fine. Just an hour ago, I heard it acting up. You must have heard it too: Bang, Bang, Bang. We can’t afford a new pump. What if we have to get a new pump? We have no money for one.” She began to weep.
“Mom, Mom, listen, I’m trying to tell you.” Her voice was quavering. “It wasn’t the pump. It was me up there making the noise. Not the pump. It was me and Mortie Michaelson!”
There was a silence. But then Mrs. Bartlett began shaking her head. “Oh no, Leanne,” she said, “Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. You know the trouble we’ve had with the septic system. Ever since your father built this place, it’s been one big problem.”
Leanne threw her arms around her mother, sobbing. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry.”
And Mrs. Bartlett enfolded her daughter in her arms. “It’s not your fault, Leanne. It’s not you fault. Your father would know what to do. We both miss him so much, don’t we? Oh it’s not your fault. Not at all. You’re my little girl, my little angel. It’s not your fault.”
“Oh mama I’m so, so sorry! Please forgive me!”
Deedle, feeling relieved and suddenly very tired, sat down on the bottom step of the stairs where Clyde Bartlett, whiskey glass in hand, had met his untimely demise. She watched the women he left behind hold each other and cry on the damp and chilly basement floor, Leanne begging for forgiveness and Mrs. Bartlett’s voice crooning: “There there, my darling angel. It’s not your fault. It’ll be okay. We both miss him so much. Oh don’t cry my darling daughter. Oh my sweet angel. You musn’t blame yourself.”
The Other Cheek by Jennifer Porter
Granny Earle’s Soft Pretzels announced that all 14 metro Detroit locations will offer free dipping sauce to guests today, after a fight broke out between two customers and an employee.
The Detroit Times
I just knew it was going to be a bad day. Like a snowball that starts out a flake but keeps rolling and growing and sucking up sharp twigs and dried brown leaves and little old granny’s with walkers picking up their morning paper off the sidewalk. Finally it careens into an intersection, big as that rock King Sisyphus has to push up the hill, swallowing up motorcycles and cars and small innocent children.
It started when my mother crept up on me, wearing her all-night-online gambling hair. She likes to sneak attack, only she eats her own cubs.
“Are those clothes dry?” she asked.
“God, Mom! I didn’t hear you walk in.” I stood there folding laundry at six o’clock on a Saturday morning in my Dad’s old t-shirt. I stole the shirt out of the trash after he drove off for forever on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and even though it had stopped smelling like him, it still felt good against my skin like baby powder after a shower.
“Did you let the dryer finish?” Mom lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, tilting her head back and giving me the Gestapo glare. As a little girl she’d scare the submission into me but I was leaving soon for forever; there was a light at the end of my childhood. Things had been feeling different. “Or did you pull the clothes out early?”
Now, I pulled the clothes out early. I had to get to work and I needed a clean Granny Earle’s Soft Pretzels uniform. I was at a crossroads and honesty did not intersect there. Honesty was pointless with my mother, and I needed to put on my make-up. Should we have a blow-out or not?
I thought about what Pastor Bob might say. I started showing up at his church this summer, and while he still didn’t know what to make of me and my multiple piercings and bobbed hair the color of blue envy, he was trying hard to set me on the path to all-consuming righteousness.
Never look a demon in the eye.
I turned from her and continued folding, “They’re dry enough.” I had checked first and they were hot and they felt dry.
“Let me see,” she yanked a skirt out of my hands, put it to her nose and breathed in. “I smell mold. Goddammit, Harley-Jane. I knew it was you. I knew you weren’t drying the clothes all the way. You smell this?” She thrust the skirt in my face. “Moldy!”
It used to kill me when I made her unhappy, when I disappointed her, but that can only go on so long before you wake up and smell the ashes of your life. I grabbed my uniform while she tore through the stack of folded clothes, sniffing them and shouting “Moldy!” She flung open the dryer door, ranting and raving about the “entire cycle.” She had to get to her job at the Oakwood Motel, cleaning rooms and stealing pain pills so she could put a roof over my head.
“Well, I have to get work to pay for college. You’re not keeping me in this hell hole any longer,” and I raced out before she could slap me.
I worried she would burst into my cramped bedroom where the water stains look like giant amoeba. I kept globbing my mascara. I couldn’t find my keys. I was seven minutes twenty-three seconds late to work. My supervisor Dyaniesha was tapping her watch with her pointy red nail while I tied my apron. Her nails were shaped into vampire fangs.
“That’s the fourth time you been late,” Dyaniesha said. “That’s four times too many.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Something happened right before I could leave.”
“Like what? Your apartment burned down? Ha! You thought I wouldn’t go check to see if that really happened? I should fire you for lying!”
Lying had gotten me through eighteen years, but it wasn’t putting my best cheek forward. And I wanted to be different. I wanted to show up at the dorm with my shit together.
“I admit I exaggerated but the couch my mother passed out on did catch fire. I had to throw the cushions out the window. It’s just. I need this job, Dyaniesha.” I tried to look as sad as possible with my big green eyes. The college financial aid package was generous but it wasn’t going to cover everything. I had to get out of this shop rat town. The last thing my father said to me: Working in a hydraulic hose factory will make your heart as hard as your heels, Harley-Jane. Promise me you’ll use that brain of yours and do better.
Dyaniesha swept me into her enormous bosom. “I know you work hard. I’m proud of you, I am. No father. Crazy-ass mother. Aw right. Get to work.” Then she released me and as she sashayed away said, “Don’t be late no more and get the Freezee cleaned. Night shift forgot.”
This was a terrible punishment to me and Dyaniesha knew it. The Freezee produced frozen slushies: blue raspberry, coke, cherry, Faygo orange. And if it wasn’t cleaned every single night it gunked up and jammed. It had to be taken apart and every single part scrubbed. My hands sweated in the plastic gloves and the colors smelled awful. We weren’t allowed to scrape with anything hard because then we’d scratch the stainless steel. We had to bend over and scrub with a soft bristled brush. Ugh.
Life is not a practice test, it’s a pop quiz.
Once I tried to tell Pastor Bob about Robert Johnson and how he’d traded his soul at the crossroads to play the guitar like no one else could play the guitar. I wondered if maybe I could trade for a fairy godmother.
Pastor Bob nodded his bald head with the ring of orange-gray hair that shaded his over-sized ears and stared at me through his bifocals. He was wrinkly and tall and wore bad polyester suits.
I went on, “I’ve surrendered my heart to Jesus, but my mind likes to travel the other roads. And those roads constantly lead me to the crossroads. I’m trying my best not to make any deals. I’m trying my best to keep the demons inside a little closet, but it’s cramped and stuffy and smelly in there and they’re crowding me.” There was Demon Scream-My-Head-Off and Demon Punch-the-Wall and Miss Apathy and Ms. Lack of Self-Confidence.
