Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Glitter Of Gold

In the summer of 1993 Tall Meg and I drove from LA to New York in her 1966 Studebaker Lark. Tall Meg was in love with a man in New York and I was returning to no one. She was in a hurry, but had never made the cross-country trip, so we detoured from the Interstate and headed into the desert. The first night I erred thinking that there were plenty of motel rooms in Monument Valley in Arizona. We arrived at dusk to discover the two motels were sold out. That evening Tall Meg and I crashed in the car parked off the road leading to Colorado. Both of us were too tired to travel any farther. "At least the seats fold down." The night was lit by the cosmos. Kerouac and Cassidy might have traveled down this road. "Don't say anything." Tall Meg was pissed at me. It was cold in the high plains. Cars passed every few minutes. I stepped outside and stared at the billions of stars clustered in the sky. I couldn't recollect ever having seen so many. Tall Meg joined me. "A lot of stars." She was still angry at me, but her eyes shined with the heaven. In the morning we continued on our way. People were happy to see her car. "What is it?" Most asked at the car stations. Tall Meg told them everything about her car. They waved good-bye and we entered the Rockies, stopping the night at a small hotel in Leadville, the highest city in the USA. We struggled to sleep in the high altitude. My lungs struggled to get my breath. Both of us woke at dawn. The road was downhill from Leadville. By the end of the day we would be in the plains. I stopped at a mountain stream that would become the Arkansas River and thought about swimming until Tall Meg pointing out that the crystal water which would was laden with the poisonous aftermath of gold mine owned by the Newmont Corporation. "It's dead." "And been dead for a long time." Tall Meg and I left the river and I have thought about that sign on the Arkansas since then. There were few clear streams left in America and the mining entity known as Newmont has moved much of its operations overseas. Last week the Peru government yielded to demands of local residents to stop the development of a massive gold pit in the Cajamarca region some 3700 meters above sea level. Residents had set up roadblocks to prevent any attempt by Newmont to drain glacier-fed lakes to support their mining operation. Newmont had proposed another set of negotiations, dangling the prospect of jobs before the locals. Such promises have been before to the people in Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana and Peru with success, for Newmont produced 5.4 million ounces of gold last year. With gold at an all-time high Newmont is the most successful gold mining operation in the world, however the locals living in the shadow of their mines have complained about deadly pollution and the failure to provide well-paid jobs to the community. Newmont has been ignored these protests with the help of the government who are in the pocket of the mining giant. They have escaped audits for taxes and royalty payment thanks to a legion of lawyers. Managers are adept at short-changing workers overtime in foreign countries and contributed to the danger of mining by avoiding adherence to safety regulations. The CIA has repeatedly acted in favor of Newmont to the detriment of the workers and local communities. All that glitters might be gold, but that gold is not for everyone. Not in America and not in Peru.

THE LIGHT OF THE MOON by Peter Nolan Smith

Tulsa was a very religious town in 1974. Sundays belonged to the Lord. The bedroom windows were open for the fresh morning air and the numerous church calling for the faithful bells woke me from sleep.

My good friend AK and I were guests of the Speare sisters. Both were long-legged blondes. Valerie had been going out with a schoolmate, Nick. He was out in the Philippines studying medicine. It was over between them, but she was happy to see me. Tulsa was a small town in the middle of the country. Long hairs like AK and I were an anomaly in Oklahoma.

Merle Haggard had scored a hit with I’M AN OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE in 1970. That city was one of the most diverse in the state, but Merle Haggard was right in saying that its patriotic citizens didn’t smoke marijuana, take LSD, wear beads or sandals. Okies had special words for people like AK and me. They were dirty hippies and we had bathed twice a day to prove the crackers wrong.

Mr. Speare knocked on the door. It was a little before 8am. His church was a walking distance from their tidy ranch house several blocks east from the Arkansas River.

“You boys awake?” The voice belonged to an older male.

AK groaned and pulled the covers over his head. Every free room had its price. I shut my eyes hoping that Mr. Speare would go away. The next knock was a little louder. I sat up in bed and told AK to do the same. My friend pushed his long hair out of his face and I scrapped order from my mop with a rake of fingers. We were Mr. Speare’s guests and I answered, “Yes, sir, we’re up now.”

The lanky banker entered the room in his Sunday finest. He looked like he could have played back-up for the Johnny Cash band. The family Bible was nestled under his arm. It was the Baptist Guide to the Universe and whatever wasn’t written in the Good Book wasn’t good.

“You ready for church?” His question was directed primarily at me, although Baptists regarded the conversion of a Jew as a great challenge and AK had the look of the Tribe, even though he ate bacon.

“No, sir, I’m sleeping in.” I hadn’t been to church in a long time. My Catholic mother prayed for my soul. She worried that her son was doomed to burn in Hell. My father was content that I kept my non-belief to myself. The government hadn’t put IN GOD WE TRUST on our money as a joke.

“Never to late to save your soul.” Mr. Speare had heard that I was distantly related to the founder of the Mormons and twice intoned what a great honor it would be his church to bring Joseph Smith’s ancestor back into the faith. This was the second time since we left LA that someone was desperate to save our souls. The last attempt had been by a Jesus freak promised salvation with cute hippie girls. It had sounded too much like heaven to be true and we had kept traveling east.

“I know, sir, but I have a head cold.” Valerie had taken us to a speakeasy last night. They served their own alcohol. The owner swore that it wasn’t moonshine. AK had played piano for the wicked and Marilyn had danced an Okie boogie to his rendition of LOUIE LOUIE. I stopped them from getting serious. Marilyn was only 17. The night had ended someplace called the Boom-Boom Room.

“Well, that old shine will break your head good. Believe me I was once young too. Drank the Demon Rum with my evil friends. I could have ended up in a bad way. In prison or dead or both, but I found the Light and God loves a sinner that has found his way back home.” The fifty year-old turned to AK what an outstretched hand. He was about the same age as our fathers. We had been brought up to obey our elders and I recognized the wavering of AK’s resolve. “I know that you young people thought that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, but it’s four years since they broke up. Jesus is God. God never breaks up.”

“I was never into the Beatles. I was more into the Rolling Stones.” This was as close as I could come to telling Valerie’s father that I did not believe in God.

“The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll band. They played here in 1965. The Stones were my band too, but I gave them up for Jesus.”

“That’s quite a sacrifice.” Almost as much as the Jews and Muslims rejecting bacon.

“You can’t always get what you want with the Stones, but you can with Jesus.” Mr. Speare wasn’t giving up on both of us. He turned to AK. “I know you’re a Jew, but my church has sent many missions to your people in hopes of bringing them back to the Way of God. Get out of bed and come with us. It will do you good.”

“Thank, you sir, but I’ll sit this morning out.” AK was half-Jewish. His mother was a Yankee same as my father. He existed a step down from the hierarchy of atheism on the plane of agnosticism. Doubt was much more acceptable to the believers than downright dismissal of God, however AK’s sacrament was marijuana and no preaching could make him abandon his Search for the Ultimate Holy Bong of Reefer.

“Can’t say that I didn’t try.”

“It’s the first syllable in triumph.”True Believers in the My wife, the girls and I will say some prayers for your souls, then come back here with some nice young people for a fried chicken dinner with all the fixings.”

“Your wife’s fried chicken?” I swung my feet onto the floor.

“The word KFC is sacrilege in this house.” He moved to the door. We’ll be back around 11.”

“We’ll be waiting.” I had eaten Mrs. Speare’s chicken on my previous trip to Tulsa. The taste was beyond finger-licking good.

Mr. Speare shut the door and AK faded back into the pillows.

“That felt like a sermon after a Salvation Army dinner on the Bowery.”

“No one forced you to drink last night.” He was a lightweight when it came to drinking and last night he had downed three tequila sunrises. “Another hour sleep, a shower, Mrs. Speare’s chicken, and we’ll be ready for the road around 1.”

“That’s a late start.” AK was eager to get back to Boston. His girlfriend was waiting at home. He hadn’t had sex once on our trip across America.

“Days last long this time of year.” It was only three weeks after the summer solstice. Depending on where we were in time zone, sunset could be as late as 9 O’clock. I pulled out a map. “Eight hours of travel puts us in Illinois by dark.”

“And where will be stay?” Our nights in the Speare’s house were the only time that the road hadn’t been our place of rest.

“We’ll find someplace.”

“Great.”

There was another knock on the door. It was Valerie. She came into the room and sat on my bed. Her sister was standing by the door. Both of the long-legged blondes were dressed in virginal white dresses. The hemlines were hanging at mid-calf. Their ankles were covered by sheer white sox. After a summer with hippie girls the Speare sisters were a breath of straight American sex appeal.

AK stirred under the sheets. He was having trouble hiding his erection. My problem was even worst, since I was sitting on the edge of the bed. I pulled the covers over my lap. Valerie and i were just friends. I didn’t want her to think any different. Even with Nick on the other side of the world, she was still his girl.

“Both of you. Out of bed.” Her voice expressed an unexpected urgency. “We have to be at church in ten minutes and you have to be out of the house in five.”

“What about the chicken dinner?” I hated hitting the road on an empty stomach and my funds were down to less than $10.

“My mother cooked the chicken this morning.” Marilyn held up a paper sack. She gave it to AK. “I packed you a doggie bag.”

“What’s the hurry?” I was up on my feet and pulling on my jeans.

“My father is coming back here with about ten Oral Robert football players dedicated to Jesus and they’re going to try to strong-arm you into becoming believers.” Valerie was stuffing my dirty clothing into my grandfather’s leather doctor’s bag. I rolled my sleeping bag tight and tied it shut with rope.

“Sounds like a lynch mob.” AK was dressing faster than a Polish Jew fleeing the Nazis. He looped his sleeping bag over his shoulder.

“My father has become a little too gung-ho about Jesus.” Valerie was apologizing for her old man. It wasn’t necessary. “Thinks the world is coming to an end. He’s not a bad man, but he’s worried that you’ll be condemned to Hell.”

“He should meet my mother.” She would have thanked Mr. Speare for the help.

