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Live Band Tonight My First Handgun Ladies Man Somewhere Russian Interlude (Yellows included here) Man and Machine Smuggling Days After The Storm Ladies Man Redux Lit on the Side Men At Work Detective Story Family Land of Opportunity Your Dead Mama Fred and Anna The Rebellion of Sisyphus Writers Block Papa’s Girl
LIVE BAND TONIGHT
We went on break after a forty minute set, our third night at The Sugar Shack at the Holiday Inn of the Crossroads. The crowd was okay, businessmen in cool-guy shirts and long sideburns, divorcees in mini-skirts, truckers with their rigs out in the parking lot, the locals who came for two-for-one on call brands and the free buffet. They liked the Oldies we played, “Twist And Shout”,” Jailhouse Rock,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Devil With A Blue Dress On”, anything with a beat they could dance to without being embarrassed. Fine with us, we were a hippie rhythm-and-blues band, shamelessly crazy for the Beatles and the Stones, not really interested in disco or techno or even psychedelic crap lingering from the Sixties. Pip and Levon were guitar maniacs, I sang and played electric piano, and Marty, who‟d got us this good-paying gig, filled in on drums while Mojo awaited trial in the county jail on a framed-up Possession With Intent charge. Some of our crowd came but not as many as during the week, Friday night at a Holiday Inn being the equivalent of visiting your grandmother at the nursing home, so many out-of-touch old farts sitting around. Katy came, though I had dumped her over a week ago, and sat with Pip‟s mother at a table down front drinking White Russians. She came outside into the parking lot armin-arm with Marty to where Pip, Levon and I were passing around a quart of tequila. “Why are you guys drinking out here?” Marty asked, looking fine in a cashmere overcoat, his mustache trimmed, his long black hair so styled it looked like he went to the salon everyday. “That asshole Sugar charges us full pop on drinks,” Levon said. “The way you guys drink, I don‟t blame him.” “Listen to you,” Pip said. “You probably get a cut of the profits.” “Hey. Ronnie. Sugar wants you to sing a song for him,” Marty said to me. I tilted the tequila bottle up and chugged. “Fuck Sugar.” “Come on, now. Sugar‟s paying us good. We get house band here, we‟re making two grand a week. Pay a lot of bills with that money.”
Marty had somehow become our manager. I don‟t remember when, though there‟s a chance he took over after loaning us five hundred bucks to cover our rent. It was true, this job paid about three times what we were used to, and we owed everybody we knew money. So Pip and Levon and I just went along with what he said, figuring Mojo would straighten things out when he got out of jail. If he got out of jail. “Anybody holding?” Pip asked. “I need the weed.” “I‟ve got two fat ones rolled and ready,” Katy said, the perfect groupie, a loyal fan who loved us every way she could, and always had dope when everyone in town was dry. She‟d been in my bed for the last six months but I‟d gone crazy last week, done a lot of psych-damage, made her move out of the house the band shared, take her shit and go. We played eye-tag while Marty squeezed her behind. I had the idea she wanted me to stop him, some chick thing like that. „Let‟s go in my car,” Marty said. “Levon drives.” Which was cool; Levon still had a valid license. We piled into Marty‟s big Oldsmobile, him and Katy in the back with Pip, and the joints were lit before Levon had us on the highway. I figured we had twenty minutes before Sugar‟d come looking for us. No way Marty wanted us standing around blowing dope in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, with all the straight arrows going in and out. His hand was way up Katy‟s leg as he puffed away and passed the joint. “He wants you to sing „Sugar Sugar‟,” Marty said, his voice choky from the smoke. Pip and Levon laughed. “That greaseball.” “Fucking bubblegum music.” “No way I‟m singing „Sugar Sugar.‟ Forget about it.” “He‟s the man, Ronnie. You do requests all the time.” “No I don‟t. I sing rock‟n‟roll. I sing the blues. Not „Sugar Sugar‟.” Levon held a joint in his lips that popped as a seed exploded and sent embers down his shirtfront. He was so focused on driving the new car, both hands on the wheel, he just sat there and I had to pat out the burn spots for him. “Am I on fire?” he asked. “I got it,” I told him. “Damn, Katy. What is this stuff?” The car was filled with thick smoke that smelled peppery and dangerous.
“Great big gold buds,” she said. “I can get you guys bags.” She sat in the middle, leaning against Marty, one of her boot heels pressing into Pip‟s thigh as she put a leg under her, and used her hand to unbutton Marty‟s coat. I drank some teq and passed the bottle back to her. The dope was so good I felt The Voice come into me, take over the controls. It sang from my mouth, Rod Stewart there in the car, the rude part of the Faces song, kicking the girl out in the morning, not aiming to start anything but not caring if I did. Pip and Levon joined in, we sang the chorus to “Stay With Me,” laughing, the guitar maniacs knowing The Voice was in me now, demonic rock possession, strange events to follow. Katy could see it. She knew something had changed, even as she and Marty got more comfortable. Marty didn‟t sing. He didn‟t really get it, didn‟t get a lot of things, you could tell from the way he played drums, so careful not to make mistakes. He played with the enthusiasm of a BeatMachine, doing what he was programmed to do and no more. He had money and looks, worked the crowd well. Couldn‟t help it if he wasn‟t a hippie. He thought Sugar was an all right dude. “So what do I tell him?” Marty asked. “Tell him I‟ll sing „Mister Postman‟.” And The Voice started singing the chorus to “Please Mister Postman.” The Voice was mean, a gravelly soprano that sounded like it came from a spittoon, but when applied to rock‟n‟roll songs conveyed the feeling of white boys gone bad. It encouraged the restlessness that made people go to bars and drink while the band played, until they could hear it too, something out of control, emanating from a guy just like them. Marty did not hear The Voice, or acknowledge its presence, like a wavelength beyond his spectrum, a sound heard only by dogs and crazy people. “Tell me that‟s not bubblegum,” he said. Levon looked at him in the rearview mirror. “That‟s John Fucking Lennon, man.” Guitar boys take their Beatles very seriously. “Yeah, we know Lennon didn‟t write it or do the original. But Lennon applied The Voice to it. Can‟t you hear it?” Pip said. “So apply The Voice to „Sugar Sugar‟,” Marty argued. “Can‟t be done,” Levon said.
“You‟re like a long-haired guy who misses his BryllCreem,” Pip said. “I‟ll bet you didn‟t like John Kennedy either,” Levon said. “What‟s John Kennedy got to do with rock‟n‟roll?” Marty asked. “John Kennedy invented dry hair, Marty. If not for John Kennedy, we‟d all be wearing BryllCreem and look like Elvis,” Pip said. “That‟s bullshit.” “Oh yeah?” I said. “Then why‟d they kill him?” “Who?” “You ever see a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald, man?” Levon was hot. His eyes stayed off the road for nearly three seconds before he returned to his robot stare down the highway. “Oswald was the BryllCreem hitman.” “Katy,” I said, “shotgun your date before he says anything else to piss off the driver. We could get killed, you get Levon going on the BryllCreem Conspiracy.” She winked at me, then put the burning end of the joint in her mouth and pressed her mouth on to Marty‟s. As she blew smoke out the other end you could see Marty fill up with more smoke than he thought possible, and when she pulled away and he exhaled the front of the car disappeared in its cloud. The bar we last played came up suddenly on the right. The Lost Horizon was a mile or so down from the Holiday Inn but seemed farther because the lights of the city began at the Crossroads and ended way before you got out here in the woods. The bar was full of bikers and hippies. We saw a circle of freaks outside smoking weed right there in the front, but Marty bitched when I wanted to stop, said we had to get back. “The joint is jumping tonight,” Levon said. “Wart and Pigface are here. See the bikes? I heard Sugar wouldn‟t let them into the Holiday Inn,” Pip said. “There‟s a dress code,” Marty said. “There‟s a sign, that‟s all.” “Man, I‟m turning the wheel but it doesn‟t feel like the car‟s moving,” Levon said. “You stopped at the stop sign,” I told him. “Just give it a little gas and head back the way we came. Okay?” “Sure. Just keep talking, okay. I‟m really zonked.” “Just go slow. You want me to drive?”