“Jesus didn’t walk on water, Harley-Jane, just to watch you drown,” he’d said.
Now I was drowning in slushie with an ache in my back and it wouldn’t be long before Gary came over to watch me bent over. I could tell he was there when the back of my neck felt like a just hatched spider egg. Oh, here come the baby spiders!
“Gary, do you mind? I can’t work with your eyeballs like laser beams on my booty,” I stood and faced him.
Gary’s winter-gray mall security uniform hung from his stick figure. His eyes leaked and he had black hairy nostrils. “I wrote you another poem,” he said. “Wanna hear?”
I rolled my eyes. “Don’t you have elusive shop lifters to chase?” He shook his head. “How about a false fire alarm?” Again with the head. “No security video tapes to pore over?”
“It’s about you.”
“Surprise, surprise, this must be my lucky day.” Gary started leaning over the counter to breathe his phlegmy asthmatic germs all over it. I thrust up my hands, “STOP right there. Back up, Gary. Do not make me clean that counter again.”
Gary thought this was funny: holding the counter hostage. He opened his mouth wide and went in for the kill.
“Okay! Tell me the damn poem.”
Gary’s missing lateral incisor tooth reminded me of a portal to an underground sewer where refugees had gathered in the hopes of rescue only to never be seen again. He tried to stand up straight but one shoulder bent at a funny angle. He swiped his greasy black hair off his forehead then cleared his throat.
“The title of this poem is: The Corpse Bride.”
“Isn’t that a Tim Burton movie?”
“Are you gonna listen or just criticize?”
“Okay, hurry up. I’ve got to put the Freezee back together.”
“As I was saying:
The Corpse Bride
by Gary Vanheusen.
My beautiful corpse bride
Your flesh has died
Gleaming white your skull
My heart is full.
No one else can ever
Have you, Never!”
“Jesus, Gary! What the hell? You’re such a creeper.”
“Do you like it?”
“Oh yeah, it’s right up there with a Charles Simic.”
“You think so? It’s a Halloween poem.” He was so damn proud he got real cute for about two seconds. “What are you doing for lunch?”
“Going to my car to get my phone. I forgot it.”
“Okay, I’ll walk you out. See you later I’ve got to do my rounds now.” He waved good-bye and smiled, his portal trying to suck me in while I shouted, “I don’t need any help!”
When Heaven’s on your doorstep, take your shoes off.
It was a slow morning, so I made too many pretzels. I made jalapeno cheese ones then blueberry then artichoke cashew. I stacked them and re-stacked them and then ate a couple while Dyaniesha was in the back office. Since Gary knew my schedule like he knew the insides of his eyelids, he arrived promptly to escort me to my car.
My tire was flat.
“Your tire’s flat,” he said.
“No shit. Like one of your poems.”
Gary frowned, put a hand up to his heart like I’d just stabbed him.
Where was my other cheek? On a road trip. “Sorry. It’s just. I’m having a really bad day. Had a mold problem this morning with my mom.”
“Yeah, mom’s can be a real pain. Laugh when you read your poems.”
“Or when you tell her you might want to be a geodesist.”
“You want to study geodynamical phenomena such as the tides and polar motion?”
“You know what a geodesist does?”
“My roommate’s talked about it. I go to Michigan. I’m in the aerospace program.”
“Jesus, Gary! You never told me!”
“Thought you didn’t like nerds. You’re so cool. Not a nerd at all, but super smart.”
“Thank you.” Gary’s cute factor multiplied exponentially at that moment. “Sorry about what I said about your poems.”
“That’s okay. I was just writing them to impress you. Pop open your trunk and I’ll show you how to change the tire.”
It took us so long, my lunch break was over. The lug nuts on my 1992 Chevy Geo Metro were corroded so Gary and I had to run to Speedy Auto Parts and buy some WD-40. I could pay Gary back after I got my paycheck. He sprayed the lug nuts until they dripped rusty brown. Then I whacked him in the knee with that pole that sticks out of the jack. He was still limping when we ran back to Granny Earle’s. I was almost late again so Dyaniesha was using her nail fang to tap against the punch clock.
“Thanks, Gary,” I handed him an ice pack. “I owe you.”
But that snowball was still gathering flotsam and the jetsam walked right up to the counter, with their straightened glossy hair and their wide-angle ‘tudes. I just knew there was going to be trouble as I had waited on them before and it had been very hard not to be a smart-ass.
The taller girl said, “Yeah, we ordered nacho cheese dip and you gave us the wrong dip. This ain’t nacho cheese dip. It’s somethin’ else.” She wore a black tube top for a skirt and a yellow sleeveless blouse that emphasized her cleavage. She slapped the plastic cup of yellow dip on the counter.
More than half the dip was gone. The demons squirmed inside me. Who eats more than half the dip before they realize it’s not what they ordered?
“Yeah, that’s somethin’ else,” the other girl said. “Somethin’ we didn’t order.” She slung out her chunky hip at a sharp angle and stuck her hand where her skinny jeans forced her flesh into undulating rolls.
I swallowed then angled my best cheek forward – the one with the Marilyn Monroe mole. “May I please see your receipt?”
The taller girl worked her I-Phone out of her uplift then peeled the itty bitty receipt off the back of the phone. She flung the receipt and it floated and landed on my just-sprayed clean counter. I could see its damp germy spots. The demons hissed and one of them started tapping on the door, with her sharp pointy red nail. I snapped the finger tips of my latex glove tight. Sometimes I could control myself through the measuring out of small shocks of pain. I picked up the receipt. The words were mostly rubbed off so I had to hold it close to my face. It smelled like that worm smell after it rains in summer when the worms inch across the concrete. I gagged a little. But sure enough, it said they ordered nacho cheese dip.
“See! I ordered nacho cheese dip,” the tall one said. One of her boobs was overly-exposed from all the rummaging around in the bra. “You got to give me what I ordered.”
I couldn’t speak, but I pointed to the boob while nodding and refusing to look.
She put her boob away as if I’d asked her to lasso the moon. “I didn’t order no mustard.”
I couldn’t believe I had given a customer mustard and not nacho cheese. I made a mistake? Mistakes meant screaming and shoving and slapping and hysterical tears. I grabbed the dip and took a big whiff. It was mustard. The demons wanted out, wanted me to blow through the red light at the crossroads.