“No time. We had a good time. Hope to see you again. Marilyn and I are getting our own place. We believe in God, but my father has gone off the deep-end. My mother is hoping that he’ll find a way back to reason, but that isn’t happening this morning. Hurry up and we’ll drive you to the highway.”

Seven minutes later Valerie jammed on the brakes of her Tempest convertible at the entrance to I-44. The sky was a blue eggshell from horizon to horizon. It was promising to be a hot one. Marilyn gave us two canteens filled with water. Valerie kissed me on the lips. Her were soft. She pushed something into my hand.

“We had a good time.”

“Us too.” It was a $20 bill.

“Be careful on the road. This state has some funny laws. Like no spitting on the street or taking a bite from someone else’s hamburger.” Valerie was showing off her education as a law enforcement major.

“Or wearing your boots to bed.” Marilyn added from the passenger seat. Her skin shone with the glow of an angel.

“Call us from Boston.” Valerie waved good-bye and then stamped on the accelerator. The two girls looked like holy virgins of desire. Before AK and I could jump back in the Tempest, the V8 spun the rear tires at with a squeal of rubber. The both of us covered our faces to keep from breathing the dust.

“That’s what I call a bum’s rush.” AK put down his canvas bag and stuck out his thumb to a passing pick-up truck. The farmer glared at us, as if he had been cheering for the rednecks in EASY RIDER. AK rubbed his face. “What a great way to start the day.”

“You want to wait for a football squad of Bible-thumpers?”

“No, those Jesus freaks forget the Messiah was a Jew a little too easy for my tastes. At least we have fried chicken and water.”

“A miracle.” I was starving, but resisted tearing into the chicken. It would taste even better when I was really hungry.

“A better miracle would be us getting a ride out of here.”

“I agree.” Muskogee lay to the south. I wrapped a rubber band around my long hair and AK followed my cue. We slipped on baseball caps. Any motorist not looking to closely might take us for college kids instead of long-haired hippies and ten minutes later a Cadillac stopped in the breakdown lane. The driver was heading to Justice, Oklahoma. It was about forty minutes up the road.

I jumped in the front seat and AK spread out in the back. The AC chilled the interior to a spring in Maine. The crew-cut driver was late for church. He had spent the night in Tulsa with a cousin.

“We drank beers until dawn.” His driving was a classic example of what law enforcement officers called weaving. I grabbed the wheel at least once a minute to prevent us from veering off the highway.

“Sorry about that. I couldn’t find my glasses this morning, so I can see shit.”

“Damn.” AK muttered from the rear. He wanted to get out of the car. I was in the same mind, but north of Tulsa was the middle of nowhere and a lot of it.

Luckily traffic was light, but the windows of passing cars were filled with angry faces. The driver slurred out swears in return.

“Damn Methodists think the road was built for them.”

“How you know they’re Methodists?”

“Because all good Baptists are in church. Damn Methodists.” We were barely going 30 mph.

It took an hour to reach Justice.

We got out of the Cadillac and AK kicked a stone in the wake of the exhaust.

“I hate America.”

“You don’t want to say that. It’s a big country. There’s the good and the bad in every country.” He had enough money in his pocket to take the bus back to Boston. “You could catch a Greyhound home from here. Let us do the driving.”

“And what about you?” AK was a true friend.

“I’ll make it to Boston when I make it.” I had nothing waiting for me back in my hometown.

“I’ll stick it out with you.” He looked to the right. Justice was a small town.

“I’d wait with you till the bus came.” A gas station was a few hundred feet from the exit. It probably doubled as the bus stop.

“No, I’ll take my chances on the highway.” He was cursed by having read Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD.

“Let’s see if that gas station has food.” I cleared my mouth and spit on the ground.

We were lucky. A small diner was open for breakfast. AK and I ate a full breakfast of bacon and eggs. The price of a bus ticket to Chicago was $20. I was down to $27. AK didn’t offer to loan me the money and I didn’t ask for the $20. I was committed to the road.

We washed up in the bathroom and headed back to the highway. The temperature had risen several degrees in the low 90s. The sun was getting strong and the only shade was beneath the underpass. A state trooper backed up the ramp. His cruiser was a Plymouth Grand Fury built for speed.

“Where you boys going?” The young officer spoke through the open passenger window. He was about our age. His radio squawk out bulletins instead of the Rolling Stones.

“Back east. We just left our friends in Tulsa. The Speares.” At least Mr. Speare hadn’t reported us for missing church, but it was against the law to spit in the state.

“I don’t know any Speares in Tulsa, but I don’t want to see you down on my highway. That’s against the law in Oklahoma.” His sunglasses were the same ones that Boss Godfrey sported in COOL HAND LUKE. “Stay up here on the ramp and you don’t get no trouble from me. Have a good day.”

The trooper accelerated down the ramp. We stood in the sun. Only three cars passed us in the next hour. Two of the drivers pointed to the right and exited onto a dirt road a half mile in the distance. The third gave us the finger. Two hours later a Greyhound bus heaved up to the gas station. AK looked over at me.

“I’ll buy you a ticket.”

The panel across the top of the bus said CHICAGO. We had taken a bus out of Victorville. The temperature had been in the 100s. People at the back of the Greyhound smoked unfiltered cigarettes. Neither AK nor I were into tobacco.

“Thanks, but I feel good about this place. We’ll get out of here in a little while.”

The Greyhound passed us a minute later. The driver and his passengers on the right side of the bus regarded us as if we were the descendants of the hobos. This was Tom Joad country. THE GRAPES OF WRATH started in these farmlands. I looked at the fields stretching to the hazy horizon. Dirt roads ran straight lines through the crops. Back out beyond the highway still was 1930.

A steady processions of vehicles exited from the highway. Most of them were hauling speedboats. Two dammed lakes provided water recreation for the Tulsans. A couple of cars passed us in the next hour. Their plate were from Oklahoma. The drivers didn’t look our way. I suspected that the police officer had aired a warning to motorists about two hippie hitching a ride. AK suggested walking to the next exit. It didn’t have a name.

“We are where we are.” I finished off my water. The sun was sucking sweat from our skin. AK’s canteen was empty too and I went to the gas station to refill them. The gas station attendant said that he had seen two longhairs wait at this on-ramp for over a day.

“How they get out of here?”

“Don’t know. They were there one second and then they were gone the next. Might have been extraterrestrials.” The boy seemed a little touched by the isolation. “You’ll get out of here sooner or later.”

“Thanks for the good thoughts.” I planned on keeping this information to myself, but if another Greyhound bus showed up, I fully intended on taking up AK’s offer of the $20 or pay for the fare myself. As I approached AK, a car screeched through the stop sign. I turned my head to witness a Ford Falcon bat-turn into the gas station. Three men piled out of the midnight-blue convertible. They wore new jeans and their hair was short.

“What you think?” AK asked with the right degree of apprehension.

“I think they’re drunk.” It was barely noon. I picked up a rock in my right hand. AK started to do the same. I warned him ‘don’t. He wasn’t a fighter.

The attendant filled the car with gas and I saw the driver give him money. At least they were trying to imitate Charles Starkweather on a Nebraskan killing spree. The for of them got back in the car and AK said, “I hope they’re heading for the lake.”

The driver wasn’t the type to use his turn signal. The Falcon swerved right at the last second and the car fishtailed down the ramp. AK backed away from the road. I stood my ground. The car came to a stop and the three young men examined us, as if they were making up their mind whether they wanted to make today a bad day. They were born crackers and would die crackers, but the radio was playing FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY. The driver with the slicked back hair lifted a beer and said, “Damn, we’re fucked up. Can either of you drive?”

“Say no.” AK whispered behind me.

“You like the OJays?”

“You mean this music. Shit, we listen to anything as long as it don’t have no Jesus in it,” the pale-faced passenger in the rear right said with a laugh. “I hate God.”

“Shut your mouth. It’s the Lord’s Day.” The heavy-set man with tattoos writhing up muscular arms punched the blasphemer.

“My apologies for my passengers. I just picked my cousins up at McAlester Prison. They finished their sentence and are respectable citizens now they have been rehabilitated. Ain’t that right boys?” The driver raised his PBR and toasted their release.

“Definitely no.” AK was ready to flee into the cornfields.

“Yes, sir, we’re good citizens now. We done learned our lesson.” The thin rake on the right had an easy smile. He might have been the brains, except the strongman possessed sharp eyes. “Can you drive or what? We’re wasting gas.”

“Hold your horses, Garrald.” The driver wasn’t in such a hurry. “We’re heading to Springfield, Illinois. That out of this cow-paddy state through Missouri and halfway up to Chicago. It will be a little tight, but we had more people in this Fal-coon that six.”

“I can drive.” The Falcon had custom rims. I dropped the rock on the ground.

“Shit.” AK hated crackers.

“Then you get behind the wheel. My name’s Earl.” He popped open his door and stumbled to the ground. He gave me the keys and I opened the trunk. They had no bags, but wrapped packages with OSP stamped on them.

“OSP. Oklahoma State Prison. You got nothing against cons, do you?” Earl flipped back a fang of jet-black hair with his hand.

“Not me.” Something about the way the engine purred dissipated my reservations.

AK had his eyes shut. I told him to get in the back. I put our bags in the trunk and got behind the wheel. It had a four on the floor.

“Earl, what year is this?” Garrald had switched to the back seat with his brother. AK was between them. He didn’t look very happy.

“This here is the 1964 Sprint with a 302 Cubic Inch Windsor V8. It got a stiff suspension and a loud pipe. I probably shoulda got a Mustang, but the dealer gave me a deal I couldn’t refuse. Nothing down.”

“It ain’t hot.” I adopted a twang to make the accusation.

“Not stolen. My uncle sold it to me. The papers are in the glove compartment.” He whipped out his license. “You think I’d drive a stolen car with my cousins just out of Big Mac. Even I’m not that stupid.”

“I don’t know about that?” The one with the grin leaned forward. He smelled over harsh soap. “You’re related to us.”

“Only on my mother’s side, Jay Bob.” Earl shoved his cousin back from the front.

“We goin’ or we goin’?” Garrald asked from directly behind me. His spit hit the back of my neck.