“Nah. I want to get back and play guitar.” Katy was bumping the tequila bottle against my arm as Marty leaned into her with a power kiss. I took it and drank, turning away from the backseat. We were so loaded no one said anything for a while. Then the sound of heavy breathing as Marty and Katy made out started to be oppressive. The Voice couldn‟t take it. Out came more “Mister Postman,” the right way, so you could feel the desperation of waiting for that fucking letter. Levon and Pip joined in, tapping on the wheel, the seat back, harmonizing, telling the man to deliver de letter, de sooner de better, feeling the weirdness grow as zippers unzipped, buttons unbuttoned, flesh sprang free. The car interior shrank, getting small as a mailbox we were crammed into with a couple sex maniacs. Levon had the wipers on to clear the mist, their mechanical motion in our faces adding to the claustrophobia. We sang until Levon pulled the Olds into the lot and parked in a handicapped spot. By then Katy‟s face was down in Mary‟s lap, and he was stretched out glassy-eyed as her head bobbed up and down. The rest of us jumped out of the car like we had been marooned in it for days. It started to rain, a misty sprinkle that didn‟t make me feel wet so much as pissed on from on high. “I‟m heading for the buffet,” Levon said. “You okay?” Pip asked me. The lights of the signs seemed much brighter than they‟d been before. Sugar Shack was in pink neon against a black background, and seemed as gross as the man himself. “Ronnie?” Pip said again. “You okay, man?” “Sure, sure,” I told him. “Go on in. I just want to get some air. Check in with The Voice.” He smiled. “Katy sure gets some killer dope.” He headed inside and I stood there. I looked at the Olds but could see no one, just fogged up windows and wet chrome. It really was a nice ride, a dark blue four-door. Katy could dish it out as well as take it, that much was clear. I knew I probably should yank open the door and start kicking some ass, but what was the point? Hey. Take your Johnson out of my woman. Sure. While I was trying to think of something, I became aware of what The Voice wanted me to do. It was so obvious it made me laugh. I started
walking in the rain, heading for the Lost Horizon, to get away from the neon, the marquee with our name under the drink specials. I knew the shit would hit the fan, Sugar would kick the guys out, some crap like that. But The Voice told me it was okay, everything would be all right. If there was a place in the world a man could sing the blues, it was in that gin mill down the road. Funny though. As I walked, I found myself singing the hook to “Sugar Sugar” over and over. I couldn‟t get the damn thing out of my head.
My First Handgun
Charlie‟s my mom‟s brother, younger than her by a couple years, but close enough you could see the resemblance when they were together. The profiles were the same, the long necks and big ears, and they both talked with almost-Canadian Wisconsin accents, said crik for creek, stuff like that. He‟d lived with us as long as I could remember, except when he went away to college. I was a teenager before I figured out the college he went away to was the county stockade. If it rehabilitated him, I never saw it. My dad called him a drunken bum, strong words from a man who‟d been eating tranquilizers like M&Ms since the Gulf War. I can‟t recall a holiday or family function where Charlie didn‟t show up late and full of booze, talking loud and wearing a denture-shifting grin, carrying a bag full of liquor bottles like presents for everyone. One time he showed up for Thanksgiving with fortyeight fried Chinese eggrolls, just as we were sitting down to eat turkey and dressing. My dad laughed, but we could see Mom was steaming. We ate eggrolls for days. Charlie brought the waitress from the bar with him, a big-chested blonde with yellow teeth and a voice like a man‟s, who sat on the sofa and smoked an endless chain of cigarettes. And one Christmas a bookie came and took Charlie‟s car right out of the driveway while he stood in the dining room explaining the right way to make Hot Toddies. When I told him what was happening, he just shook his head, said he‟d deal with it tomorrow. We never saw that car again. I‟ve seen him drink a six-pack of Budweiser for breakfast, and look better for doing it. He looked like hell before he started drinking. “I hate to eat on an empty stomach,” he told me. He‟d spend his infrequent paychecks paying off bar tabs and helping raise bail money for people he hardly knew, though we were always short on cash. The electric bill would be past due and Dad‟s government check would be delayed and my mom would wait for Charlie to get home, knowing he got paid that day. And some time after midnight he‟d come tiptoeing in, broker than when he‟d left in the morning, hardly able to stand he
was so drunk. This happened more than once, I‟m saying. Charlie once won fifteen hundred dollars on a trifecta at the dogtrack and all he brought home was the story and a couple bottles of Polish vodka. But he‟d help, if you caught him early enough. When I had my first date, in the eighth grade, still too young to drive, Charlie saved me from being driven to pick up the girl by my mom. Somehow he conned a friend into letting him use his Thunderbird convertible, a beautiful classic ‟59 four seater, black with red leather seats. He was our chauffeur that night, to the school dance and back, and seemed pretty sober the whole time. The girl, Sarah Kuzmarski, smiled like a movie star the whole ride. I have never felt so proud as when we pulled up to the front of the gym in that shiny T-Bird and Uncle Charlie held the passenger door open for us to get out. My friends were falling down in disbelief. As I shook his hand, he slipped me a twenty, told me to have a great time. And when I got busted at school later that year giving out Dad‟s pills to the guys in detention with me, it was Charlie who showed up in a suit and tie and backed down the principal who wanted to prosecute me. They went round and round and I knew my ass was grass, knew my mom would be the lawnmower. Charlie must have known something about Mr. Sweeney‟s nightlife, because he got me off with a two-week suspension and policing the grounds for the rest of the year. He was better than any TV lawyer I‟d ever seen. I remember the grin when he turned and winked to me, like, how am I doing, kid? This sounds like I‟m Charlie‟s number one fan but that‟s not really true. You don‟t know how many times I‟ve had to walk home because he forgot to pick me up, or nights I‟ve had to clean up his puke at the bottom of the stairs. I‟m sure him living with us had something to do with my dad doing the daily zombie, getting stoned on pills to handle the constant shitstorm. And poor Mom. Between running the house and taking care of all of us and working part-time at K-Mart, she just wore out. She was stuck with us, and there weren‟t many alternatives. She never complained, but she never had much to celebrate either. Then Charlie got the bad news. Doctor Martinez lowered the boom on him. The pain in his shoulder wasn‟t arthritis or lumbago, it was a tumor big as a tennis ball, putting pressure on his vital organs,
pumping cancer cells through his liver to every part of his body. Charlie hated doctors. They always told him to quit smoking, quit drinking, quit everything he loved doing, and he didn‟t want to hear it. Mom had to force him to get checked out. When the tests came back and the x-rays, he went straight into the hospital. He came out a month later cut up everywhere. He was dying, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He‟d waited too long to get examined, like he knew what he would find out. The thing he drank so much to avoid arrived while he was sleeping it off. The artful dodger ran out of options. Chemotherapy would just make him sicker, and radiation would burn up his throat and esophagus so he couldn‟t eat or drink or even breathe after a while. The best they could do was give him stuff for the pain, a prescription for Brampton‟s Cocktail, some kind of morphine-cocaine mixture that I hoped to inherit when he passed on. I felt sorry for him but I never could figure out what it was he‟d be missing out on. He didn‟t do anything worthwhile, didn‟t really like anybody, or have a true love or children or even a pet to leave behind. But he was sure pissed about it, like he‟d drawn the short straw, and was sure the game was rigged. He blamed us all for cheating him. The hospital did not want to admit him, and then the hospice worker didn‟t want to come anymore, because of his meanness and foul language. Charlie went downhill so fast it seemed like he‟d evaporated. Every time I saw him, there was less and less to see. We gathered one night out in the hall by his door, as he shrieked in pain and cursed us all, and I begged my old man, wasn‟t there something we could do? The longer he went , the worse it was going to get. My dad looked at me with those faraway eyes and shook his head. My mother fled down the hallway, and he followed her, then turned back to me from in front of their bedroom door. I went and sat there in the chair, and Charlie turned from the wall. His face showed a tortured man, a Holocaust victim at the Death Camps when the GIs arrived, even looked black and white like the History Channel films. His crazy eyes bulged out of an emaciated mask, his nearly white hair stuck out in patches the way you imagine when someone gets hit by lightning. It took a moment for him to recognize me.