What would Jesus have done when his customers complained? Let’s say, Mary Magdalene ordered cherry cabinets and Jesus forgot, say he had a lot on his mind, like Scriptures or something important, maybe he couldn’t decide which college to go to, and he forgot Mary Magdalene ordered cherry and instead he made her cabinets out of oak. No, they didn’t have oak in Israel, so he used olive trees or … maybe driftwood. He built fires with driftwood that he cooked fish over. And she got all pissed about it. But she didn’t get pissed until a month after he installed them. She used them, had all her plates in them. Mary trounced over to the counter where Jesus worked and said, You made me the wrong cabinets!
The last thing you should do is the first thing you think of.
I turned to get some nacho cheese dip, instead of doing all the other things I wanted to do. Like slap somebody. Or say something that would get me fired. I felt like I was getting very close to the tipping point. It was a tired achy feeling; I kept pushing the boulder and it kept rolling back down and my shoulders were sore.
The tall girl said, “That’s right! You GOT to gimme my dip. Uh huh. Nacho cheese dip. And it better be hot. I am the customer and you got to do what I say!” She and the other girl laughed.
I turned back. “Only a couple of diptards would eat more than half a cup of mustard before realizing it was NOT nacho cheese dip. So since a couple of diptards did exactly that, maybe those diptards ought to pay for the nacho cheese dip they want now.”
The chunky girl said, “What? You callin’ us diptards?”
The other one leaned over, slamming her filthy hands on the counter. “You better get my goddamn nacho cheese dip. Where’s the manager? I wanna speak to the manager. You need your ass fired.”
“You want nacho cheese dip?” I hissed; the barrier inside me now completely vaporized. Nothing was going to stop me from being the wrong kind of person. Not all those catchy phrases Pastor Bob flung around like ping pong balls in a glass box. Not the shame of acting like my mother. Not the light at the end, beckoning to me, whispering that life could be different. That I could be different.
“I’ll get your goddamn nacho cheese dip.” I shuffled to the dip machine and filled the cup to overflowing and shuffled back to the now toxic counter. “Here’s your fucking nacho cheese dip!”
I whipped it at them.
Before I knew it both of them were over the counter. The tall one landed a punch on my nose and the other girl threw me into the Freezee. Dyaniesha came out of the back shouting like she was on fire then held me by the shoulders. “Somebody call Mall Security,” she yelled.
Gary limped over then escorted the ‘victims’ out of Granny Earle’s. He sent long sorrowful looks my way while taking reports.
Pastor Bob got there in no time flat. We sat on the wooden bench across from Granny Earle’s. I still wore my apron damp with blue raspberry freezee and my hair was no longer in a net. The tussle had seen to that. I suspected it was flying around my head similar to Medusa’s snakes. I looked down and realized I’d lost one of my faded black hard-soled shoes and my big toe had worked its way out of the hole in my black sock. The contrast between my pale toe and the black sock startled me. A little drip of nacho cheese dip clung to my toenail and I spread it around to simulate nail polish. At least I wasn’t going to jail.
“You’re lucky you’re not going to jail,” Pastor Bob said and I threw a sideways glance at him for speaking aloud one of my thoughts. I wondered if I’d been talking my thoughts aloud or if my skull was like an osmotic membrane, open to anyone to reach inside and pull out what I was thinking.
“It was by mutual consent and remorse that everyone dropped all charges,” I said. After all, I was punched in the face and thrown against the Freezee. “All I did was throw nacho cheese dip. They’re the ones who came over the counter.”
“Your supervisor said you’re officially fired and should never approach a Granny Earle’s ever again.”
“My entire life.”
“Your entire life.”
I did like the pretzels there.
“I know you think you have no control over what you call the demons in your closet, Harley-Jane, but I’d like to challenge you to re-configure that conclusion.”
“That’s been a definite problem for me. All day long I’ve been running up against the worst my life delivers.”
Pastor Bob wiped his sweaty forehead. “So, Harley-Jane, have you arrived at the crossroads?”
“You mean like Robert Johnson did?”
“I don’t know about Robert Johnson. Is he a friend of yours?”
“He traded his soul at the crossroads to play the guitar better than anybody ever had before or since. I tried to tell you this once before.”
“I see. He wanted to be able to play the guitar more than anything else. What do you want more than anything else?”
I had to really think about this. I wasn’t sure what I should major in or more importantly, if I was going to be able to afford college. I never knew what to wear on a date. I didn’t know how to get my mother to kick her pill addiction or how to get my father to come back into my life. I didn’t even know why sometimes there were two forks next to the plate. Sometimes I didn’t know how I really felt about Gary. He was cute in a scary kind of creeper way and he knew who Robert Johnson was and sometimes his awful poems made me like him a little. I didn’t know why God had spoken to me that day and had me go to church and then convinced me to be on His team. Why would He want someone like me: a girl with a closet full of demons?
“Yes, I guess I am at the crossroads. But it’s more like being in the middle of the intersection and some of the roads are misty. And my car doesn’t have fog lights, but I know if I go down one of those hazy roads my whole life would change. All I can see clearly are the roads my father left on and my mother walked with me down. But the other roads scare me more sometimes. I can go to a very dark place, and have thoughts no one should have. And do things that I don’t want to do, like throw nacho cheese dip and tell Gary he’s fugly.”
“All I know is what I don’t want to be,” I finally said.
“That’s a good start.”
“You think so?”
He nodded. “Tell me about this.”
“Well, I know that I don’t want to scream at people and call them names and smash my fist into the wall anymore.”
“Or throw dip.”
“Or throw dip. Yes. Or pop pills.”
“I don’t want to be like my mother but when I act like that, I am like my mother. She says terrible cruel things to people and thinks she’s the center of everyone’s universe. She works hard all day in stinky old motel rooms but never has enough money. I’d give anything to not be like my mother.” I took a tissue out of my pants pocket and blew my nose and wiped my eyes.
“I don’t think you have to trade your soul for that,” he said.
“No? It seems very impossible.”
“It will be a lot of hard work but not impossible.”
“Like as hard as being in the Garden of Gethsemane?”
“Possibly. Quite possibly, yes. It’s not easy to learn a new way of being.”
A new way of being. I wanted to be patient and kind and thoughtful. I could be a scientist. “Okay.” Maybe I could even be a good mother. I did want to have a family some day.
“There are no overnight fixes, Harley-Jane. No instant pills. But God will help you.”
“I hope so. Someone better.”
Pastor Bob stood up. “What do you say I walk you to your car?”
“Just a second, I need to apologize to some people.” I walked over to Gary. He was leaning on the counter, talking to Dyaniesha. “Sorry I let you down, Dyaniesha. Thank you for letting me work here.”
“You got to get yourself together, Harley. That was no way to act. You can do better than that,” she smiled ruefully. “I’m gonna miss you.”
“I know,” I said and I did. “I’m going to miss you too.” I felt like such a loser. “I’m so sorry.” I was.