“We’re goin’.” I shoved the stick into first and stamped on the gas. The Falcon was light even with the weight of five men and the tires peeled an extra layer of rubber on the hot asphalt. I turned up the music and we hit the highway, the fastest car of the road.

“Try and keep it under 70. The cops hate hippies.” Earl advised popping open a beer.

“Okay.” It was hard throttling back on the speed, but any police officer searching this car was bound to find something wrong.

The two boys in the back dedicated their new freedom to sucking down beer. AK wasn’t keeping pace. Earl handed me a cold PBR. The wind blew back my hair.

“Where you comin’ from?”

“The Coast.” It sounded better than San Diego.

“I never been out there. Girls fun out that way.”

“Fun enough.” I told him the story about meeting two lesbians in Big Sur.
“Whoowee. Better not say that too loud. My cousins ain’t had a touch in years. Felt the same way they did only three months ago.”

“You were in prison?”

“Same as them. It’s a hard place, but it used to be harder.” Earl rubbed his face. He was tired from driving, but he kept on talking. “Back in the bad old days the guards liked to torture inmates more than kill them, so the prison commissioner sent two squads of inmates to build a new prison. The women at that time were held in Kansas, so the warden had them build a women’s prison.”

“What you do?”

“Do?” He looked over his shoulder. “I followed bad advice from my cousins. We cousins tried to rob a church. Stupid idea, since it was a Friday and if you’re gonna rob a church better you do it on the Sunday. All three of us were drunk. The judge was hard on us, since we were long-hairs and they don’t like longhairs in the Sooner State. Only reason we didn’t do more time was that we were related to the preacher. I got me two years and them got three. I was 19.”

Earl was my age. We were the same size. He had probably made more than one mistake, but he had to pay for his. I tried to explain about my life, but Earl had a motormouth to match the Falcon’s V8.

He told me about the first prison escape from OSP and how the killers were shot dead on a ridge.He played DJ with the 8-track. GIMME SHELTER set off a long rant about the Hell’s Angels subverting the prison system.

“They play the race card, but all they care about is themselves. Set poor whites agin poor blacks like they cud make Helter-Skelter come to pass. Fuckin’ Beatles. I hate the Beatles. They never played in Oklahoma. They did the goat-roper state, but never Oklahoma.” Earl hailed from Guynon in the Panhandle. With ten thousand folks it was the biggest city in the west of the state. “Rodeo and prison are the only two ways to get out of that town.”

I drove and Earl spoke. AK and I shared our chicken. The two cousins said that it tasted better than anything they ate in Big Mac.

“I wish I had the recipe.” Garrald picked off the last meat and chucked the bone behind the Falcon. It almost hit the car following us. The Chevy blew its horn and I picked up the pace.

We stopped for gas outside of Joplin, Missouri. His cousins stalked into the KFC like they were casing it for a robbery. Earl was in the store, buying more beer. AK was picking the wind out of his ears.

“I don’t know how much more of this I can handle.” Wedged between the two cousins couldn’t have been a party. “All they talk about is fucking women, but I don’t like the way Garrald’s been looking at me.”

“I’ve been listening to Okie 101 for the past hour, but them boys ain’t no trouble.”

“Since when have you started talking like an extra in OKLAHOMA?”

“I like to fit in with the locals. Listen, we’re heading in the right direction and I’m behind the wheel. If anything changes in that equation, then we get out of the car polite like.” It was a little past 2 pm. A regular car would take five hours to cross the Show-Me State. I planned to do it in three with the souped-up Falcon. I had a friend in East St. Louis.

“I would rather be with bible-thumpers than sitting between two cons.” AK had sat on the hump all the way from Justice.

“You’re only thinking about Marilyn. She’s 17.” The image of Valerie driving away from us was stuck in my mind.

“I know that she’s too young for me.” AK easily repented for evil thoughts. His mother was an Episcopalian. They were almost Catholics, which had been the religion of my youth.

“Not really, AK was twenty-four, which was a much more acceptable age differential than that between Jerry Lee Lewis and his ‘fifteen’ year-old bride, a cousin once removed too. “But neither of us want to live out here.”

Joplin didn’t look as prosperous as Tulsa. The woods surrounding the truck stop were yellow pine. The forest surrounded the city with a thick belt of green. Joplin was mentioned in the song ROUTE 66. No one ever sang about stopping here. The boys were taking their time in the store. I had the keys. Stealing the Falcon crossed my mind. It had nearly a full tank of gas.

The price per gallon had been about twenty-six cents before last year’s oil embargo. The cost at the pump in Joplin was more that twice that in the beginning of 1973. My $20 bought about thirty gallon of regular. The Falcon could make Chicago on that much gas. I showed AK the keys. He shook his head. Neither of us were Bonnie or Clyde.

A month earlier I had left Boston with the words of BORN TO BE WILD as my philosophy of the road. I had sought ‘whatever comes my way’ and found it in California and few other places. Now a little over a thousand miles separated me from my hometown. Back in Boston I would resume my life as me. Time for ‘whatever comes my way’ was running out.

The two cousins exited from the store, carrying cases of PBR and a box of fried chicken. They were wearing sunglasses. Earl followed them, holding a brown paper bag. Glass clinked against glass.

“Sorry about the wait, but the chicken took some cookin’, plus I had a special order delivered.” He lifted the bag. “White Lightning. Hard to find in the Sooner State.”

“It’ll be a welcome change from the Pruno we made in Big Mac.” Jay Bob was in the back seat, opening a beer. “I’m lucky I didn’t go blind from that shit.”

“Well, you look like Ray Charles in them glasses.” His older brother pushed AK back onto the hump.

“Do not. I’m better looking and a lot more white.” Jay Bob gave a big grin. He had most of his front teeth.

“Ain’t nobody 100% white in this world. The only reason white people think they’re white is, becuz artists painted their kinfolk white in them old pictures. Everyone got a bit of tar in them.”

“That’s some very advanced thinking you got back there. What you been doin’ at Big Mac? Getting educatified?” Jay Bob laughed to himself like he was on nitrous oxide. I drove out of the truck stop and the wind ripped through my long hair to baffle out the conversation in back.

Earl put on Deep Purple. The boys were more into rock than country. Earl drank his beer without talking. I guessed that he had driven down to the Oklahoma State Prison from the Panhandle last night. He might have slept in the car. He pulled sunglasses out of the bag and put them over his eyes.

“Don’t mind me none. I’m gonna get me some sleep.” He placed the open PBR between his thighs. Within a minute he was snoring like a buzz-saw through ice. I stepped on the gas. The speed limit had been changed to 55 around the nation with the passage of the Maximum Speed Law to conserve gas. President Nixon had wanted it to be 50, but his time in the White House was coming to an end. Nobody on I-44 was traveling less than 70. The country was too big for slow this far from the cities.

Sunday traffic through Missouri was heavy around Springfield. Church was out and the older people in their cars stared, as if we were monkeys in the circus, while their kids smiled like we had fallen from the sky. The land got very country on the way to Lebanon. Cars with boats on trailer hitches were heading south from the Ozarks. The weekend was fading with the setting sun. I pulled off the interstate and drove down old Route 66.

“Where are we?” Earl sat up in his seat.

“About four miles west of Cuba. I was getting tired on the highway.” I kept under the speed limit of 40. People like us made a Sunday for cops in small town America. “We need some gas and I want to stretch my legs.”

“I can drive from here.” AK volunteered from the back.

“Okay.” The last drinks at the Boom Boom Room had sapped my strength. It was time to take a break and I pulled into the Fanning Outpost. The stop offered gas, food, and lodging to travelers. Once spots like this dotted Route 66 from Chicago to LA. I-44 was putting most of them over the edge into extinction.

“Sad to think that one day there will be no Route 66.” I got out of the car and started pumping gas. My legs were stiff from sitting in one position for the past three hours. The Mother Road had run over 2400 miles from end to end. “Only a few parts left.”

“All the Okies drove to California on Route 66. Reckon I got a lot a family out there.” Earl stepped out of the Falcon. He wiped the hood with a finger. Dust was laying deep atop the steel.

“Probably.” People with his background would explain how the conservative streak in Orange County. Whittier was the home of Richard Nixon. “It had its time.”

“My grandfather worked on the Chain of Rocks Bridge crossing the Mississippi. That money saved my family from having to leave our farm. Plenty of times I cursed that old man. If he hadn’t been working, we would have moved to California and I might have ended up being one of the Beach Boys.”

“That’s a laugh.” Jay Bob was helping his brother out of the car. Garrald had no idea where he was and lifted his sunglasses. “Damn, we there yet?”

“No, we are not there yet.” Earl shook the cramps out of his back. “We’ll be in Carbondale some time this evening.”

“What’s Carbondale?” This was the first I heard of a destination.

“A college town in southern Illinois. We have family.” Earl and his cousins had family everywhere. “There’s work there and we need jobs. The police don’t like ex-cons that ain’t workin’. We’re not even supposed to be in the same car together.”

“Speak for yourself. We’re free men. We didn’t get out on parole.” Garrald scratched his head and examined his fingernails. They were crusted with dirt. “Our uncle promised us jobs in the university kitchen. I learned a lot about cooking for numbers at Big Mac. Maybe I’ll get lucky and get me a hippie college girl. I hope she shaves her legs. I don’t like hairy women.”

“Just as long as you don’t mistake any long-haired guys for girls you’ll be fine.” I didn’t like how he was looking at AK.

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” He took a quick step forward. Earl got between us. AK stood behind me just in case.

“Just a joke. I come from Maine and the women up there are twice the men you and I will ever be. Moose women we call them.”

My insulting the female of the Pine Tree State placated the big man. AK headed off tot the Men’s Room and Jay Bob led his brother into the store. I finished pumping $5 worth of gas. “This one is one me.”

“Be careful with Garrald. He had a hard time up there. I got out last June and was glad to get out. Things were getting bad. The COs treated us like dead men. Food was crap. Something happened in the mess. An inmate shanked two officers. The cons took hostages. Buildings got burned to the ground. Three inmates ended up dead. Garrald and Jay Bob were lucky to be working on the grounds, when the trouble started. None of us want to go back again. Never. But it ain’t easy for ex-cons. People think of you as just waiting to go bad and they ain’t too wrong. You see how fast Garrald got in your face.”