“Kid, you got to help me out. I can‟t stand this. The pain…” and as he said the word, the lightning hit him again, squeezed the air right out of him, locked his body stiff until the spasm passed. I seriously thought of taking the pillow and pressing it down on his face and holding it there, just keep pressing and holding the pillow on his face until he stopped moving, stopped breathing. But what if Mom came to the door while I was doing it? What if I took the pillow off and he jumped up gasping for air? And as I thought this I looked behind me and there stood my old man in the doorway. “Go on out of here,” he told me. “I‟ll sit and talk with Charlie a while.” I went outside and slept on the chaise lounge so I wouldn‟t have to listen. I tried to think of all the things a man might do when he knew he only had weeks left to live. What he wanted was to get drunk, but his liver was too far-gone, he couldn‟t keep it down. Charlie wanted to die, get it over with, like in the next life his bar tab would be renewed. What could anyone say? There‟s something worth hanging on for? My mom and dad gave up on figuring out what that might be a long time ago. I couldn‟t say it, and I‟m not even old or sick. The next day, no one mentioned anything, but I could feel a decision had been made. I stayed outside, finally pulling all the weeds around the fence like I‟d promised, so Mom could make her garden. I was drinking a beer I found in the back of the fridge. My dad came outside carrying a nylon bag. From inside he took out his encased .38 Special and a box of bullets. He‟d made a promise he‟d give me the gun one day but I knew this wasn‟t a gift. We weren‟t celebrating my birthday or Christmas or anything. He handed me the leather pouch with the pistol in it and the heavy little cardboard box of rounds and stood there looking in my face to see if I understood. “It‟s okay, Dad,” I told him. The wrinkles around his eyes softened. “Thanks for the gun.” “You‟ve grown up a lot this past year,” he said, his voice threatening to pour out some speech he‟d rehearsed for the occasion. I cut him short. “I‟ll need to borrow the car keys. Uncle Charlie asked me to take him for a ride out in the country.”
He nodded his head. “Do you want me to go with you?” “I think it‟s better if you stayed here. I can handle Charlie.” My father straightened up and looked around. There was no else outside, no one showing in the windows. The day was chilly, and above us a low gray sky seemed streaked with charcoal. Smoke from fires out in the woods left an ashy smell on everything and refused to blow away. He ran his hand down into his pants pocket and brought out his keys on their brass ring. “You call me if there‟s any trouble,” he said. I knew what he meant. He put his big hand on my shoulder. My father had two Purple Heart medals and a Silver Star we kept on display in the living room. The story of the price he had to pay to get those medals had many variations, but they all came back to the scars on his ribs and thighs and the wide open drugged-out eyes he carried around in his head everyday. I‟d turned seventeen in November and had been hearing about the wonderful benefits of enlisting right out of high school for months now, from the poster boy for service in our nation‟s armed forces. The peacetime Army is different, he said, and I didn‟t even bother pointing out that we were at war in the same place he earned his medals twenty years ago, and may be there forever. He‟d recruited me now, given me my first handgun and an assignment neither of us wanted to put into words. There was something military in what we were doing, but I didn‟t know the ritual, the procedure to follow. I had the impression he wanted to shake my hand but my hands were full holding the gun, bullets and key ring. He knew what he was giving up. It scared him some, I could tell. It scared me too. He touched my head, mussed my hair. “We‟ll be all right,” I said to him. “I‟ll go fetch Charlie,” Dad said. When he turned to the house, he marched to drums so far away you had to be full of downers to hear them. But I could feel the rhythm in those heavy steps, in the bullets, gun, the keys given to me. Somehow I‟d moved up the chain of command, been promoted to a higher rank in the Zombie Army. I went to get the car, to let it run a while, so the heater‟d be going and Uncle Charlie wouldn‟t get cold. I figured he might as well be comfortable.
Adrift. Thrown overboard by mutineers. The sun warms seaweed that caresses me, holds me aloft, the Sargasso Sea. Three masts of my former ship disappear toward the horizon. Jolly Roger snapping in the wind. Now waterbed rocking, waking the man overboard, open my eyes to see Melinda pulling down her skin-tight faded jeans and smiling, thin naked legs and fanny white as a bathtub. Close my eyes it‟s 1696, the Spanish Main. Open to Tampa, 1973. Both real to me. Or I am in both realities. She joins me under the covers, no frame for the mattress so the water bounces us up and down. A kiss for me, but my lips press shut, holding in the funk, barnacles on my tongue and the smell of sunken ships. Little bruise under her left eye healing nicely, hardly see it anymore. The wife of a friend of a friend, ten years my senior, been a housewife forever. Now seeking adventure. Julian brought them round, with another older couple, looking for the action. Punched her husband in the nose. The local gentility giving way to brute force. Too much alcohol and pot and who gave these straight arrows the acid anyway. Mystery to all. Dislike violence, but you don‟t hit women where I come from. Make you walk the plank. Little early for adultery but there is something nice about this smooth skin, the freckles on her shoulders, the naughtiness in her deep laugh as her face slides down my belly. Pretty sure I took a shower. Unexpected pleasantness. A reward for her rescue. Shiver me timber, yikes, watch the teeth there, lady. Damn Cosmo magazine and its Ten Tips On Pleasing a Man, four of which are painful and horrid. Poor Julian running screaming from his room, when Beth shoved a carrot in at The Peak Moment, surprise, surprise. Remember not to eat at her house again. Especially the salad. Julian not pleased at all. Perhaps a little olive oil. At least whisper a warning. Give him a chance. Women love him for his open mind. And prodigious member. A looseness of morals but there when you need a friend. Melinda‟s age, thirty-five. Sense a certain pride in her efforts down there. Just when I discovered the Unified Field Theory. All time and space concurrent. Past or future, all the same, consciousness the portal. Wake up a Chinaman, no different. Go out to the rice paddy and start to work. Eventually forget other lives, TV and rock‟n‟roll like a sci-fi hallucination. Reality
determined solely by circumstance. Mind adjusts to anything. Reincarnation. Death a transition. Turn in a broken body for a replacement. Get a certain amount of value. Like used cars. Upgrade wherever possible. Husband followed her, we‟re both dead. Insanely jealous. Thinks she cheats as much as he does. My gun in the drawer. Only use it as last resort. Hardly justifiable homicide. Shoot the man while his wife does the wild thing beneath my covers. No jury in the world. Unforgiving. Eeeyoowww. Now helpless in the aftermath. “Good morning,” she says, wiping her mouth daintily on a corner of my good bed sheet. She looks ready to purr. Delight in the scandal. Surprise hubby with a salty kiss. “It sure is.” Beneath my eyelids the sea calls my name. In my mouth, a dolphin‟s tongue. Must get up, lavo mi dientes. She stretches out, watching. Lovely blue, the eyes. Her pale skin reddened by her shameful behavior. Aesthetics of a painting, red and pink and white, brown nipples offering succulence, a prototype woman, earth mother, ALP. Hold her, smell her, taste her, give the love of a sea-faring man. Townspeople up in arms. Peace and love for everybody. Except each other. One of my best customers. Another of roommate Julian‟s projects. Reefer madness for the working professionals. When you‟re holding, everybody loves you. Loves me. The Gashouse Gang, they call us. Our new friends. Can you do me a favor? Get me a couple lids. And when the heat comes down they line up to testify. He wanted me to try the hard stuff, Your Honor. Pounding the gavel to silence the courtroom. Except Melinda. She cries as they lead me away in shackles. Roll around in the wave-making bed, in love this morning, and girlfriend gone barely two hours. Satisfy the downtrodden of the Palma Ceia society page. The streak of gray in her wavy brown hair now precious to me. Cut some, keep it in a locket. Wear it on a golden chain. Kiss it for luck on dark and dreary nights. While unloading. Ahoy. Before she leaves, I sell her four bags of pot. Girls-night-out or something. To keep up the illusion that I have to go buy it for her, I drive away for twenty minutes, come back with the dope that‟s been in my car the whole time. I hand her the McDonald‟s bag. She puts on her dark glasses, kisses my cheek, gets in her Jaguar and drives away. Spend the morning high, listening to music, watering the plants, thinking of things needing doing, forgetting them as I walk around, each room offering something new to