“Aw right. It’s all gonna be alright. I’ll be seein’ you around. Bye, now.” Dyaniesha sashayed away.
“Hey, Gary. How’s the leg?”
“Hey, Harley.” He held his head back enough to emphasize his hairy nostrils. “Sore.”
“I was wondering if you’d like to hang out?” I twisted my head slightly, putting Marilyn in the best light.
Gary looked at me and my mole for a long time. “And do what?”
I shrugged. “See a movie?”
“Like a date?”
“Maybe?” I smiled.
“Yeah, okay.” He smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.”
“Neither did I.”
Book Review — Icon
Review by Scott Holstad
Icon by Frederick Forsyth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I love this book by Forsyth. It was epic in scale. And he pulled it off masterfully. The first half of the book is plot set up, which is typical of the author. He’s really into details and logistics, so this part of his books often bores some readers. But not me. I like finding out about all of the details that go into an operation. The second half of the book was action packed and I had a hard time putting the book down.
The plot revolves around post-Soviet Russia circa 1999. It’s falling apart, is broke, its leadership in shambles. Up steps a charismatic leader named Igor Komarov, who’s expected to become president in the upcoming election and who vows to return Mother Russia to its glory. However, he’s not what he seems to be. He’s a Hitler wannabe who is going to practice genocide on Jews, ethnic minorities, the military leadership, etc. And he’s got all of his plans written down in a “Black Manifesto,” of which there are three copies. One of them is foolishly left on his secretary’s desk and an old ex-soldier who now cleans Komarov’s headquarters sees it, reads some of it, realizes its importance and steals it. He then gets it to the British embassy, where it works its was back to British intelligence. The document is shared between British and American governments, but they choose to do nothing, so a group of highly influential and secretive world leaders meet to discuss the situation and come up with a solution — to send in a spy to destabilize Komarov’s platform and discredit him, thereby ensuring he loses the election. The person chosen to do this is ex-CIA agent Jason Monk. Monk fights it, but Sir Nigel Irvine (a great character!) convinces him to do it, and so he goes in.
When Monk arrives in Moscow, he immediately calls in a favor of a particular Chechen who is head of the Chechen underworld and he gains their support and protection. He then starts making the rounds, contacting the military’s leadership, the state police’s leader, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, and a major bank president who also presides over the television media. These people, after being confronted with the facts of the Black Manifesto, turn on Komarov and his security chief, Colonel Grishin. Meanwhile, Grishin finds out Monk is in the country and has an old score to settle with him, so he puts his Black Guard troops at work trying to locate him. Monk moves around, and this is a weakness of the book I think, and is almost omniscient in anticipating their moves and making adjustments for himself and his Russian collaborators. Sir Nigel makes it to Russia to meet with the clergy and comes up with the idea of returning Russia to a czar-based country, which is accepted by said clergy. He then comes up with a distant heir to the throne and promotes his return to Russia to take over.
When Komarov and Grishin realize their time is almost up, they do something completely crazy — attempt a New Year’s Eve coup in Moscow. But Monk anticipates this and helps prepare the military and the police, so the coup attempt fails and everything works out beautifully. The climactic scene between Grishin and Monk is largely anticlimactic, though, and that was disappointing.
It’s not Forsyth’s best book, but it’s an entertaining one, with a lot of research having gone into Russia, their crime scene, politics, etc., and it’s certainly worth reading. Monk is a bit too super human to be very believable, but he’s a likeable character, so one can overlook that. Recommended.
Poetry by Lyn Lifshin
DON JUAN’S RECKLESS DAUGHTER
hitching into mystery,
jiving in the mountains.
I think of her dancing
to an old juke box, a
gold snake on her wrist,
old ghosts, lips of
serpents who love the
whiskey bars. I imagine
the wind in her blondeness
on the prairie. I think of
her restless in honky
tonks, in lace. I think of
those shadows that
feel like touching,
of shadows that feel
like skin. Now all she
wants since she can’t
have you is for you
to shiver, put her on your
THE MAD GIRL IS UNDONE BY VELVET SCARVES AND MEN
it’s not that she doesn’t have many,
has had enough, more than most.
But it’s the ones that do her
wrong, misbehave, are torn from
her that haunt. Black velvet
ripped from her neck as she looked
in Hallmarks, Then, last night,
pale, almost a white flesh velvet
one falls from her arms, not unlike
the lover she wants wrapped as
close, would give up dignity
drunk on him as someone
plastered in a bar who will beg
his, any shoulder to lean on, hold
sure she’s so high on him she
can’t walk or think right
LET THE WIND CARRY ME
like tumbleweed, like
blown, drifting between
hands. Oh she’s a
free spirit boys use to
sing to me too, shaking
their head. No one
can hold her. My mother
tried to, my father didn’t
care. Joni knew you
could be so drawn
and quartered. Wanting
a home with candles
around the door,
wanting a man who’d
be there to hold her and
then packing in the
night, eloping alone with
strangeness in a short
skirt and heels, fuck me
shoes and a hooker
sequin mini: a mask, a
moat only the wind catches
FOR THE ROSES
when I hear butterflies
and lilac sprays, the
glitter, the what she
heard in the wind,
a fierce lullaby.
I think of Virginia
fragments, scraps of
them in a drawer. I
think if I cut lines
from a random
number of songs,
California and esp.
Blue, color that
leaks thru my writing
and put, like slices
of colored glass
or velvet squares from
a quilt into kaleidoscopes,
into a bedroom drawer
and waited to see
what would coalesce,
each time I dipped
the verbs would
keep changing and I
don’t think I could
words from mine
Poetry by Robert Joe Stout
Halfway between the dining room
and kitchen, coffee cup in hand,
I realize my living space is empty:
no one there. Table,
bureau, chairs indicate
the presence of a someone
—me?—but I am off somewhere:
Paris, Comitàn, alligator skinning
in the Everglades. Or thirteen
reading Shelley and Sexology,
twenty-four and blurry-eyed from too much beer.
Looking back from somewhere else
I sense who I might be,
alone within a room
of crowded images—lovers, friends, antagonists—
all more real
than what I see looking down
at parquet tile, a steaming cup,
wastebasket filled with throwaways.
This isn’t life, just circumstance. I lift the bat,
pump once and swing and see
knowingly, hands on the snaps
of her thin, tight brassiere.