“Yes.” My temper belonged in Girl Scout camp in comparison to Garrald’s volcano. I had been arrested in grammar school for vandalizing an abandoned missile base. The cop knew me, since I had saved his son from a beating. He cut me loose and never said anything to my parents about my crime. Earl never received that break.

Garrald came out of the store and shook my hand.

“Sorry, I have to keep my mouth shut more often.”

“Me, too.” I was surprised by his hug, half-expecting a knife in my back.

“You’re good people and so’s your friend.” He embraced AK with the love of a young man freed from prison.

We switched places in the Falcon. I sat on the hump between Earl and Jay Bob. We opened the jar of shine. It was clear as light in the dying rays of the sun. My first sip ripped a layer of taste buds from my tongue and it sluiced down my throat like burning lava.

“Damn.” I was reborn with the spirit of Moonshine and happy to not be driving a car. AK and Garrald were talking in tongues. Between patches of the wind I heard the words Sly and the Family Stone, Brooklyn Dodgers, The Battle of the Bulge, the Gold Rush, and a thousand syllables distorted by the breeze.

Night closed on the sky tight north of Bourbon. The chicken was finished south of St. Clair. The ‘shine just kept coming and I kept drinking until we were surrounded by bright lights of a city. A ribbon of steel owned the stars and a moon was straight ahead above the highway. I recognized it as the St. Louis Arch. A baseball game was being played under the lights. AK drove past the stadium without slowing down. His father came from Brooklyn.

“Welcome to St. Louis. We’ll be turning on the other side of the Mississippi toward Carbondale. You can come with us to Carbondale or we can drop you at the Indian mounds. I’ve crashed there once or twice. It’s a good night for sleeping under the sky.”

The moonshine erased the decision ability from my mind and fifteen minutes later AK and Earl helped me from the Falcon. I was in no condition to walk and stumbled into a grassy meadow. The world swirled around my feet and my head hit the ground without me feeling a thing as I fell through the Earth to bury myself in a stupor designed to last eternity.

I woke with the dawn. It took me forever to find my glasses. A large grass mound rose from behind the line of bushes shielding AK and me from sight. There was no mistaking that the shape of the mound was a pyramid. I rose to my feet. The taste of sick was in my mouth. I had slept on my bag. It was clean, but my jeans and shirt were covered by dirt.. AK and Earl must have dragged me here last night.

“How you feeling?” AK asked from his sleeping bag.

“Not good.” My speech was reserved for sentences missing verbs and articles. My head pounded with flashes of drum thunder. “Damn, that mound is big.”

“You tried to climb it last night.”

“Any success?” My legs and back must have been bruised by several falls.

“None.”

That explained the dirt.

“Earl and the boys said good-bye.”

“I wish I had stayed in the car.” My arms were dotted by mosquito bites. “Probably better that you didn’t. You got sick last night.”

“Yeah, I guess as much.” I picked up my canteen. It was empty.

“You offered your last water to the gods.”

“I guess they spared my life. You have any left.” The sun was a red ball to the east. The morning air was thick with humidity. Today was going to be hot. I said as much to AK.

“If we’re lucky, we can get to Boston tonight.”

“If we’re lucky.” I walked forward toward the mound. It rose a hundred feet from the ground. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

“I know.” AK shucked his body from the sleeping bag. “You have nowhere else to go.”

And nowhere else was the truth for the right now.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Barney Frank Quits

I'm used to being in the minority. I'm a left-handed gay Jew. I've never felt, automatically, a member of any majority. - Barney Frank, Massachusetts Congressman Old Barney is calling it quits in the Congress after twenty years of service for 4th Congressional District. Barney Frank defended the Combat Zone, was pro-Choice, backed reparations for Japanese-Americans imprisoned during WWII, supported the NAACP, forwarded legislation to protect the rights of women and gays, and proposed the legalization of marijuana as well as a needle exchange program aimed at lowering the transfer of HIV between addicts. Republicans hated him. In 1985 he started an affair with a rent boy which grew into a deep relationship, but once it ended the man tried to sell his story to the Press. The House led by Congressman Larry Craig voted to censure Frank. Craig later was arrested in the toilet of a Minnesota airport for soliciting sex from an undercover agent. The hypocrite was ousted by the voters. Barney Frank retained his seat with an overwhelming majority in his next election. I wish the fat man a fine time in Provincetown. He was a good man. For someone left-handed like Billy The Kid.

Mistaken Identity

Whenever I mentioned to my friends in the USA or Europe that I was moving to Luxembourg, they immediately stated, "Luxembourg is the most boring city of Western Europe." Actually nearby Brussels won the prix d'or d'ennui in most competitions followed tightly by Zurich and Warsaw. Birmingham has supposedly given all three a run for the money with the added detraction as the most unromantic city in the EEU. I've actually had a good time in Bruxelles on several occasions in different decades. I don't know Zurich or Warsaw, but they are not on the top of my 'must see' list or even in the middle and nothing short of $2000 could get me to visit Birmingham, England's Venice of the North. I can only say that during the last three months in Luxembourg I have not made a single friend from local population. The people are well-mannered to tourists, but they have embraced the Germanic coldness of half their make-up instead of Gallic warmth, so I was happy to meet the new American ambassador. Bob was my age. We shared similar tastes in books and he loved art. "What are you doing for Thanksgiving?" He asked at the US Chamber of Commerce Turkey Dinner. "Nothing." I had no plans. Madame l'Ambassador was visiting her oldest daughter in Paris. I was on my own. "Not any more. You're with us this Thanksgiving." I thanked him for the invitation and showed up on time with a Paris Guidebook as a gift. His wife and he were planning a trip to the City of Light for the New Year. The guards confiscated my iPad, but allowed me to enter the embassy with my camera and telephone. Bob was waiting at the entrance. His guests were his daughter and her boyfriend, a niece, the Marine contingent, several couples working at the station, and assorted other invitees. The food was a classic holiday offering of turkey and all the fixings. "Sorry about the paper plates, but I don't feel like washing dishes." Bob apologized before the meal. At least we had real silverware. I ate to my heart's content and drank a little more wine than i would have, if Madame l'Ambassador was present. As a teetotaler her appreciation of a good buzz are limited to the effects of a bar of chocolate. Bob and I were having a talk about Obama's chances in 2012. Both of us were supporters of the president. He had spoken with 'Barack' earlier in the day. I was duly impressed by his proximity to the POTUS and toasted the president with a plastic cup of California chardonnay. "You know from the first time I saw you I thought you looked like someone." "Really?" Not many people have said this, although once at Max's Kansas City two kids from the Student Teachers came up to my table to tell me that they were playing PSYCHOTIC BREAKDOWN, which was a New York Dolls song. They had obviously mistaken me for David Johansson, but that wasn't the case with the US ambassador. "Has anyone ever said that you look like Al Franken?" "Al Franken?" Comedian and now senator from Minnesota. I was slightly horrified by the slight. "No." "You have the same hair." "A full head of hair and glasses." But Al Franken was much older than me. One whole year and totally more successful than me. I was supposed to be an outlaw and Bob thought I resembled a US senator. I took it as a compliment, but when Madame l'Ambassador heard the story upon her return from Paris, she go a good laugh. More a chortle. "Al Franken, you." More laughter and most of it derisive. It is definitely time to get a haircut. Who knows who I look like with short hair. A slightly younger Barney Frank?

Losing The Trifecta

Last spring female friend had moved to the Eternal City after the failure of her marriage in the southern hemisphere. Summer had been glorious in the shadow of the Coliseum and the attractive photographer found favor with cinematographers and fashion stylists of Rome. The wine was sweet and Stasia was fluent in Italian. The leggy brunette forgot the macho behavior of her husband and hoped to fall in love, but the summer began autumn without such luck. Even worse was that the only Italian men who hit on her were a guy cheating on his pregnant girlfriend, a sexually dysfunctional misogynist, and a stalker. A daunting trio and I commiserated with Stasia, who was saving her money for a move to Berlin, and wrote, "Men the world around are dogs. When I was living in new York, women would ask, "Do you have any nice men to meet?" I thought about it for a while and said, "No." The only nice ones were married or attached and they needed no temptation to be bad. It's in their nature. Sorry, there are no saints, only Satan's little helpers." Stasia had sadly arrived at the same conclusion, but also added that at least dogs were loyal. I suggested that all things considered the sexually dysfunctional misogynist sounds promising, but she said he was ugly as a frog and no amount of kissing would transform the misogynist into a man. It goes without saying that Stasia was attracted to the unfaithful Italian's looks, but the idea of sleeping with a philander was too reminiscent of her abandoned husband. A friend said that Stasia had scored a hat trick. Despite having resided in Boston for many years, she hadn't understood the 'hat trick' reference and I explained that in the last century whenever a hockey player scored three goals in a game, the fans would toss their hats onto the ice to honor the feat. I saw Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita both score hat tricks against the Bruins on January 31, 1963. My father threw his hat from the stands into the rink. My brother and I almost added ours, except my father said that our mother would give us hell. He had been faithful to my mother every day of their lives together and beyond. Maybe the better allegory for Stasia would have been losing the Trifecta at the track. I can only wish her better luck next time, because there always is a next time.

Burning Credit Cards

The Mayor of LA has accused the Occupy LA protestors of damaging the grass in their campsite. Riots police have been deployed to protect the lawn from further harm.

"After 56 days of not enforcing three city laws that prohibit the use of that park, the time is now," announced Police Chief Beck, however the midnight deadline passed without the planned eviction, thus disrupting the security of the nation. Tear gas, billy clubs, and officers trained by Homeland Security to quell violent demonstrators remain at the ready.

Banks are worried that the protests will disrupt the holiday buying frenzy, but shoppers faithfully swarmed to the malls on Black Friday to outspend 2010's orgy of consumerism by 7%. ATMs were flooded by consumers eager to rescue the economy from the recession, each time getting hit by a charge of $1.50. The banks reap over $2 billion from ATMs along with another $36 billion in fees from the masses. All of this is profit and in this country profit is the bottom line for the corporation.

Carry cash, comrades.