distract me. Julian‟s in LA. Paolo, the mad Paolo himself, not home until the record store closes. Home alone. Used to getting it at night. Now completely disoriented. Think of going back to sleep. Return to the Spanish Main. See Part Two. Our hero recovers. Nursed back to health by natives. Bare breasts and skirts of grass. Bone in the nose a turn-off. Get used to anything after a while. Until the sails appear. Something I‟m supposed to remember, something important. Cannot think of it at all until the black Volvo pulls up in the yard and the horn sounds twice. Hannah! I have a lunch date with my girlfriend‟s boss. Her idea. Get to know one another. And she actually showed up. Thought she was kidding. Walk to the car, try to see into the blackened windows. My reflection slides down into the door and Hannah Sandler is there, dressed to the nines. Older than Melinda, fine looking forty-something. Here‟s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Owns the store Cat works in. And two others. Auburn hair, real jewelry. “Am I early?” she asks. “Just let me get dressed.” “I can come back.” “No. Come on in. Have a smoke.” She looks around paranoid, like the neighbors will report her. She comes to cop dope and thinks the whole thing is on camera. Watch it on the Evening News. But comes back time after time. Probably throws the dope away. Just likes the fear. All the straights in Tampa, looking to do something bad with their lives. Tell their most intimate friends. Whisper secret words. Smoke dope. Do lines in the bathroom of the country club. Out of the car, she is something to see, tall and elegant in her black and red dress and black stockings and high heels. Would look good holding a whip, smoking a panatela. Tough businesswoman, face made up by professionals. Her pert nose, used to the higher atmosphere. Smiling, she is up to something. I lead her inside, a real hippie house, though all the hippies have jobs, Sam‟s a food broker, Paolo manages a record store. I sell dope and go to college. In college now five years. Still a sophomore. The academy better than real life. And good for my business. So far I have saved thirty-two thousand dollars. In a safety deposit box. One hundred twenty dollars in Checking.
Inside I light a joint and hand it to her. She walks around the room, puffing a little oddly, trying to keep the seeds from popping on her outfit. She likes the plants, Paolo‟s pyramid collection. Julian‟s stereo. Procul Harum. God‟s aloft, the winds are raging. So are my eyes. I bathe in eye drops. Shave for the hell of it. Splash on Paolo‟s cologne. By the time I pull on a clean shirt and brush my hair she is standing there zonked. Stares in the glass bowl at the waterfall recycling its water through Paolo‟s Japanese garden like it‟s the enchanted forest. I make her give me the car keys.
At the Proud Lion, I order a carafe of red wine to go with our chicken salads, giant piles of breast meat and cheeses in a bowl of lettuce and some other greens with purple highlights. Red little tomatoes like marbles. Fresh baked bread with honey butter spread. We drink and eat with gusto, we have the munchies so bad. Hannah laughs, having a good time. I ask her not to smoke and she doesn‟t fight about it. She is explaining to me all the reasons Cat would make a good wife, and I‟m agreeing and checking out the room and who else is in there when it dawns on me what she is saying. “Wait a minute,” I say. “Who‟s she going to marry?” “You, Flynn. She wants to marry you.” “That‟s crazy.” “She talks about it all the time.” “Not to me.” “I‟m telling you as a friend.” Her crooked smile says what kind of friend. “Do you think I‟m the marrying kind?” I ask her. Again her crooked smile. One side of her mouth not buying it. The lunch starts to take on a new meaning. I rub her hand, her arm. Reach up and push the hair back behind her ear. Stroke her cheek. “Stop it. I‟m not sleeping with you,” Hannah says. Her eyes flash green lights. Up until now I had no idea. Try to remember if Julian changed his bed linen before he left. I cannot believe my luck. Catherine‟s hot-looking boss. A pirate‟s life for me. No idea where this is coming from but don‟t really care. Hope she won‟t talk about her family. Some sordid story. Husband in a wheelchair. Paralyzed from the waist down.
Sends me out looking for men. Then makes me tell the whole thing. Naked. All the details. And squirt him with the garden hose. Christ, the wine making us both sloppy. Need to get this over with before she keels over. A romantic interlude. If she tells Cat I‟ll kill her. Push her husband into the pool. Without the dress, the push-up bra, even the stockings and garters can‟t save her. Her body a mess, soft and flabby. Surprisingly hairy. Hide my disappointment best I can. Fetch the tequila from the fridge. Doctor my eyes. Kisses like a sailor. All I can do to perform, under the circumstances. Likes it rough. Throw her down, watch out, nearly rolls off the bed. Awkward arms. Touch her there, calm her down. She‟s a grabber. Feels threatening. Watch out for carrots, candlesticks. Dare to close my eyes, think of happier times. Ah, Catherine. She‟s not your friend. Exercise of the will at this point. Going through the motions, hoping she‟ll say stop. We can‟t do this. Woman has no morals, apparently. Go all the way on our first date. I‟m on automatic. Just doing my duty. Then she pushes me off her. Sits up, waves her arm. Wants something. Can‟t speak. How many syllables? Oh no. Look out. Lava shoots out her mouth. She pukes all over Julian‟s clean bed. Blllleeeeehhhhhhh. I‟m horrified. “What the fuck are you doing?” I scream at her. She retches again. I jump back. She holds her hand to mouth, runs to the bathroom. I see our chicken salad on the comforter, the sheets. Julian will freak. I have no idea how to clean this up. I hear her ralphing more, a choking noise. The smell godawful. Why did she eat so much? At the bathroom door I cannot believe my eyes. She is barfing into the sink. Sitting on the toilet, filling the sink with vomit. I go to shove her head down into it. She slaps at me. Wearing one stocking, a garter belt, looking more naked somehow. “Stop it, you crazy bitch. You throw up in the toilet. Not the fucking sink.” She‟s using Paolo‟s monogrammed bathrobe as a towel. There are ugly streaks all over it. I think if I shoot her and give Paolo her severed head, he may calm down after a few hours. Better just to burn the house down. Head west, under cover of darkness. I slam the door so I will not choke her right there, wrap the shower curtain round her neck. Where do these awful people come from? Get high, have a nice lunch, a little wine, get laid, go home, sleep like an angel. Not blow chunks on my roommate‟s Burdines
comforter. And never touch Paolo‟s bathrobe. A businesswoman, no less. A role model. Lust for the younger man drove her to madness. Gone mental. You will never, ever get another bag of pot from me, as long as you live.