Poetry by Terry Savoie
Taking in a Strip Show at the Jones County, Iowa Fair (1966)
What wasn’t already frittered away on the Tilt-a-Whirl, cotton candy
or that freak show its double-jointed Frog Lady, slipped through my
fingers in a last-ditch bid to rid myself of all I had left in my pocket at
the last row tent butted up against an enterprising farmer’s barbed
wired bean field: 21 & older, $1. Inside, I squeezed in alongside two
horny, high school boys squirming & antsy on rough pine board
bleachers, raining down hoots ‘n’ cat-calls on the main attraction
gyrating for the crowd down in the pit. That sweet thing had only
now just begun her improbable bump & grind to the beat coming from
the vinyl 78 that spun & scratched away on the portable record player
sitting near her with the Beatles wailing for all they were worth, I
wanna hold your ha-a-a-and. The girl’s all done up in what looks to be
a mail-order black bra & lace panties, nothing more, but so skinny she
is that she may well be playing Pretend, appraising herself in Mother’s
full-length mirror back home as she precariously balances on a pair of
red stiletto heels that seem specifically designed to drive themselves
deep into any farm boy’s foolish & tender heart. The locals call out for
more & more which rouses two off-duty state troopers up to rustle
out all the womenfolk along with any man who isn’t man enough to
ante up the couple extra bucks for that sweet thing’s real show. The
bleachers thin some, then, nonchalantly, she shucks off all the
unmentionables before settling down on a black satin pillow, yawning,
& giving us a brief glimpse of everything imaginable only to be
abruptly interrupted by some boy’s impatient girlfriend who pokes
her head under the canvas to break our spell, yelling out, “Damn ya’ll,
Frankie, let’s get on to home already! That skinny-ass girl ain’t got
nothin’ I ain’t already showed ya’, & that there’s God’s own truth!”
Poetry by Alan Catlin
Senior Citizen Day at the Supermarket
Old ladies with shopping carts,
blue hair freshly permed, blocking
the aisles as they talk, oblivious
to people trying to pass, ‘excuse me’
entreaties ignored, offended if someone
wants to reach across for something
on a shelf they refuse to budge from
in front of, delving into suitcase sized
handbags for snapshots of extended
family, whole albums worth, mixed in
with rosaries, prayer books, face cards
of the dead they carry everywhere they go,
frustrated shoppers reversing course,
backing down terminally blocked aisles
only to confront more old ladies in
mechanized carts, bumping into each other,
turning in widening arcs as they fiddle with
controls they can’t begin to understand,
bumping into one another, anything in their
way, hopelessly confused but determined
to shop on regardless of who might be
in their way, might wish to pass, all of them
bearing expired coupons, wrong items that
don’t match on-sale fliers, check books
with no checks, no longer valid plastic
cards, all of them armed and ready to go
with lists written in pencil on the back of
envelopes smeared with grime so faint they
can’t begin to read what is written even if
they had the right glasses, all these old ladies
with shopping carts and their bus idling in
the parking lot, driver chain smoking as he waits
wondering if this trip will ever end.
Everyone dressed in green: green derbies,
green love beads, green shirts with shamrocks
that say, Kiss Me I’m Irish, green floppy clowns
pants, skin paint a color like sickness, gangrene,
music by a Trio from Hell: electric bagpipes,
fiddles, even penny whistles, so loud anyone
without mufflers is made deaf, even the singer,
whose voice resounds like a mute person’s
discovering speech, articulation in a nightmare
of green corn beef, discolored beer, even the
Stout blemished with food coloring like a
festering wound, a bruise that won’t heal;
nothing deters the drinkers, ten deep at the bar
and being pushed from behind, so crowded
it’s impossible to breathe, to order, to escape,
even the bartenders immovable objects rooted
to one place, watching the glacial pace of the
impacting crush wondering when, if ever,
this will all come to an end.
Poetry by Richard Fein
THE BOOK OF ETERNAL LIFE
Here in the attic I find an eighty-year-old phone book.
And if I were to dial the number for any name,
I’d get a wrong number, dead air or a notice of disconnection.
And the names of the lives I hold between my fingers,
are fading now, losing their legibility.
Phone books have gone mostly digital.
Poor souls, they were born too soon to be scanned and uploaded
into electric impulses forever crisscrossing the net.
And so each name’s number truly is up.
Not an antique, this ancient phonebook, this roll call of ancestors.
But if I tossed it away to save space
then most of those named in this meager genealogy
would be as if they were never named, let alone remembered.
It’s Life that’s eternal but never a single life.
Poetry by Colin Dodds
The Angel of Death in the Bar
The angel of death is a weak little man
who sits in a bar, finishing other people’s sentences
and other people’s drinks
and never looking you in the eye.
He says that what you can’t admit when you’re sober
is that you hate the world
because the world was drunk before you arrived.
The whole scene is as unlikely
as the first song or the last song.
The jukebox kicks in and a saintly Johnny Cash
plays all the rooms in hell tonight.
The people who can imagine nothing
but Saturday night and their need of it
are better than them who think
they can make up their own names,
the angel says.
The lights come on and the music changes.
Last call wakes us from a strange dream
of sex and violence.
I lose the angel of death
in the lights, in the sound of a hundred hands
reaching into pockets.
I hear the word and know it’s time.
They only call me sir
when they ask me to leave.