Never buy what you can't afford, unless the aim is to never pay the credit card bills.

Don't worry you credit rating is shit.

Burn the cards to the limit.

You have nothing to lose but a good time.

Take It All

David Cameron touched the third rail of British politics in April 2009 with his address to the Tory Party entitled 'The Age Of Austerity' in which called for his fellow conservatives vow to cut spending in order to pay down the debt incurred by the Welfare State. Pension programs, clean water, and cheap housing were to be slashed from the budget once he seized power with the help of the Murdoch news machine. The Tories failed to win an all-out mandate, but the Liberal Party abandoned Labor to form a match plotted in the back rooms of Parliament. Austerity as opposed to prosperity became the rule of the nation and the government slashed services in concert with raising taxes. The British reacted with riots this summer, which the newspapers and government portrayed as looters and arsonists. The majority of the citizenry bought the explanation since the majority of the rioters appeared to have a race definition of 'other than white'. My favorite pinball machine in the 70s was SLASH. It had nothing to do with the guitarist from Guns N Roses. Slashing the budget has led the UK onto the slope of double-dip recession and David Cameron has turned to Chancellor George Osbourne to save the economy. Today his financial wizard will announce that his ministry will seek to attract billions of pounds to finance various infrastructure projects throughout the nation to provide jobs. His prediction of 30 billion pound sterling has been based on having the banks ravage the pension funds to support the austerity state. The government ante into the kitty has been reported to be a miserly 5 billion. His thinking of robbing from the masses to give to the upper-classes certainly worked for the past thirty years, but does England really need the A45/46 Round-about or the Kingerswell Bypass? The majority of the projects outlined for the scheme are devoted to the car with only three earmarked from rail. There have been no reports of refraining from cutting services. Welcome to the age of the Anti-Robin Hood and actually Henry III, the son of the usurper King John fought the tenets of the Magna Carta for almost fifty years. Sadly all I can see is more austerity coming for the UK and heaven help their stiff upper lips. Thanks the stars for beer.

Monday, November 28, 2011

THE LAST GO-GO BOY by Peter Nolan Smith

Wall Street judged the nations’s prosperity according to the Dow Jones. This economic barometer responded to the year-end prediction of 2% growth in GNP with a series of swaying ups and mostly downs. At this time of the year most financial investors and bankers were more concerned with their bonuses than the lot of the common worker. For that large segment of the US population the rise in GNP meant less employees once more producing more profit for their companies without compensation for their increased effort and no one protested the extra work for fear of losing their job.

The economy is still in the shitter and I ask myself what jobs are available for a 59 year-old man.

Very few is the answer and I have been lucky that Manny always has a place for me on West 47th Street. Our past amity transcended our enmity, although my boss was glad to have a rest from me this holiday season. Sometimes enough is more than enough.

Last season I sold some rings for a gay writer. I took them to a black gold dealer in another exchange to get the gay writer the best price possible. Going through Manny would have cut into the final number and the writer needed the money to pay his health care bill.

My friend showed his gratitude with a dinner at a Asian fusion restaurant in the East Village. Every seat was crammed with young people enjoying the fast life in the city. They were my competition in the morning for a subway seat. I was lucky that these ruthless youth didn't throw me under the train.

“I never see anyone my age on the subway.”

“Men our age are retired.” Bruce was a world-known novelist. He had won awards in Europe. Critics called him a genius.

“Or out of work. If I didn’t have this job selling diamonds, I don’t know what I would be doing.”

“You could always lose ten pounds and work as a go-go boy at the queer retirement home.” Bruce had a biting wit.

“More like twenty pounds.”

“Honey, those old wrinklies aren’t so particular about the weight. They like the young flesh.” He had written a book on the rough trade in Times Square. His tricks had called him Papi. None of them were under 20.

“Scary thought.” I felt my age and my young wife kept reminding me that I wasn’t 17 anymore. Mam was 25 and my son was two years-old. I couldn’t quit working until I was 78.

“Do you have a retirement plan?” He ordered with a darting finger from the menu.

“No.” My mind was on eating. “Other than robbing a bank in Norway. They have good prison there.”

“By the time you do that they probably will have instituted euthanasia for the elderly, so that’s not really an option. Sounds like you should start taking steel pole lessons from strippers.”

“Those old fags want someone young.”

“You are young.” Bruce had retired from the rent-boy game after Mayor Giuliani closed the strip bars of Times Square. He knew this genre better than most men in America. “Young for the old queens in the nursing homes. None of them have seen anyone young as you in decades. You could charge the homes $100 a visit. Has to be better for the old geezers than any other medicine.”

“Thanks for the idea.” My father lived in a retirement village for Alzheimer patients. The mostly female residents smiled at me, as if I might be someone they knew. My father was the same. He thought that I was his son still, but he was not sure why. I would be lucky if a son's best friend made the New Year.

“It’s not a bad idea. Hell, you could franchise it in Florida. How many retirement homes you think are in the Sunshine State. Thousands. There has to be a market for it.”

“Probably.” I ordered scallop and seaweed noodles, plus a glass of wine. The waiter was thin and handsome. He had to be 30 years younger than me.

“And who knows? You might be able to sex them up.” Bruce caressed the waiter’s behind. He was a regular here. The waiter laughed walking away content to know he would be receiving a good tip. Bruce liked to pay for sex in any form. Love was out of both our best range.

“No way.” I barely wanted to have sex with myself let alone with someone else.

“Why, because you’re too good to have sex with someone older than you. Like me.” He frowned at this unintended insult. “What about the woman you had sex with in Palm beach? You said she was over 70.”

“That was different.” Helen had been the publisher of a Florida magazine. We had smoked reefer in her apartment overlooked Lake Worth. The address was in West Palm Beach.

“How? She said she hadn’t had cock in her mouth in ten years. She begged for it and you gave it to her like you were doing a remake of SUNSET BOULEVARD."

“It was a mercy mission.” The lights were off, the curtains filling with the gulf breeze, and Helen was wearing sheer lingerie and satin high heels. On her knees she performed like she was entering the Porno Hall of Fame. She never asked for Mr. deMille.

“Maybe the first time, but what about the second time?” Bruce sat back to let the waiter deliver our appetizers. Fried calamari for him. Raw bluepoints for me. “Gore Vidal said about orgies that once is experimentation, but twice is perversity.”

“The second time was because I was drunk.” Two bottles of wine and a joint. Helen had her way with me. I was her slave. “They was no third time.”

“Only because you saw her with another man and found out she uses that ‘haven’t tasted cock’ line with all the fresh meat in Palm Beach, so don’t tell me you can’t go-go boy anymore. You’re the master of re-inventing yourself.”

“I’d rather rob a bank in Norway.” I sucked down an oyster. It tasted of the Atlantic. The boyhood border of my home in Maine.

“And end up a stick boy in prison.” Bruce was enjoying himself. “You do what you have to do to survive. Believe me. I know.”

“I know you do.” Bruce was in his 60s. His novels were in every bookstore. His tales of hustlers and go-go boys were cult classic within the gay community. His name in in Wikpedia. All that meant almost nothing. Bruce was forever broke. Same as everyone in America, except for the very rich, and they have no use for an old go-go boy.

Wall Street judges the nations’s prosperity according to the Dow Jones. This economic barometer responded to the predicted 2% growth in GNP with a series of swaying ups and mostly downs. At this time of the year most financial investors and bankers are more concerned with their bonuses than the lot of the common worker. For that large segment of the US population the rise in GNP means less employees once more producing more profit for their companies without compensation for their increased effort and no one protested the extra work for fear of losing their job.

The economy is still in the shitter and I ask myself what jobs are available for a 59 year-old man.

Very few is the answer and I have been lucky that Manny always has a place for me on West 47th Street. Our past amity transcended our enmity, although my boss was glad to have a rest from me this holiday season. Sometimes enough is more than enough.

Last season I sold some rings for a gay writer. I took them to a black gold dealer in another exchange to get the gay writer the best price possible. Going through Manny would have cut into the final number and the writer needed the money to pay his health care bill.

My friend showed his gratitude with a dinner at a Asian fusion restaurant in the East Village. Every seat was crammed with young people enjoying the fast life in the city. They were my competition in the morning for a subway seat. I was lucky that these ruthless youth didn't throw me under the train.

“I never see anyone my age on the subway.”

“Men our age are retired.” Bruce was a world-known novelist. He had won awards in Europe. Critics called him a genius.

“Or out of work. If I didn’t have this job selling diamonds, I don’t know what I would be doing.”

“You could always lose ten pounds and work as a go-go boy at the queer retirement home.” Bruce had a biting wit.

“More like twenty pounds.”

“Honey, those old wrinklies aren’t so particular about the weight. They like the young flesh.” He had written a book on the rough trade in Times Square. His tricks had called him Papi. None of them were under 20.

“Scary thought.” I felt my age and my young wife kept reminding me that I wasn’t 17 anymore. Mam was 25 and my son was two years-old. I couldn’t quit working until I was 78.

“Do you have a retirement plan?” He ordered with a darting finger from the menu.

“No.” My mind was on eating. “Other than robbing a bank in Norway. They have good prison there.”

“By the time you do that they probably will have instituted euthanasia for the elderly, so that’s not really an option. Sounds like you should start taking steel pole lessons from strippers.”

“Those old fags want someone young.”

“You are young.” Bruce had retired from the rent-boy game after Mayor Giuliani closed the strip bars of Times Square. He knew this genre better than most men in America. “Young for the old queens in the nursing homes. None of them have seen anyone young as you in decades. You could charge the homes $100 a visit. Has to be better for the old geezers than any other medicine.”

“Thanks for the idea.” My father lived in a retirement village for Alzheimer patients. The mostly female residents smiled at me, as if I might be someone they knew. My father was the same. He thought that I was his son still, but he was not sure why. I would be lucky if a son's best friend made the New Year.

“It’s not a bad idea. Hell, you could franchise it in Florida. How many retirement homes you think are in the Sunshine State. Thousands. There has to be a market for it.”

“Probably.” I ordered scallop and seaweed noodles, plus a glass of wine. The waiter was thin and handsome. He had to be 30 years younger than me.