Leave her to her own devices, go out to the utility closet and start the washer. Scrape the comforter with a spatula. Squirt it with the pressure hose. Same with the sheets. The comforter fills the washer, there is hardly room for soap. What about the robe? Buy a new one. Bury her in the old. Feel calmer, farther away. Can‟t believe I brought her home in the first place. What‟s the matter with me? Sex maniac, obviously. Screw my girlfriend‟s boss. After some quality time with Melinda. Need to draw the line somewhere. Start an interview process. Complete health examination. Only the top candidates accepted. A thorough psychiatric testing. Must be able to hold one‟s liquor. And remember: cleanliness is next to godliness. Make her clean this. The silence in the house seems terribly loud suddenly. I can hear it way out here. No noise at all. Visions of her bleeding to death on the bathroom floor, wrists slashed open with Paolo‟s straight razor. Or worse. On the Persian rug. Run. Run.
She is dressed and putting on her earrings. She looks at me and snarls. “You‟re a rotten bastard,” she says. “Did you clean the sink?” “Fuck you.” Pushes roughly past me, stuffs her black stockings into her leather purse, heads to the door. Her makeup is askew. Makes her eyes slanted. “I suppose you want the car keys,” I say as she exits. She puts her head back in. “If you tell anyone, anyone at all, about this,” she says, as cruelly as possible, “My husband, Judge Harry Sandler, will put you under a jail. Do you understand?” She snatches the keys from my hand. I am still frozen when I hear her start the car, drive quickly away. Judge Harry Sandler. I have been getting a judge‟s wife high for three months. Just had her naked in my house. She could be calling the cops, right now. Rape is a very loud word. Only louder, when said by a judge. Never mind the victim. Now I want to puke. A lovely day, down in flames. Better off adrift in the Sargasso. Pulled down beneath the waves, tentacles of seaweed. Davey Jones locker.
Dark now. Catherine comes in, sees me stretched out on the sofa. At twenty-one, her long blonde hair and sun-burned face call to mind Norway, princesses with swords and axes. Long and lean, looks so much better now she‟s stopped shooting up. She kisses me, pushes her butt onto the edge of the sofa at my side. She takes the joint I rolled for her from the ashtray, lights up. This is her after-work routine. Once she gets a buzz, she talks to me. Won‟t listen, just talks. Tells me about her day. The customers who tried on everything and didn‟t buy, the tennis star she met, the one lady who bought everything she saw, the guy who locked his keys in his Mercedes out front. How Hannah left early. “Oh, and something else,” she says, looking to make sure I‟m listening. I take the lit joint, now a stubbie. “I‟m pregnant,” she says. I choke on the hit, sit up red-faced. She pounds my back. “Are you all right?” Wave my hand, gasping for air. Eyes watering. “Flynn, are you okay?” Nod. Croak out the words. “Yeah. Water.” She jumps up and goes to the kitchen. I see stars, but have caught my breath, got it under control. Jump to an alternate reality, eyes wide open. Women the driving force. Circumstances beyond my control. Is this what Hannah spoke of? Woman secrets. She returns with a tall glass of ice and water, sits with me as I drink it down. “So what do you think?” she asks. “What?” “About having a baby?” “It‟s up to you, I guess.” And suddenly her eyes fill with tears. I‟ve said the wrong thing. When I reach for her she gets up and runs to the bedroom. Hope I‟ve cleaned up enough, what with the day‟s social activities. Don‟t need any misplaced panties turning up in the midst of our first family crisis. Have to be gentle. A little love. Keep the room dark, hide the redness. Something new to deal with. Must ask some day what happened to the birth control. Probably for the better. Hope she‟s the only one. Spreading the seed near and far lately.
End up with a tribe of pregnant women. Tell the folks. Good news: you‟re going to be grandparents. Bad news: Catherine will be living with you while I complete my project in Antarctica. Get married by telegram. Do you? Stop. I do. Stop. New life. Raise him to be a smuggler. Pass on the eyepatch, the cutlass, the map to hidden treasure. Teach the lad about the wayward wenches and damsels in distress. And never make your mommy cry. Call to her. Sound sincere. “Catherine, I‟m sorry, baby.” And now wonder: how many times will I be saying that? End up like Hannah‟s husband. Or Melinda. Driving the kid to soccer while Mommy takes herself a young man. Great circle of life. Give up on sex. Find religion. Believe in something. Get on my knees, whisper to the empty room. Can we stop now? Later, when she‟s showered and changed and ready, take her out. Some place dark and quiet and expensive. Hold her hand across the table. Let the candlelight flicker on her downy hair, wait until I see that look. Heart melts like butter. Love, or something like it. Scare her a bit. I have something serious to say. Then ask her if she ever thinks about getting married. Moving some place far away. Starting over, a new life. See if she goes for it.
Somewhere I met a woman I‟d been in love with long ago, coming out of the library. Not recognizing her at first, I was about to give out a reluctant „excuse me‟, the type that means „you‟re in my way‟, when she smiled her big toothy smile and put her hand on my chest. “Move it, mister,” she said, reading my mind. “Susan. My God.” She leaned forward and hugged me, acting on emotion while I skipped a cycle thinking first. Her hair had a scent I‟ve woken up to several times, though I‟ve slept alone for years. I caught myself with my arms around her, a natural thing turned strange as I realized we were blocking the entrance and that she had left me to marry someone else. She spun us around like a dancer leading a novice partner. I found myself peering out the door into the afternoon sunshine, and the silhouette of the man trying to enter. “Susan. You look terrific.” And she did, in many ways. We were both older, after all. I certainly showed it more. I could see myself through her eyes for an instant, a quick camera shot, and was embarrassed by what I saw. “Jeffrey Baines. I was talking about you the other day. Now here you are.” “Were you looking for me?” “I hired Pinkertons, if you must know.” “It worked. Here I am.” She took my hand and led me outside . I followed, delighted. Under a scraggly looking shade tree we sat on a bench of spray painted graffiti. I did not let go of her hand, though I wanted to. Susan could override the rational suggestions my brain threw out protectively. I had done things with her I never did again. “How‟s the family?” I had to ask. The perfectly ordinary question should have killed any conversation right there, a blunt instrument to the head, knocking the white noise of emotion out of us. But she knew all my tricks. “They‟re all gone, thank you. Eaten by bears. And how about you? Are you still wasting money on that stripper?”