For When I’m Not by Thomas Larson
This campus I’m walking through, once my undergraduate home, has tripled in size, as much up as out. Its new luxury condos loom above treeless sidewalks. Star-blocking apartment units squat on land once lazily humped by parking lots, Camrys and Accords now garaged underneath. There, in an Italian restaurant/bar, where a jug band played every Thursday, a space-station-like admin-building has landed, glass-enclosed, a Chronos humming. Farther on, beside a six-story research lab, passels of students in football T’s, the black and the gold, recount in echoing swats their agony that the team, unbeaten till today, has lost. An alarm bleeps, a beer can rolls, and three pony-tailed blondes, their backwards-capped dates behind them, clop by. Ahead, an aquarium-lighted Taco Bell stands on the corner where a park once lay, and there a friend told me he believed (we were twenty-one) that I, an avid journal-writer (even then I had the auto-bio-graphic bug), would record my life. To Waugh Street I go, still a block of unlit blue-black dark. At #126, upstairs, I rented the back room, $25 a month my sophomore year, one of the hair-long horde, an English major, who spent Saturday nights easy-chaired beside my desk, out of the boom-box dorms, no more in loco parentis. There, I queried Blake’s “London” in my Norton anthology, those tissue-thin pages, my pencil jots surrounding the poem whose rein-holding syntax began, I wander thro’ each charter’d street, Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. And mark in every face I meet Marks of weakness, marks of woe. I fell big for the doom-truth of Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles,” the chimney sweep’s cry, the soldier’s sigh, the harlot’s curse: my stupid marriage, five years hence, was already hearsed. Mired in his spell, I hustled to the porch, and down the stairs, and onto the grass, this grass where I stand now, to expunge his nihilistic wonder. It didn’t work. Nothing changed and nothing changes. So back in I went to bedevil our world-withdrawing self, to finish the paper, (I am still finishing the paper, still use writing to possess what time won’t keep), and tonight, forty-five years on, I find this man racked in that younger man—a jingle-jangle I announce to the mute home, to the soupy air, to the side yard’s fallen elm, lightning’s lucky twist, to the tavern wolves, howling again at TV screens in the distance, feeling someone should know or maybe just hear that my life’s bow was strung in that room in this house on Waugh, where Blake cursed what would become of me. And what was that? One who mattered, who mattered not. How trite! How true! Like the teenage atheist I met not long ago who fears the dwindling updates that will follow her death, whose insufficient bandwidth will not maintain and remember her—she posted, she replied, she had a face in a box, and her likes will go unchecked. I can’t believe I’d die, she told me, and have no life-after on earth. But if I negotiate the moment now, I cannot say—and can’t pretend to—that I should be troubled by this house/that room/his poem determining the rest of me. When I’m not. So much of so few hours is left, and I can’t attend the past, its memorial bunting draped endlessly down main street, fare forward the horses sway and forgotten buck. My life wants me to feel what happened then is happening now. When I don’t. In its place I let the myth mount my worry. Claude Levi-Strauss said that every myth is driven by the need to solve a paradox that cannot be solved. Which columns one of many whys I’ve come. To visit my oldest college friend whose cancer treatments have unmanacled his mind, who tells me—after we talk half the night, half his stomach gone—and just before he shuts the bathroom door: That first day I was infused, I went home and lay on the couch and was so sick I hoped I’d die. How much I begged death to come. But it wouldn’t. No matter how much I begged, death would not come. But I didn’t die that day or the next or the next even though the poison was supposed to kill me. I told the nurse that so long as she didn’t kill me I would come back for as long as it took until she did. We had a good laugh at that, and then she stuck the needle in.
Salvation by Laurel DiGangi
As hard as I tried, I was never very good at loving Jesus. When my second grade nun demanded we love Him “even more than our parents,” I became overwhelmed with fear. I had broken the First Commandment, and needed to confess my mortal sin to the priest: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I loved my mommy more than Jesus.” The priest asked me to say three Hail Marys, but I was still doomed. To circumvent eternal damnation, my quest for forgiveness had to be genuine. I needed to love Jesus a little more, or my mother a little less. This was challenging. My mother was just too gosh-darn loveable. Besides, Jesus may have walked on water, but His iconic image in every Catholic home was his near-naked body gruesomely nailed to a cross, a picture that lacked the warm, fuzzy appeal of Snoopy sleeping on top of his doghouse. And even when Jesus posed for a nice portrait in his good robes, some gory, surreal element would ruin it, like his “sacred heart,” a bleeding, flaming valentine’s heart that hovered outside his chest, wrapped in thorns. My solution was to love the gentle, bloodless images of Baby Jesus, held lovingly in the arms of Mary—until Sister told us that it was sinful to even love Mary more than Jesus and I feared I had a forbidden love for Mary, who probably reminded me of my own mother. Then on February 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and Jesus, Mary, and Mommy all had formidable contenders for my love. The prayer book beneath my pillow was replaced by a transistor radio, and my most revered holy object was no longer a crystal rosary but a pinback button my best friend claimed was tossed out of a helicopter by Paul McCartney. In a few short years this precious object was joined by prom bids, dried corsages, and adolescent love letters. I was still obsessed with men too old and famous for me, but they were now joined by real flesh and blood, accessible boys, including my first serious boyfriend, R., who not-so-coincidentally happened to be a bass player in a rock and roll band. Thus at age sixteen, my top ten Billboard Love Chart looked like this: 1. R. the Boyfriend; 2. Paul the Beatle; 3. Mom; 4. Jesus/ John the Beatle – an ironic tie, given the latter’s controversial 1966 remark about who was more popular; 5. Maternal Grandmother; 6. George my Brother; 7. George the Beatle; 8. George my Father: 9. Maternal Grandfather;10. Ringo Unfortunately, my kid brother George didn’t hold steady at number six but bounced around and often fell off the chart completely. That’s because his list was topped by the drug toluene, the active ingredient in airplane glue. He started with leftover glue from our days of sticking together Rat Finks and monster model kits, then graduated to actual toluene after he and a friend stole cans of the stuff from a local warehouse. He would rip cotton strips off my mother’s cleaning rags, soak them in “tolly,” shove them up his nose, and melt into an oblivious, catatonic state. I remember him sitting at the kitchen table in the middle of the night (long after my father had drunkenly stumbled into bed) his head bobbing, his long, beautiful hair—dark blonde with natural, platinum streaks—hiding his face. The table was covered with used tolly rags and tissues—moist, nostril-sized clumps. Apropos of nothing, every few seconds, George barked out an angry, staccato “What?” My mother yelled at George, “go to bed” and “I told you not to do that stuff!” and anything else she could think of. Nothing mattered. George just sat there and muttered, “What? . . . What? . . . What?” He was thirteen. Our cousin Jimmy, twelve years George’s senior, tried to help him. Jimmy wasn’t only our cousin, but also a family friend and electrician who often worked the same jobs as my father. George loved and trusted Jimmy, who told him, “Hey kid, you’ve got to stop doing that shit ‘cause its frying your brain.” Then he gave him a bag of weed and said, “Do this shit instead.” Weed rose to the top of George’s love list. His life, my life, all our lives would have been so much happier if it stayed there. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be faithful to one drug. Instead he participated in pharmacological orgies that included weed, tolly, quaaludes, PCP, speed, and that old standby, alcohol. One day my father was called to pick him up from some party or street corner—I don’t remember. But what I won’t forget was Dad carrying George’s stiff, unconscious body into the house: legs sticking straight out from his torso as if rigor mortis had set in. So stiff that to fit through the front door, Dad had to carry him under one arm as if he were a heavy pile of lumber that he feared at any moment he would drop. Understatement number one: George’s schoolwork suffered. He didn’t just blow off classes; there were fights and suspensions. Understatement number two: my parents were perplexed. Teen drug use was unknown to their generation, and treatment nonexistent. Understatement number three: our brother-sister relationship suffered. He resented me because I was a “good girl.” I resented George because no one cared I was a “good girl”; they spent all their energy worrying about him. Plus he made whatever family problems we had even worse. Instead of ignoring my father when he was drunk—our mutual, tacit survival strategy—George would goad him on. Ironically, in comparison to George, my father’s drunken unpredictability was starting to seem predictable. Then some shit hit the fan, even worse than his rigor mortis episode. It could have concerned his bottle-of-aspirin suicide attempt, a suspension, or drug arrest. Anyhow, this Big Brother from Big Brothers of America was coming to our home to resolve whatever specific shit instigated his referral. For the first time in months, I was hopeful. I imagined him not only curing George’s addictions, but also my father’s alcoholism. When I first saw this “Big Brother,” I was shocked. He was a lot older than my Dad, and should’ve been called “Big Grandpa.” He ambled in the house silently, a lanky grey-haired man with a long haggard face, the stern countenance of the farmer in American Gothic. There were no ice breakers, no pleasantries exchanged other than a mandatory, “Hello, I’m Mr. So-and-So from Big Brothers.” He sat down at our kitchen table, across from my father, who put on pants and a button-down flannel shirt for the occasion—his usual after-work attire was a T-shirt and long johns—while my mother nervously puttered around the kitchen, offering Big Grandpa a variety of unwanted refreshments. “He’s supposed to be home now,” Mom said. “I told him that the Big Brother was coming but that’s the problem, we can’t . . . you know . . . he doesn’t listen.” Dad exhaled strongly through his loosely closed lips—his loud, trademark “blubber-sigh,” acknowledging my mother’s understatement. “That’s okay,” Big Grandpa said. “It’s better for our first visit that I talk to the parents alone.” If that was a hint, I ignored it. Big Grandpa asked, “Is this his sister?” glaring at me in my tie-dyed T-shirt, paint-stained blue jeans and fake fur mukluks. He did not see a young woman living in chaos, working her way through art school by typing dun letters for a collection department, whose father believed that paying for a daughter’s college tuition was pointless (as if her brother had a strong academic future). Instead he saw a dirty hippie. “She’s okay,” Mom said nervously. “She doesn’t use drugs or anything.” At least that’s what she thought. Truth is, I was already nineteen and a secret stoner. Every Saturday night, after my boyfriend R.’s folk group played a couple sets at Ali’s Coffee House, we’d drive to his bandmate’s apartment and share a joint or two while sitting cross-legged on the floor in an iconic stoner’s circle listening to the White Album. “Hmph,” he said. And that pretty much sized up what I was thinking. Hmph. I was expecting a camp counselor, some twenties-something guy who looked like one of the Beach Boys who’d take George fishing and hiking, sort of a drug-free cousin Jimmy. Or maybe an aspiring therapist who would who delicately interview each of us about our family dynamic, then take George fishing and hiking. I was expecting a Savior. “So,” he began, “How often does the family go to Mass together?” “I take her as often as I can,” Mom said, “but George won’t go with me anymore.” She lied. We rarely went to Mass any more, sometimes even blowing off Easter and Christmas. As for me, Mass and Catholicism went out the door with my virginity. The only remnants left of my former faith were the religious paraphernalia—the prayer books, missals, rosaries, and scapulars housed in my special “holy drawer.” I also clung to my superstitions. Although I hadn’t been to Confession since high school, God forbid I do anything blasphemous, like take Communion with sins on my soul, or toss any of those prayer books in the trash to make room in my drawers for more bras and underpants. Big Grandpa glared at my father. “I asked, how often does the family go to Mass together—that includes you.” Dad took a long sip of his Seven-Up, another concession to Big Grandpa’s visit, then said, “I don’t go to Mass.” “You’re going to have to start,” Big Grandpa said. “Participation in the Holy Sacrament is an essential part of family life. He had to be kidding. Begrudgingly sitting in an uncomfortable pew listening to a priest perform his generic ritual couldn’t possibly save us. And if we had the wherewithal to prepare for Mass and leave together as a family, then Hallelujah!—we wouldn’t have needed church at all. Mom couldn’t get anywhere on time, an odd, undiagnosed meld of ADHD and OCD combined with a touch of vanity. Whenever she tried getting dressed, she’d be suddenly distracted by the TV or some bit of unfinished housework. And when she did regain focus, no matter how late we were running, she’d never skip one step of her toilette and always try on three different blouses to decide which one made her look the least fat. What’s more, for George to go to Mass, he’d have to be sober, docile, obedient. Was Big Grandpa planning to visit to our house early Sunday morning, drag my brother out of bed and throw him in the shower? Perhaps he’d even help my mother choose a figure flattering ensemble and make us all pancakes, too. He could be that TV sitcom maid-nanny-butler whose real job is live-in therapist. Fortunately—or unfortunately, hard to say—my speculations were moot because my father finally finished his long trademark pause and responded to Big Grandpa: “Get the fuck out of my house.” And that was that. Now for another understatement: things got worse. The climax of chaos—at least while I was still living with my family—occurred about 10:15 p.m. on a school night. I was lying in bed watching The Honeymooners on my old, black and white TV. Our home was deceptively peaceful. George was out. Dad had fallen asleep at the kitchen table after his common practice of drinking a Manhattan in a beer mug. Mom was in her late night “zone,” free from distraction and able to focus on washing dishes and cleaning out the refrigerator. Even the kitchen television was on the same channel as mine—in our small home my personal metaphor for harmony. The Honeymooners itself was soporific; the show first aired when I was three; the episodes familiar bedtime stories that lulled me to sleep. I was almost dozing when the doorbell rang. I wasn’t concerned. I thought maybe my mother’s best neighbor-friend, another night owl, was dropping off homemade cream puffs. I began to drift again off when I heard two male voices speaking in a low monotone and my mother (loudly, excitedly) telling them that she didn’t know where my brother was. Cops? Probably. I was so jaded—and tired—that I didn’t really care. Then I made out the words the words “search warrant.” That, plus the realization I had a joint in my purse, was a literal rude awakening. This was the only joint George had ever given me and the first to reside in my handbag. Before this joint, I had taken tokes from other people’s joints, but my boyfriend and I were too spineless to actually buy our own stash. Nonetheless, as soon as I realized there were there were detectives in the house, that joint left my fringed leather handbag to find a new home inside the elastic waistband of my bikini underwear. In retrospect, it could’ve stayed there, without incident, until the narcs left. But my paranoia was compelling me to flush that joint down the toilet, so I cracked open my bedroom door and made a quick turn into the bathroom. Unfortunately they saw me. As soon as I closed the bathroom door, before I could even open the toilet lid, a male voice said, “Who’s that?” Then my Mom: “She’s okay. She doesn’t use drugs or anything.” A millisecond later: “Open up. This is the police.” I did as I was told. Before me stood two middle-aged white guys in dark suits. My life had suddenly switched channels from The Honeymooners to Dragnet, and I was its number one suspect. The men rushed past me to the toilet and stared, disappointed, into the still water. The joint was still safely inside my panties. My worse fear was that a female detective was waiting back at the station to strip search me. I stood in the hallway, affecting a doe-eyed look of innocence. Fortunately I’d gone to bed in a long Victorian nightgown instead of my old tie-dyed T-shirt, so I looked more like Peter Pan’s Wendy than a cast member ofHair. Then one of the narcs asked my mother, “Is that her bedroom?” Again my mother protested: “I told you! She doesn’t do drugs!” and as if on cue the narc shone an ultra-powerful flashlight into my dark room. Meanwhile, I was in full paranoia mode. What if George had creatively hidden some stash in my closet? Or a roach had fallen from a hole in his pocket onto my carpet?