“And who knows? You might be able to sex them up.” Bruce caressed the waiter’s behind. He was a regular here. The waiter laughed walking away content to know he would be receiving a good tip. Bruce liked to pay for sex in any form. Love was out of both our best range.

“No way.” I barely wanted to have sex with myself let alone with someone else.

“Why, because you’re too good to have sex with someone older than you. Like me.” He frowned at this unintended insult. “What about the woman you had sex with in Palm beach? You said she was over 70.”

“That was different.” Helen had been the publisher of a Florida magazine. We had smoked reefer in her apartment overlooked Lake Worth. The address was in West Palm Beach.

“How? She said she hadn’t had cock in her mouth in ten years. She begged for it and you gave it to her like you were doing a remake of SUNSET BOULEVARD."

“It was a mercy mission.” The lights were off, the curtains filling with the gulf breeze, and Helen was wearing sheer lingerie and satin high heels. On her knees she performed like she was entering the Porno Hall of Fame. She never asked for Mr. deMille.

“Maybe the first time, but what about the second time?” Bruce sat back to let the waiter deliver our appetizers. Fried calamari for him. Raw bluepoints for me. “Gore Vidal said about orgies that once is experimentation, but twice is perversity.”

“The second time was because I was drunk.” Two bottles of wine and a joint. Helen had her way with me. I was her slave. “They was no third time.”

“Only because you saw her with another man and found out she uses that ‘haven’t tasted cock’ line with all the fresh meat in Palm Beach, so don’t tell me you can’t go-go boy anymore. You’re the master of re-inventing yourself.”

“I’d rather rob a bank in Norway.” I sucked down an oyster. It tasted of the Atlantic. The boyhood border of my home in Maine.

“And end up a stick boy in prison.” Bruce was enjoying himself. “You do what you have to do to survive. Believe me. I know.”

“I know you do.” Bruce was in his 60s. His novels were in every bookstore. His tales of hustlers and go-go boys were cult classic within the gay community. His name was in Wikpedia. All that meant almost nothing. Bruce was forever broke. Same as everyone in America, except for the very rich, and they have no use for an old go-go boy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Victory At All Costs

The GOP and its Tea Party constituents swept the Democrats from the House of representatives in the biggest shift of power in the 21st Century. I was greeted at work by the security guard, Andy, who boasted, "We had a revolution last night."

"Obama is the worst president in my lifetime," another white man said with heartfelt conviction. Errol came from within the Beltway. His father sold truth serum to right-wing believers. The lies tasted better with single malt Scotch.

"Worst than GW Bush or Ronald Reagan?" I didn't mention WH Harding, the traditional choice for presidential dishonor.

"Ronald Reagan was a great president."

"Really?" Not many people read history and I launched into a list of 'Old Dutch's sins. "Tax cuts with a 40% increase in defense spending, cutting taxes for the rich in belief of the 'trickle down theory' while slashing Medicaid, food stamps, and federal education programs. Let's not forget Iran-Contra, the savings-loan debacle, cut and run in Lebanon, forcing NASA to green light the Challenger Space Shuttle launch in sub-zero temperatures for a photo-op, the arming of Islamic fundamentalist in Afghanistan, SDI, and worst for the nation the War of Drugs."

"What was wrong with the War of Drugs?" Errol had been a cop in Brooklyn. Crack ruled the streets during the 80s. He had arrested scores of users and dealers. Most of them were still in prison.

"Other than it was a failure, the CIA was funneling cocaine into the USA to finance the Contra War.

"Do you have any proof of that?"

"Of course not." It was a hunch and a strong one, for the crack epidemic hit the USA when the CIA was trying to finance a number of unconstitutional undercover schemes for the Reagan administration. "But the way I hear it, the CIA were shipping arms to the Contras to fight in Nicaragua and returning with cocaine to sell in the United States."

Manny, my boss, was seething at his desk. The old man hated my bullshitting with the guards. Like every boss every minute I wasn't working for him was theft. He hadn't given me a raise in two years, so I didn't care what he thought about my wasting his time.

"And where did they fly into? Fort Chafee." Americans were abysmal at geography. "That's in Arkansas and who was governor of the Razorback state then. Bill Clinton and his involvement in the crack epidemic is why he became president."

"That's fucked-up thinking, but I like how you put Slick Willy in the shit." Errol like most reactionaries hated the fact that Clinton got away with getting a blowjob in the White House. "But you're still talking shit."

Like millions of Americans voting for the right in this past election Errol prefers a lie to the truth because that is all he had heard since birth. He gave me the finger and went on break to smoke a joint.

"One day you'll wake up out of that haze and realize I was right. I hope it won't be too late."

His parting smile was a sneer, because I don't have any proof of the CIA selling crack in LA, but 15 years ago Ms. Carolina and I were hiking on the Inca Trail in Peru. I had gone down there to break up with her. She was married and her husband was a nice guy. I figured nothing said I don't love you like a coke binge in a foreign country, except I couldn't score any blow in Lima. The police at the airport had recognized my intentions to break the law and followed by attempts to score an oz. of Incan flake.

The dealers spotted my tail and said that I was DEA.

I hated the DEA. I loved Ms. Carolina. I went up to the cops in Lima and explained my strategy. They had seen Ms Carolina. Their commander tapped a finger to his heads

"Tu es muy loco."

Ms. Carolina was as good as she was beautiful.

“Nothing in this world is a gift. Whatever must be learned must be learned the hard way," he said this as if it were meant to be a deja vu, then added, "Carlos Castenadas."

"A warrior never worries about his fear.” THE TEACHINGS OF DON JUAN was required reading for hippies in the late-60s.

"Exactemente." The cop saluted me and I returned to my hotel straight as a Mormon missionary. Ms. Carolina was happy to see me. Tomorrow we were flying to Lake Titicaca. It was over three thousand meters above sea level.

"We need to get coke for this."

"I wouldn't let you down." She had gone out an score me a bag of blow. I knew better than to ask how and showed my gratitude with a kiss. The woman was that much in love deserved better than me, but I didn't have the heart to end it. We had a long way to go.

The bag went fast on the reed-strewn shores of the Andean Lake. I killed the remains in Cuzco. My lungs never suffered from the altitude. Ms. Carolina was a square. She liked whiskey, sex, and loved me. We were having a good time and our final excursion was a hike on the Incan Trail.

"Are you okay?" she asked on the train.

"Fine." I had finish my last line in the station. My right lung was gasping for air. The train climbed over the Andes. The schlepp started with a two-hour train ride from Cuzco to the railhead at KM82. I slumped into the seat dead to the world. A lurch brought me back to life.

"Where are we?" There was no town. Only a little bridge crossing a rushing river. The water roared over the rocks with a glacial fury. The trail disappeared into fingers of fog. I blew into my hands. They were cold.

Kilometer 82." Ms. Carolina was throwing our bags out of the wagon. They dropped on the dirt. She helped me from the train with a little more tenderness. I was not a bag.

"So this is it?" About twenty gringos were struggling with their packs. The train whistled its departure. My not being on the train was not such a good idea. My first breath was far from satisfactory. Sitting on the ground would have to wait until everyone was gone. Laying on my back would happen when they were out of sight.

"Precious, don't even think about it." Ms. Carolina had a tough side and having dealt with my mini-binge brought out the mean in her.

"I'm a free spirit."

The altitude was well above the sea-level and I was sucking wind like I had been transported to the surface of Mars. Ms. Carolina was also suffering from shortness of breath, but she was from the pine barrens. They grew them tough in those swamps.

"Are you sure you want to do this?' The path lead into the Andes. It was a three-day hump to the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. In 1911 an American explorer was led by a young boy to an unknown site of Incan ruins. Several families of Quechuans were living on the mountaintop, but Hiram Bingham announced his discovery, as if Machu Picchu had appeared out of the clouds.

"I'll be fine." Ms. Carolina was a trooper and we waited by the trailhead, as the hikers were herded along the trail by Quechuan porters and guides. My girlfriend, Mrs. Carolina, and I separated from these instantaneous collectives and hired two young men with cheeks packed with coca leaves. The one called Gaucho handed us each of small envelope of dried leaves. He put some in Ms. Carolina's mouth. The effect erased years from her body and mine was relieved of a jones.

"What are you doing?" A bush-cut American asked, as he loaded packs onto the back of his two teenage sons.

"Climate acclimatization." I crammed my cheek fill of coca leaves.

"That's coca." His erect stance said military. "That's against the law."

"Not the leaves. Just the powder." I held up my bag. "You want to dry some?"

"Stay away from us." He grabbed his two kids and tramped up the dirt track with a warning glare. A mist descended down the slope. It was cold and wet.

Gaucho shrugged with a smile. "Macho man."

"Like Randy Savage."

"Yeaaaaah. Slim Jims." Gaucho echoed the crazed wrestler's famed cry. THe WWF's reach traveled far and wide. The Indian signaled it was time to go. We had five hours to make the first night's camp.

We passed the angry American within fifteen minutes. He were struggling from oxygen deprivation. We arrived at the ramshackle inn within three hours. The rest of the hikers straggled into the makeshift tambo on their last legs. Ms. Carolina and I drank coca tea and our lungs were sucking down paper-thin Andean air with pleasure. I thought about offering the other trekkers some tea, but Gaucho said, "Mana, let them be monse gringos. Maybe they make problem."

"Why did you give it to me?" Gaucho had a bad opinion of Americans. Ms. Carolina and I were as gringo as you get without wearing a flag.

"Because you have the face and your lady she is a good woman." Gaucho translated this conversation into Quechuan for his brother and the other porters, They had a good laugh and even better one when the American stumbled into camp at dusk. He stared at me and shook his head.

"What I do?" I asked Ms. Carolina.

"You took the easy way out." This was a sin for hard-cases like the father with the two boys.

"It's the only path this high up." I stuffed more leaves into my cheek and sipped at the tea. The fire was warm against the soles of my feet.

Later that night the father explained to the other hikers that he was a DEA colonel stationed in La Paz. He had raided a series of cocaine plantation. Guns were his calling card.

"We tear up the crop and arrest the growers." He spoke proudly of his accomplishments.

Gaucho and the other porters spat on the ground.