“I shot her,” I said. “Shotgun to the face. Fed her body to the alligators out on old 41.” There was no stripper. She was a bartender, with enormous talents. “Good for you. I hated her. Intensely. That awful boob job. Lord.” “I have a grandchild now,” I said. “That‟s wonderful. Really. Do you mind if I smoke?” My affair with Susan had cost me my wife and kids way back when. Then I moved out into my own apartment, and Susan disappeared for a month. When she came back, she told me it was over. Like, sorry for all the trouble. She married a restaurateur three months later. My wife remarried the following year. “Do you ever think of me, Jeff?” “No. Never.” “It‟s better that way. I‟m single now myself.” “Oh really?” “Don‟t you watch the news?” She looked at me, not joking. “What?‟ “Nightclub Owner Killed in Gangland Slaying,” she intoned. “That was you?” “My better half. They shot him eighteen times.” “Jesus. I‟m sorry.” “No, you‟re not.” She blew a cloud off smoke out away from us that drifted right back. “Sorry.” “It doesn‟t bother me.” “I meant no, you‟re not sorry.” “That‟s true.” She lied. I saw the family on TV. Greeks. We sat and watched a lynch mob of multi-colored children, led to riot by an enormous redhead talking into a cell phone lost in her fleshly hand and face and curly dyed hair. The children looked us over, ready to report any dangerous or sudden movements. I froze, hardly breathing. “That could have been me,” Susan said. “Don‟t be cruel.” “I am cruel.‟
“That‟s right. You are.” “Oooh. Walked into that.” She had withdrawn her hand while fumbling with the cigarette lighting ritual and I found myself now watching her smoke and look around. I knew what she was thinking. We were stunned by the reality of ourselves, twenty years later. “How do I get in touch with you?” I asked. She turned and looked at me oddly. “Why would you want to?” She asked. The way she said it was like, what a strange idea. “I‟m looking for someone to change my life,” I said. “You‟re looking for a miracle in your life?” She frowned. “Right.” Mental note: no more Moody Blues songs. “I‟m not dating right now.” She said it and smiled crookedly.. “I don‟t want a date. Why would I want a date? Is there still such a thing?” The air filled with music, a New Age tone so subtle at first I thought she had a radio in her pocket. The phone was also a PDA, with buttons and functions that enabled God knows what. She looked at the number and let it keep ringing, playing music. When I tried to see the name, she moved it away. “Hey. Nosey. You know what happens to nosey boys, don‟t you?” She flicked my nostril with a sharp fingernail, Roman Polanski style. “Ow.” The music stopped. A couple key commands, then she put the device away. “No dates. No sex. I‟m sick of hairy men sweating on me. I‟m sick of penises.” “Me too. Whiskers. Testicles. Gross.” We laughed. Despite our best efforts, it was pleasant sitting together, far from where we‟d been but far from strangers as well. “It‟s not like our whole relationship was based on sex,” I said. “No. There was cocaine too. Cocaine and sex.” The memory of those days, sound tracked by the crappy 80‟s video music. Dear God. She remembered my dependency, while I‟d been programmed not to. An addiction is measured by the amount of damage you do. Losing your home and family, ending up
in a court-ordered rehab, that‟s a powerful addiction. Everyone pretends you did not want to fuck up. I knew the truth though. I think Susan knew it too. “I just want someone to email,” I said at last. “Someone somewhere far away, who will let me pour out my heart, then write ten minutes later and deny it all.” “True love, in other words.” “Exactly. But without the hair and the sweat.” “And the penises.” “Well, that‟s kinda taken care of itself.” She laughed. “You‟re a case. What do you want, me to help you overcome ED?” “No, not like that. What I have is much worse than ED. I have JBS.” “JBS?” “Jake Barnes Syndrome.” “You want to watch bullfights.” “Well, yes. But mostly I want the unrequited love.” “Like your unit was blown off.” “Blown to bits.” “Is that unrequited, or unfulfilled love?” “I‟ll take what I can get.” “You are a nut.” “Easy for you to say.” What happened next amazed me for days after. She leaned into me and pressed her lips to mine and kissed me hard. We shifted noses and pushed tongues and ground lips, until breathing hard, I opened an eye and saw her open eyes watching me. I pushed back, making a big production of gasping for air. “Oh you are a naughty girl, Miss Susan. I be tanning your bottom „bout this one.” Susan brushed her hair back behind her ear. “I don‟t know what came over me.” “I nearly came all over you.” “There are no words.” She rearranged herself, like Haughty hung in a closet only she could see, right next to Curious and Deranged. “Bullshit.”
Susan stood up. There were cars going back and forth in the parking lot, not everyone ignoring us. I could feel a pressure I could not see, the weight of being observed, even photographed. Where the feeling came from I had no idea. “Look, I don‟t know about any of this,” she said. I stood up as well. She felt the pressure too. She fidgeted around. “Do you have to pee?” I asked. “Terribly.” I took one of my cards from my shirt pocket. “Here‟s my cell and email. Call me if you can.” “Is this a brush-off?” “I don‟t have that much sense.” She gave me the card back. Smiling. “I can find you when I need to. I‟m not a client.” “Your call, Susan.” “Don‟t look so down. I‟m happy to see you again.” “Go pee. You‟re making me nervous.” Away she went with that funny feet-shuffling walk that held her legs close together. As she went in the door, she turned, knowing I‟d be watching, and blew me a kiss, all lips and closed eyes, a caricature drawing, not caring who saw what she did. That night, I began checking emails for messages from Susan. Looking at my phone to see if I‟d not heard the ring. I Googled my name to see how many ways there were to find me. I tried to find her, in the phonebook and through search engines and archived news articles. I told myself I was crazy. There was no way we would ever get together. After what she‟d put me through, I should be running in the opposite direction. Later that night, unable to sleep, I drank half a bottle of Scotch my brother‟d left behind after a party, though I‟d promised I‟d never drink again. Wobbly legs carried me up the stairs to my large empty bed. In the dark, as the bed began to spin, visions soaked me like drops of rain. I laughed, more loaded than I‟d been in a long, long time. The room became a funhouse of freaks and mirrors. Strange smells tickled my nose. Lady Brett whispered. Right by my ear someone sucked smoke through a freebase pipe, a slow steady intake I remembered so
well. Even with my leg over the side, the bed‟s circular motion seemed relentless. I closed my eyes and spun backwards in its Time Warp, spun away from old steady Jeff to young dangerous Jeff, before the counseling and the behavior-mod, felt myself again, a loose and happy idiot open to anything, able to laugh as he pissed the sheets.
He rides in a closed carriage pulled by two strong but muddied horses, to his grandfather’s estate at Yasnaya Polyana, scene of his happiest childhood memories. Nineteen years old, he has come into his inheritance at last. His mother died when he was two, his father seven years later. He has lived, like his brothers and sister, under the guidance of different aunts and uncles since he was nine. Now he is coming from the University at Kazan, where he has lived for years. He is distinguished looking but not handsome, his big ears a distraction from his clear Slavic face. Nineteen, and he has inherited four thousand rubles, three thousand acres and three hundred thirty serfs. As the coach makes its way down the rutted muddy road, it comes to the two turrets built during the Great War by Count Volkonsky, marking the entrance. There he shivers with excitement as the carriage passes swiftly through. Silver birches line the broad avenue leading to the houses, and through their shady growth he can see villages and rough houses where serfs stand staring at his passage. They are in the shade of the trees, and in the fields, dirty impoverished people he now owns like black slaves are owned in America. Since the days of Catherine The Great, they belong to the land and landowner. He has an idea he will do something, something grand to improve their lot. He has no clear vision of what that might be. Families in ragged clothes stand by the lane, hats in hand, bowing politely as they see him look. He waves his hand, and they react as though blessed, smiling and gesturing to one another. The buildings themselves, so grand in his boyhood, are now run down. The twostoreyed, white house where he will live seems faded and lop-sided. The one-storey servants’ house nearby looks as though it has not been painted in years. The roofs sag in places. The broad verandah of the big house shows broken woodwork, and the English garden his grandfather had been so proud of is nothing more than weeds and rocks and tangles. There is so much work to be done, he thinks, and so little money. But there on the porch stands Aunt Tatyana, the woman dearest to him in place of the mother he cannot remember. She too looks worn and aged, but her smile shines as
brightly as the noontime sun. Before the coach has completely stopped he has opened the door and run to her, picking her small body off the ground in a great hug. They call each other’s names, they embrace and kiss and spin around laughing. The household servants have come out to greet him, most having known him as a small boy. “Lev, Lev Nikolayovich,” one cries in the excitement of touching him. “Count Tolstoy,” his elder corrects him. “Welcome home, Count Tolstoy.”
I read A.N. Wilson‟s biography two months before waking to this vision. Did I dream of Tolstoy, or simply remember the fine description of the homecoming? I am not sure; only that on this particular morning I have a memory I‟m not conscious of having before. The book itself is in my off-campus apartment, far from the family house where now I wake up alone. I get out of bed, and savor the vision as I shower, adding detail while I dress, fixing the historic scene in my mind as I drive to the family business and park in my dead father‟s spot. Fletcher’s Freight, the sign above the entrance declares, and I am the last living Fletcher.