—back then even roaches sent people to prison. Then my mother flipped on the overhead lights. Apparently she was trying to appear cooperative, although now they could clearly see my stack of Robert Crumb comics and the nude woman on my wall who was slowly turning into a pile of gourds—an image I seemed to have painted in some drug-induced state. By now Dad had woken up, lit a cigarette, and ambled toward the scene. “You really should be searching my son’s room,” he said, but even his well-meaning efforts were ignored. I prayed that George—the real suspect—would walk in the door, and the narcs would turn their attention to him. Instead, I witnessed another type of divine intervention. As one cop crawled under the bed (where there was nothing but house slippers and dust bunnies), the other opened the small right drawer of my tall dresser: my “holy drawer.” He gently handled my First Communion prayer book, my Confirmation missal, the holy cards, the rosaries, the scapulars, and several handkerchiefs edged with lace that my grandmother had hand-tatted, before closing the drawer and officially announcing to his partner, “C’mon let’s go. She’s okay.” Thank you, Jesus. Shortly thereafter, the search moved to the attic, where, with the help of a ladder which my parents kindly provided, the narcs found this thing that looked like a tumbleweed, and was just as big. My mother supplied them with a garbage bag to contain it. By now my brother had come home. “That’s just a bunch of fucking stems!” he yelled. “You can’t arrest me over a bag of stems.” But they did. And that’s pretty much all I remember. Two years later, after I was married and out of the house, George did something—whether this was when stole that girl’s purse in the Jack-in-the-Box parking lot, or a run of the mill drug bust, I don’t recall—but it landed him in Cook County prison for a month, where he slept with a sharpened toothbrush under his pillow to avoid a second rape. At the trial, he was given a choice: prison or rehab, and landed in Gateway House for a year. Rehab worked until he discovered a new love, heroin, and that rarely works for very long. There’s more I need to say about George, but not now. Because this isn’t about George, it’s about Jesus. And Jesus never saved George. Oh, maybe in those final moments, if you believe that kind of stuff—and you think a 26-year-old kid slipping into unconsciousness knows he’s overdosing and has the wherewithal to make a sincere Act of Contrition (or accept Jesus into his heart, or whatever protocol you non-Catholics have). But I’m not talking about being saved from eternal damnation in death, because a loving God wouldn’t do that. I’m talking about being saved in life. When that detective opened my dresser drawer, I was not saved by the gory, crucified Jesus, or the adorable baby Jesus. I was saved by an ironic Jesus—a God with a sense of humor, and a message: He was still rooting for me, for my life. He didn’t care how much, or how little, I loved him. He was completely happy tucked away in a drawer with my grandmother’s hankies. He’d be there if I needed Him. _______________________________________________
Book Review – Dealers of Lightning – Scott C. Holstad _______________________________________________
Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age by Michael A. Hiltzik My rating: 5 of 5 stars I’ve heard of Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) for years now and of its importance, but this book really drove home just what a critical place PARC was for the development of the personal computer. It was an excellent, excellent book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Back in the mid-60s, Xerox decided they wanted to compete with IBM and AT&T by developing their own research labs in the hopes of winning prestige and a possible Nobel or two, just like Bell Labs did. They set PARC up with a virtually unlimited budget and told the director he could hire whomever he wanted. Pake, the director, had heard of one Bob Taylor, formerly of ARPA, the precursor of the Internet, and hired him to head his computer lab. Taylor instilled a fierce commitment in his employees, but had a very adversarial management style and made a lot of enemies around the company. Another key hire was Alan Kay, a programmer with a dream of creating laptops and one day tablets (30 years before they ever came out) which would be so easy to program, kids could do it. Soon PARC had the best and the brightest from Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, UC Berkeley, Utah, etc. They came from all over, from the best computer science programs. And there were no deadlines and nothing to produce – it was like a giant think tank where you could just follow your dreams to see where they’d lead with unlimited funding. For the most part. By the late 60s, one of the programmers had produced a mouse, ancient by our current standards, but radical by theirs. Also, they were producing GUI operating systems for point and click possibilities. By the mid to late 70s, the inventers had invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, overlapping windows, a text editor (word processor), a programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. And that’s the crux of the situation. Xerox didn’t know what it had. Xerox did nothing with PARC. PARC embarrassed Xerox. The wizards at corporate were so far behind the times that change of that enormity just unnerved them too much to act, so they didn’t. In fact, they got rid of the R&D people who had created PARC, brought in new managers to run PARC, got rid of Bob Taylor (who had gotten too big for his britches), prompting a ton of resignations from his team members, and lost a lot of people who went on to form companies like 3Com, Adobe, SGI, and others. Xerox could have OWNED computing and they blew it! They literally could have been Microsoft, IBM, and Apple rolled into one and they blew it. The author tries to shield them from this criticism. He tries to say that as a copier company, they weren’t equipped to sell computers. Well, why invest in researching them, then? He tried to say you’d have to retrain 100,000 salesmen. Well, do it. Piss poor excuses, in my opinion. Xerox has no excuse for blowing things the way they did. One last thing. I really enjoyed the chapter on the visit by Steve Jobs. Of course, it’s a famous story about how Jobs visited PARC, saw what they had, ripped them off, put everything in the Mac, and made a killing. Part of which is true. However, with his first visit, he was given just a main demo given anyone who would visit. Apparently he wasn’t impressed and he had the ear of the Xerox CEO, who was investing in Apple, so PARC got a call telling them to show Apple everything. Jobs and his crew went back again and this time got more, but not everything. Somehow Jobs knew this, and before Jobs was out of the building, the Xerox CEO was on the phone to PARC telling them to show them everything. This elicited a great deal of stress and agony in some Xerox employees, who thought they were giving away the store. (They were.) So Jobs went back and apparently went nuts when he saw the GUI interface, and his engineers also appreciated the mouse and networking, etc, et al. And so the Mac was born. This book isn’t perfect. There are a ton of people to keep up with. It gets hard. Sometimes the book gets a little boring. But all in all, if you’re into computers and into the development of the personal computer, the story of how the first one was built before Steve Wozniak came along and claimed to do it is pretty awesome and the story of Xerox PARC is pretty awe inspiring. Definitely recommended.