"A fucking narc," I muttered under my breath. Ms. Carolina punched my leg. The man noticed the hit.

"Me and my sons are champion runners. I figure that exposure to this altitude would open their lungs."

"Just be careful about too much exposure."

"What would you know about exposure?" He was about my age, but in tiptop shape.

"I've been up in the Himalayas." Two months in Tibet. I didn't say where. "Seen people get very sick from too little oxygen. Just don't push yourself too much. It's a long way back to the trailhead."

"We'll be fine." He was proud of his purity of body and soul. His two boys appeared ready to join my side of the argument.

"The first thing that a westerner learns in Sherpa is 'carry this' and the second is 'carry me'."

Gaucho nodded with a wide grin. His teeth were covered by the green slime of coca leaf residue. The light of the fire flashed the 14th Century against his face. The stars overhead clustered like grapes on the vine. Ms. Carolina and I settled into our rented sleeping bags. They smelled of a many other bodies. She didn't complain, but pointed out the Southern Cross.

"I never saw it look so big."

"I've never seen it ever."

The night was magic and the next day the sky opened up to reveal a 360 degree horizon of mountains, glaciers, and valleys. Ms. Carolina and I cruised along the trails like Steve McQueen's escape in PAPILLON after the convict gives him coca leaves. I didn't have an ache in my body and I could have climbed the nearest mountain with the agility of a goat. It was not a god, but close to the sun and the sun was all there was above the mountains in the Andes.

"We'll see who has the last laugh." He motioned for his boys to move away from me. I was the antithesis of DEA philosophy. "First one to Machu Picchu buys the beers."

"I'll buy them either way. Blood money is no good to me." The DEA killed people. Their war was waged on the poor. They never attacked the banks or the rich or the tobacco barons of Richmond, Virginia. "You're on."

Under normal condition the colonel might have bested me, however the coca leaves gave us an unbeatable edge and we sat at the stone gate marking the entrance to the Incan fortress for several hours awaiting the colonel's arrival. We gave Coca-Colas to his sons and a cold beer to him. He didn't refuse and we accompanied them to the ruins.

"You know you cheated." The colonel drained the beer in one go.

"We played by local rules." I stuffed a wad of leaves into my cheek. The juices were strong and I felt no cold or pain or boredom, as the sun set behind the sharp Andean ridge. The guides were huddled around a fire. It cast a welcome warmth

"No game, I see you every day chewing those leaves, looking back at me, thinking that I can't walk as fast as you."

"Well, you can't." I'm pro-drug. The DEA is the enemy.

"Only because of those leafs."

"Hey, it's all natural." I had a bone to pick. A persistent rumor. "Unlike the crack the CIA was selling in LA."

"The CIA never did that. They are too many people involved. Someone would have said something."

"Not unless they killed them and that is what the CIA and DEA do best. Kill people." I stood up and walked away before the words got too angry. The colonel and his sons left the fire. He went with my beers. They took a tourist bus down to Aguas Calientes. Ms. Carolina decided that it was too small a town for the two of us and we stayed in the ruins drinking clear chicha with Gaucho and his friends. They sang songs around the fire and we crashed in a temple long abandoned by its gods.

"You were mean to that colonel." Ms. Carolina snuggled next to me.

"He deserved it." I wasn't in a sleeping mood. Chicha and coca leaves were a combination made for a long night of staring at the universe.

"But not his kids." She was right, for a father knows best for his kids even when he's wrong. I kissed her on the lips and she said that she loved me. I said the same words, as if they were spoken by another person. The coca had numbed my lips, but not my heart and I closed my eyes to breathe the fragrance of a woman in love.

It smelled like fire.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A BARK IS BETTER THAN A BITE by Peter Nolan Smith

Every diamond shop on West 47th Street was open seven days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve. Sales people, guards, elevator operators, schleppers, cutters, setters, polishers, and even Lennie the Bum slaved throughout the holiday in hopes of scoring enough money pay off bills and buy presents for wives, lovers, and children.

Stores extended their normal hours to entice late-night shoppers. Thieves and gypsies made up more than 50% of the walk-ins. Hawkers fought over the Gs or goys. Old customers were as faithful as a runaway cheerleader on crack and they chiseled us for every dollar. Salesmen cut prices to the bone to close a sale. Diamond brokers ran out of stones worth selling. When the beautiful jewelry were gone, my boss Manny would shout, “Sell what you got.”

Moving dreck jewelry was impossible.

My sales were down 30% from 1999 and I would have been suffering from a serious dose of the Grinch, if I hadn’t wangled a few side sales of cheap studs from an upstairs Israeli broker. The diamonds were slightly flawed to the naked eye and the price was right. I made $100/pair and sold about 30 to friends seeking to happify their wives and girlfriends.

Our company Christmas party was on the 23rd. The restaurant was Italian. The wine was plentiful. I drank too much and hugged the daughter of Manny’s partner. Her father disapproved with a frown. She was his only daughter. He didn’t have to worry. We were only good friends. Still her old man was glad that I left before dessert.

The next morning I showed up to work with a bacon and egg sandwich.

A dead giveaway of a hangover.

Elizabeth had called in sick. I wish I had done the same, except I needed my salary, bonus, and commissions. Manny’s son, Richie Boy joked to Elizabeth that I was going to be his partner soon.

“I’ll kill the goy first” The silver-haired jeweler reached inside his cashmere jacket. He couldn’t unsnap the leather strap of his Beretta and gave up after ten seconds. “You’re a lucky man.”

“You got that right.” I hadn’t even risen from my chair. His daughter had unloaded his gun years ago. It was strictly for show. “Don’t worry. I know how to keep my place.”

"That’s a good thing.” The old man buttoned his jacket and patted my shoulder. He was better at managing his anger than holding a grudge.

Manny took one look at me and said, “Don’t let the goy touch anything valuable.”

“That’s fine by me.”

I needed little encouragement to ‘lb’ or ‘look busy’ for the rest of the day. Customers came and went without my assistance.

Richie Boy sold a 5-carat off-color pear-shape to a walk-in, a $15,000 diamond necklace to an old customer, and a $20,000 sapphire to a showgirl.

A good next to last day before Christmas, however a good portion of the afternoon fighting with his father.
Richie Boy wanted to cut out of work and go to Vermont. Manny was a workaholic. Quitting time was 6pm. Elizabeth’s father put his jewelry away at 2:30. We had little merchandise from our firm left to sell. By 3pm Manny called it a day.

“Lock the front door. We’re going home.”

“Don’t have to be told twice.” I plundered the jewelry from the front window like a Pirate of the Caribbean.

“You going home for Christmas?” Richie Boy asked, packing a box with diamond rings.

“Never fail.” At 48 I had only missed one Christmas with my family. A drunken weekend in the Isle of Wight.

“You could always celebrate it with us.”

“I’d love too.”

Richie Boy’s clan was infamous on 47th street for its familial dysfunctions.

“I think I’ve filled this year’s quota for time with your father.”

“I wish I could say the same.” Richie Boy would have to deal with relatives and wife on his own.

Once the goods was locked in the vault, Manny handed over my salary, commissions, and holiday bonus.
The first was on the money, the second required some cursing, and the third was less than I had expected, although more than I had feared for an off year.

“Thanks, Manny.”

“I wish it was more.”

“Yeah, we all do.” My fellow workers and I downed a quick shot of whiskey, then I dashed to the Port Authority bus station.

The conga line at Gate 84 snaked into a steady stream of north-bound buses. It was a little past 4pm by the time my bus rolled uptown.

I wasn’t the only person making a late start for home. I-95 was filled with packed cars. Traffic was tight all the way to the Sturbridge tollbooth and the bus arrived at South Station an hour past schedule. Scores of people waited for payphones in the train terminal. I skipped calling my older brother’s house. He knew I was coming to his Christmas Eve party. The clock said 8. Lower Mills was 30 minutes away.

I caught the MTA-Red Line to Ashmont. The T was crammed with last-minute shoppers and travelers completing the last leg of the journey home. I got off the trolley at the old Baker Chocolate factory and walked up Canton Avenue past brightly lit mansions. Snow crunched underneath my shoes. I was hungry and the scent of burning wood from spurred my steps.

Cars blocked my older brother’s driveway. The walk was showed no signs of a shovel. The path had been beaten down by the boots of guests. Glowing windows framed friends and family huddled around a table of food.

Tonight no one was worrying about diets.

Children chased each other around a Christmas tree drooping with shiny ornaments. I pressed the bell. A muffled scream of ‘Uncle Bubba’ sparked a stampede of nieces and nephews. The front door opened and warm hands pulled me inside. This was my Christmas.

Everyone had a name, until a dreadlocked dog nipped my ankle.

“Who’s this?”

“That’s Coco.” My eleven year-old nephew patted the hyperactive toy poodle.

“Coco’s no name for a dog.”

My brother entered the room. He looked good for a man on the brink of fifty. We gave each other a hug and he looked at Coco.

“Dog? I don’t see a dog.”

“Coco’s certainly not a cat.” He picked up a glass of water. Wine was for later after the guests went home.

“I wanted Fang.” My brother posed his foot for a mock field goal attempt. “The shelter only had Coco.”

“But we love him.” My nephew clasped the squirming puppy to his chest.

“We’ll find out about love, when he needs a walk.” My brother pointed to the kitchen. “Go help your mother and sister with the plates.”

“Uncle Bubba just arrived and I don’t want to get my hands wet.”

My nephew dropped the dog.

“Good excuse.” I couldn’t have done better myself.

I hugged Frunka and my brother reiterated his command.

“Go help your mother.” My brother and I never questioned my father. He expected the same from his son.

“Do I have too?” These were different times.

“I’m not leaving yet, so obey your father or else Santa Claus will be late tomorrow.”

“Santa Claus is never late.” My nephew confidently skipped into the kitchen looking over his shoulder at my brother. “We have a special arrangement. I’m good all year and he treats me better than anyone else in the whole wide world.”

“The world’s best boy.”

“You got that right, Uncle Bubba.” The young boy skipped into the kitchen buoyed by dreams of tomorrow’s gifts.