As a boy I came to this office and warehouse with my father many times, at first to play and give my mother a break, later to earn after-school money. During my last two summers before college I worked full-time in the warehouse, getting pretty good on the tow motor unloading trucks and containers, repackaging loads for export, getting deliveries made when the regular driver failed to show up. Then I went away to college, two thousand miles away, coming back for holidays and a week or so during the summers, until my mother‟s suicide and memorial service. I stayed several days for that, piecing together the real story behind all the lies she had told me in our phone conversations. Her alcoholism had been a problem since I was a teenager, but you don‟t think it‟s bad when somebody seems like a happy drunk. She had the talent to pull that off during Christmas visits, to drink tremendous amounts of hard liquor yet not fall apart, at least not so I ever noticed. Her death was a surprise to us, her
funeral both awkward and macabre. Dad had a rough time of it while I was there, and my presence seemed to make it worse. With my blessing, he went back to work, and with his I returned to college. School got busier for me, I got a full-time job on campus in the library, met a lot of very friendly girls. It got harder to go home for the holidays after a while, and I had the impression my father had other plans with someone as well. We talked on the phone, ritual conversations that grew more repetitive, until we became strangers to each other, lying about our private lives, what we were doing. We agreed we could not have done anything to stop Mom from drinking herself to death, and then grew embarrassed, knowing it was a lie. I worked the summer before I started grad school, got engaged and broke up and then found someone different to live with. The next year I began teaching as a graduate assistant, found my days and nights booked solid, so when I thought of home, I meant there in College Park, not back at my old man‟s place. Then one day his attorney Llewelyn called me to let me know Dad had collapsed from a heart attack while loading groceries into his car at the local market. By the time the paramedics arrived, he‟d stopped breathing. They tried every procedure but got no response. I was unaware he had heart trouble. I later found in his medicine chest prescriptions for a cardiac condition that were largely untouched. The Plavix had never been opened. There were two vials of Atenolol that seemed full. I buried him according to his instructions in the plot adjoining my mother‟s. He didn‟t want a priest, but I didn‟t make a deal when Aunt Bess brought one in anyway. I notified school before I left that I would be taking a leave of absence, to deal with his estate. After the service I got rid of the family and friends and neighbors who worried about me, and passed a quiet weekend in the old house, poking around in those things that had been none of my business. Now they belonged to me, I supposed. My mother‟s belonging had all been disposed of years ago, except for one box of photos and knickknacks. There were things belonging to another woman, more than I expected, and though I knew of their relationship, it was still a surprise to encounter her preferences in scents and silky undergarments. We spoke only briefly at the funeral service, as apparently she and my Aunt Bess did not get along. She ran the office at Fletcher‟s Freight, had been there since I was a teenager. I consulted the family attorney the day
before going to the business to talk to her. By coincidence, his brother had been my dad‟s primary doctor. I got a chance to talk to him as well, a quiet and sincere man, greatly disappointed by what had happened. Both conversations helped me make my decisions.
Rather than the front door, I enter through the warehouse. At one loading bay, there‟s a twenty-foot container with big white letters that say CROWLEY, the shipping line in Fort Lauderdale. Luis and Darryl are there, stacking boxes on to a pallet. In the big open space, there are two rows of skids loaded and shrink-wrapped for shipping. Behind the desk Eduardo smokes a cigar and talks on the telephone, and the big fan oscillates and blows his smoke to the different corners of the warehouse. The tow motor is parked minus its propane tank. The pallet jack is stuck into the bottom of a stack of ten empty pallets. There is a huge bag of plastic peanuts hanging suspended from the rafters, ending in a funnel with a handle at the packing area. On the walls are calendars and posters, mostly out of date, so even the scantily clothed models look like they are from another era. I don‟t see the delivery truck nor Paulo or Raul, and I‟m surprised as I stand there that no one notices me for several minutes. Then Darryl calls my name and everyone comes and they are all talking at once, shaking my hand, patting my shoulder, men I worked with as a teenager, now older, flabbier, touched with gray, in shorts and Tshirts and sneakers. They have spoken with me at the memorial and at the funeral, but still seem surprised to see me here, another change in a routine that has been the same for more than fifteen years. In my dark suit and tie, I look very much like what I am: their new boss. Then the door from the offices opens and there stands Della, looking very professional in a gray skirt and a white blouse stretched by her large bosom. The men shuffle away from me, as if caught doing something wrong, and start looking busy again before she and I shake hands. They are afraid of her, but I wonder what underwear she has on today. Her dark hair is streaked with a lighter color, and her face is smooth under her make-up, though she is easily twenty years my senior. Behind red rimmed glasses her dark intelligent eyes are friendly but calculating, inviting me in while probing for weak spots. She exudes the calculated sensuality of a strong intelligent woman, offers a challenge at some level below the sane and rational. I can imagine my father, trying to get
his work done, thinking of the cling of her garments, the scent smokily rising from her open shirt top, her bare stocking feet shuffling on industrial carpet. And she knows what I am thinking, it is like a spark of electricity passing between us, lighting up her eyes as she at last releases my hand. “I‟ve set up your father‟s office for you,” she says. “The IT consultant will come and set up your email and anything else you need.” “Thanks. I‟ll be in there in a minute.” She looks at me, curious that I am not following her lead. “The men have things under control,” she says. “Della. Excuse us. I‟ll be right with you.” She becomes aware the men are watching our exchange. When she looks to them, they turn their eyes. Except Eduardo, who has been here since my father opened the company. He smiles, blows a puff of cigar smoke our way. “Of course,” Della says. “Take your time. The men have missed you, I‟m sure.” She walks away. The sound of her high heels seems so loud as we watch her I am grateful when a UPS truck racing into the parking lot fills the hollow room with noise. “All right, guys. Let‟s get together,” I tell them. “I want to talk with you before we do anything else. Eduardo. Pull the plug on the phone. I don‟t want anyone listening over the intercom.”
When I go into the air-conditioned offices, I can smell the cleaning solutions vigorously applied to the walls and carpets, and the lemony smell of furniture polish. Everything is clean, yet frumpy looking. There are dents in the old metal file cabinets, for example, water stains on the ceiling panels, stacks of papers on tables and chairs that look like they‟ve been there forever. The receptionist I don‟t recognize, nor the two people sitting in the office marked SALES, alternately watching their computer screens and me as I look through the window. They come out, and Della introduces me. I meet Virginia, who blushes when I shake her hand; Melvin, who is older than anyone else yet more playful, like a comedian trying to being serious; and Antonio, looking sharp in a light blue dress shirt with button down collar, and an expensive dark blue silk tie. He shakes my hand vigorously, tells me he‟s very happy to meet me. Della interrupts as he
begins to ask questions, promising them everyone will get a chance to talk after our meeting. Antonio shakes my hand again, before he goes back to his workstation, so eager to be liked he makes me nervous. “The staff has changed since you were here last,” Della explains in the corridor. “I remember more people too.” “The economy. These days, business is not so good.” “You hear that everywhere.” “Then I had to fire Raul for stealing. I think the others were in on it too.” I stop her there. That‟s not how I remember these men. “Don‟t act so shocked,” she says, seeing my face. “They stole the generator your father bought for hurricane season. Raul sold it to an undercover detective.” My father‟s office is brighter than I remember, the walls yellow rather than gray, and a window with sunlight streaming in where there used to be a stuffed sailfish he bought at a flea market and told people he‟d caught. He actually caught a sailfish once and got it right up to the boat before the line snapped. So he bought a substitute, and changed the taxidermist plaque, had his name and the date of his almost-catch added. Trophies he‟d won for tennis doubles and amateur golf tournaments are still on a shelf over the file cabinets. Della gestures for me to sit behind the desk, and arranging her skirt, sits before me in the leather guest chair. “So,” she says, then stops. “So,” I repeat for her. “Della, I want you to know I appreciate all you‟ve done for my father‟s business. You‟ve been here quite a while.” “Nine years, July. We went through a lot in nine years, let me tell you.” “I‟m sure. You understand that I own all the stock in the corporation now, correct?” She makes a face. “Your father was making me a partner. I saw the papers from the attorney.” “He never filed them.” “That can‟t be. This was months ago.” “He instructed Llewelyn not to file the papers. I met with Llewelyn yesterday.
I have the new corporate documents here.” I remove the Articles of Incorporation from my coat pocket and hand them to her. She glances at them, them throws them on to the desk. My desk. “What about the will?” she asks. I shake my head. “There‟s no else mentioned. You can have a copy of that, if you like. I can call.” This is a blow to her but she struggles with her face until the hurtful surprise has worn off. A compression of the lips, a few blinks, a little snorting inhalation, and she is done with shock. She is a businesswoman of professional demeanor again. “Well, if you want me to continue running this business, you need to offer me equity,” she says. “You can honor your father‟s commitment to me.” “Della, we need to get some things straight right now. For one thing, I‟ve had you removed as a signer on any company checks. I am the only one authorized to write checks on the corporate account. Second, I‟ve cancelled all company credit cards. It would be best if you destroy the one you have, so someone doesn‟t try to use it. Third, I want you to give me any keys you have to these offices. Do you get what I‟m saying?” She gets it all right. Her dark eyes narrow, her jaw sets. “You need professional advice on this,” she says, as though I have said something stupid. “This company will only make a profit this year if it‟s run according the guidelines I established years ago. It‟s not a game. We have contracts with major companies to fulfill. We have business agreements. You can‟t just start over from scratch.” “I have auditors coming in here this afternoon. I need any and all passwords or other authorizations you have on the company‟s financial records. When you bring them to me, I will give you your severance pay.” “Severance?” “I will pay you two months salary as a severance package, along with any vacation or sick time you have coming. The company will continue to co-pay your health insurance for six months, or until you get new insurance to replace it. This is a generous offer, Della. Please don‟t think I haven‟t considered the options.”
Her astonishment shows in a hard cool smile. “I can be Sales Manager of Uniway Freight any time I want. They have been after me for years. Understand me clearly on this. If I leave, I‟m taking my customers with me. That includes every money-making account this company has. Why don‟t you stop interfering in things you don‟t understand? You don‟t know this business. You don‟t know this company.” “This has nothing to do with your work,” I say. She looks at me with a new curiosity. Leaning back again in her seat, she finds little comfort in my statement, though I have leveled the playing field, from employeremployee to man-woman, and on this level the odds shift in her favor. “You never approved of my relationship with your father, is that it? This is about Felix and me. What do you know about us? You were never here.‟ “ I don‟t want to get into it.” “You started this, Michael. You‟re already into it.” “Let it go, Della.” “Oh no. Let‟s be honest here. You‟re taking away my livelihood, over some school boy notion about your father‟s love affair.” “My mother committed suicide, Della. I always thought you and my dad started seeing each other after her death. But that‟s not the case, is it? She knew you two were having an affair long before she died. Do you ever feel guilty about that?” “Your mother was a bitter, hateful drunk who broke your father‟s heart. Are you that naïve? Let me tell you something. Your father would have been the first to kill himself if I didn‟t help him. You were certainly no help, were you?” I cannot answer. I really don‟t know. “Just give me the keys and go, Della. I‟ll mail the check to you today.” She stands up. “You‟re a coward, Michael. But that‟s no excuse to wreck this company.” I get up as well, and come around the desk. “I‟ll help you carry your things.” Her hand flashes upward and slaps my face hard. I grab her arms so she cannot do it again. “You sit here until I get my personal belongings,” she tells me. “You stay here while I say goodbye to my friends.”
I let her go out, saying no more. I feel the stinging handprint on my cheek. I sit back down and begin going through desk drawers, looking at folders, reading papers that make no sense to me. I don‟t feel like the new boss much anymore. In about fifteen minutes she‟s gone. I wait for her car to clear the parking lot. Days pass slowly. People call for Della and hang up. I can‟t focus. As I sit in my father‟s chair, listening to the hum of electricity through the office equipment, I realize how out of place I am. The room is designed for efficiency. The desk and chairs are comfortable both in their shapes and positions. The computer is mounted below the desk, and wires come up through a hole cut through the wood. The flat screen monitor, the keyboard and mouse, the laser printer on its cart, all these things are where they should be, ergonomically correct, for the comfort of the user. I have been at work for one week, and I may have wrecked the company beyond repair. My plan is for the men in the warehouse to run things, but they say my plan is ridiculous. I foresee a lifetime of struggle for a lost cause, showing up every day with more dread than the day before. It hits me that I really and truly do not want to work at my father‟s company, even as the owner. And I have judged a fine and ferocious woman without knowing anything about her, terminated the only skilled manager I know. She may be the last person who actually loved my father, in the last years of his life. Now I‟ve sent her away, hurt and dishonored. Even ergonomics cannot make me feel right; there is no object in the room to which I am not out of place. I decide my discomfort is something to be addressed by a re-positioning of myself, relocation to some dimly lit gin mill down the road. Only when I stand to go and look back through the doorway does the office seem correct again, a sensible work environment in a world I want no part of. After three big whiskeys, I feel better, knowing I‟m in no shape to return. Maybe I‟m grieving the death of my father, and have underestimated my melancholia. Or maybe my attachment to the college is stronger than I have realized, to teaching, to writing. I would be happy right that moment in a room full of young men and women, comparing the role Nature plays in the works of Tolstoy and Thomas Hardy. Fletcher‟s Freight will
never have that feeling for me. I would rather read about the real world than have to deal with it. There‟s nothing wrong with that, I tell myself, crunching an ice cube. The real world sucks. The real world is a failing business staffed by larcenous workers, managed by a woman with the attitude of a banana republic dictator. The real world is a mother who lies to her family as she works on her alcoholic exit scenario. It is a vain and lonely man not taking his heart medication because it affects his sex life, clutching his chest in a grocery store parking lot, realizing the mistake he‟s made. The real world is being the last living Fletcher, sitting in a dark air-conditioned bar populated by walking wounded, drinking myself numb an hour before lunchtime. In drowsy comfort, I become attuned to the guy at the end of the bar with his gray hair in a ponytail and his wrinkles hanging over his Boilermaker, mumbling quietly to no one in particular. I know what he is saying, without hearing. I close my eyes and lean my head back against the padded booth. At once, I am borne away.
I stand before the chalkboard in a large classroom. Students fill the rows of desks. They are silent, bent forward as they write the essay required. The students are familiar to me, though I cannot recall any names. On the board are written in yellow chalk words I can only sense, themes for the essays, phrases like Class Struggle, Nature and Man, Orthodox come to mind. Everyone concentrates on the task. They are good students, and I am here to help. A hand raises toward the back of the room. I nod and begin walking down the aisle. I walk slowly, to not disturb the students, and I smile encouragingly whenever anyone looks up. Curiously, they all use old style fountain pens, and have inkwells on their desktops. As I come to the young sandy-haired fellow who raised his hand, I notice something strange. All the writing is in the Cyrillic alphabet of old Russia. I look to others nearby, and it is the same. They are all writing this way. Everyone writes in the oddly shaped signs. And when I look at the reflection in the glass bookcase, I see not my own tall thin form, but an old man with long white hair and beard in a white peasant shirt. I touch my cheek and feel the coarse white hair. I blush, greatly surprised by my image. I turn red in the face out to my large protruding ears. When I laugh, all the students look up
and laugh with me. They wear the raggedy clothes of the serfs of the estate, but the clothes are clean, their hands and faces are washed. It is a wonderful day to be out of the fields, talking about literature and art.