“So what’s with the dog?” I bent over to scratch the poodle’s head. Coco licked my hand in gratitude. “I thought your wife said no dogs.”

“The kids wore down their mother.”

“Mom never surrendered to our pleas.” Our late mother held no affection for animals. Anytime we asked for a dog or cat, she scowled, as if we had tracked mud into the living room.

“I ever tell you I almost bought you a dog for Christmas?” My brother handed me a glass of wine. He had stopped drinking two years ago. “But Mom said she’d have to take care of it.”

“And you listened to her?” I was shocked by his admission. I loved dogs.

“You were a little careless then.” My brother was a straight. I was a hippie. His judgment wasn’t 100% wrong.

“A dog might have cured that.” I would have had to feed the dog every day.

“Let me guess.” My brother lifted his eyes in mock deliberation. He was a lawyer. His refined theatrics were a treat for the Boston courts. “You might have settled down?”

“It wasn’t out of the question.” A wife, two kids, a job with the Boston School System, a vacation house in Maine, and a Volvo station wagon should have been attainable goals. I had gone to the right schools. “After all a dog is man’s best friend. I would have sat by the fire. That’s pretty homey.”

“You were free to buy a dog after you left home.” My brother upheld that my vagabond ways arose from smoking marijuana. My first joint came at age 18. I had entered university as a math major. Pot proved to be a source of endless blunders in multivariable calculus.

“Somehow I never had the time.” HOW MUCH IS THAT DOGGIE IN THE WINDOW had been replaced by Tom Rush’s version of URGE FOR GOING once I was older enough to realize that girls liked hippies better than dogs.

“And you don’t now?”

“I have plans.” After the New Year I was heading to Thailand. Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Tibet. The last was to say a spiritual goodbye to my deceased younger brother. Walking around Mount Khailash was guaranteed to expiate my sins as well as those of my baby brother.

“More running away. You can blame your lack of commitment on not owning a dog all you want.” He rolled his eyes. “But the real reason Mom refused you a dog was that you were scared of them.”

“No, I wasn’t.” Afraid of the snakes under my bed, but never a dog.

“You mean you’ve forgotten.” He smiled, as if he had an answer to a question I hadn’t heard.

“Forgotten what?” I was waiting for his reply, but several voices from the living room cried out, “Coco.”

My brother placed his water on a coaster.

“Sounds like time for a damage control.”

My nieces, nephews, and their friends raced across the foyer. Coco had a Barney t-shirt in his mouth. The posse gave up the chase at the stairs and my brother asked his son, “Why you stop the chase?”

“No one breaks a sweat over Barney,” a smart-aleck ten-year old answered with a smirk. I recalled his begging his parents for a stuffed purple dinosaur not so long ago and I scolded his snide ennui, “You were so into it last year.”

“Pokemon is as dead as Barney.” The kid was growing up fast.

“No, dead as Beanie Babies.”

“No, dead as Power Rangers.” Another boy laughed and they high-fived each other.

The children ran into the living room, laughing at their parents’ attempts to placate them with consumerism, while Frunka forlornly retrieved the shirt from the panting Coco.

“Why they stop loving Barney? I didn’t.”

“Sometimes people outgrow their toys.” I would have gone $1000 into credit card debt to hug my one-eyed teddy bear or my hillbilly girlfriend from 1978 again.
“You won’t outgrow me, will you?” My nephew put one arm around my waist. The boy was getting tall.

“Not this year and any one of this century.” I liked being around Frunka. He was smart and sensitive. In some ways the boy was a lot like me without the meanness.

“Thanks, Uncle Bubba.” He joined the other children opening gifts.

“He’s a good kid.” I said to my older brother. “Makes me wish I had a family.”

“It’s not too late.”

“Not if your wife has her way.”

His buxom wife approached a glass of wine in her hand. She had rejected my brother’s temporary state of temperance.

“Uncle Bubba, I have someone I want you to meet.” His wife was an incorrigible matchmaker and optimistically hoped her resolve might convert me into an honest man. “Meet Laurie.”

An attractive blonde in her late thirties followed in her wake. My brother’s wife exchanged two thumbnail bios with the expertise of a gameshow host introducing contestants.

Laurel had been recently divorced from a professional man and she admired my traveling around the world. I entertained her with tales from the diamond district. When she left for another party, I promised to call her. For her safety I threw her number in the fireplace.

I spent a good half-hour talking with my other brother, two sisters, aunts, uncles, and assorted relatives and friends of the family. I ate two plates of food. The ham was succulent and the potatoes creamy. Dessert would ahve to wait and I asked my father, if wanted a glass of wine.

“A Mer-LOT.” The septagenarian loved putting a heavy accent on the last syllable. I refilled his glass and mine. My hangover was buried under two glasses of chardonnay. I sat in the couch and we spoke about my late mother. He got weepy and I comforted him.

We drank a little more wine than we should have and fell asleep on the couch. I woke to a cascade of glowing logs spilling against the fireguard. Guests were leaving for Midnight Mass. Fathers held their daughters’ hands. Mothers ruffled their sons’ hair.

I had no wife, no family, and no house.

As I reached for my wine, Coco licked at my hand.

Scratching the little dog's skull, I pondered my brother’s earlier accusation of dogophobia, for a little puppy to call my own would have completed my life as a ten year-old boy in the suburbs south of Boston.

My next-door neighbor, Chuckie Manzi, had owned a fluffy-tailed mutt. I had pretended that it was mine, if only part-time.

After school I threw Skippy sticks and wrestled balls from his mouth. I envied Chuckie for owning Skippy. They went everywhere together. At dinnertime he faithfully tramped after his master and I would ask my mother at least once a month, “Can we have a dog?”

“No, because I’ll be the one stuck taking care of it.” With six kids she didn’t need any a heavier workload on her plate.

“I’ll walk it in the morning and use the money from my paper route to feed it.”

“And when you’re at school?” That question stifled my pleas, but a ‘puppy’ perennially headed my Santa list. The toy soldiers, plastic airplanes, hardcover books, stylish clothing, and $20 bills were no substitute for a yapping puppy, although one spring my mother eased her edict against pets.

Tossing Coco off my lap, I warmed my hands before the fire and said, “Rabbits.”

Winters in New England are long and even longer for ten year-old boys. The snow season of 1962 finally released its frigid grip on the South Shore of Boston in late-March. The southern wind thawed the ice-hard ground and soon fragile green leaves sprouted from trees throughout my hometown. Shortly thereafter spring officially arrived with the Red Sox’s opening day loss to the Indians.

The next day the Fenway team followed the debut defeat with a 12th inning win. This victory rekindled our eternal hope for a successful pennant run and the neighborhood boys congregated for the first of many under-teamed baseball games in my back yard.

Last year’s gloves were stiff from neglect and the Christmas gift baseballs shined in the afternoon sun. My brother, Chuckie Manzi, and I played ‘pickle’ waiting for the others to fill out the five-on-five sides.

My next-door neighbor was my best friend. His dog chased the tossed ball. Soon seven boys were laughing carelessly at Skippy’s running back and forth. The dog was faster then any of us, but couldn’t leap high enough to snag the ball.

“Your dog’s crazy.” I yelled winging the ball to my brother and Chuckie shouted, “Dogs are supposed to be crazy. Just like us.”

Three more boys ran into the field. Baseball caps on their head. My older brother, Chuckie, and I played on the same side as my two cousins. They attended St. Mary’s of the Foothills like us. The opposing five went to public school. The talent level was almost even, except my younger cousin OilCan could really whack the hide off a ball.

The ground rules were simple.

Any ball hit into the woods beyond the first base line was an out. A foul ball into my other neighbor’s yard was also an out, since they were in a property dispute with my parents. Two strikes and you were out. Two outs and the other team came to bat. The game was over once someone’s mother yelled for dinner. The team at bat had to provide the catcher. The rest of the rules were adjusted according to the score other than if OilCan hit a ball so far that we couldn’t find it, then that was an out.

A flip of a quarter decided first-ups.

The public school team scored two runs before striking out twice. Russell drove the first pitch over the centerfielder’s head for a homer. My brother ran out a weak hit to second. Chuckie squibbed out a single. I came to the plate with two men on.

“Wait for your pitch.” My brother was patient and I told myself to be the same.

The pitcher tossed a curve outside the strike zone by a foot. My awkward swing made contact and the ball rocketed toward the Manzi’s house. It smacked into the wall missing a bedroom window by inches and plunked into the thicket of rose bushes. The leftfielder scrambled to field the ball. It was beyond his reach.

As I crossed home plate, he yelled from underneath the thorny branches. “Rabbits.”

Both teams looked at each other.

“Rabbits?”

Our suburban development was surrounded by deserted farmlands. Raccoons ate the garbage and foxes chased the chickens at the nearest stables. Last winter my brother spotted the shadow of a rattlesnake in the front yard. In the darkness I also imagined the wavering shape was a rattler. The police showed up with guns drawn and discovered the deadly serpent was a loose sheet of cardboard. Chuckie had a good laugh about our mistake. So did my parents. My brother and I hated snakes almost as much as the Yankees after that day, but rabbits were not a venomous snake and we ran to the Manzi’s house.

The ten of us kneeled on the ground. Damp seeped through my jeans. Chuckie held back Skippy, because a furry pile of bunny rabbits were huddled against the concrete foundation of his house. None of them bigger were than a Twinkie and I told Chuckie. “Get a box.”

He returned with an empty milk crate and I plucked the baby rabbits from the dirt furrow. Seeing them in the box, my brother asked, “What are you going to do with them?”

Skippy yapped his suggestion and I held the rabbits over my head.

“I’m asking Mom, if we can keep them.”

“You think she’ll say yes?” My brother’s timid voice betrayed that his guess was ‘no’.

My mother either feared or hated animals. Spiders and butterflies inside the house deserved death by newspaper. My father joked that TVs would never replace newspapers, because you couldn’t swat flies with them. My mother didn’t think his joke was funny.

“We won’t know until we ask.”

I looked over to our house. The door to the laundry room was open. We trooped to the clothesline and my
mother exited from the house with a heavy basket of wet sheets. She regarded the box with a frown.

“You touch them?” She expected a response in one syllable.

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Then their mother will abandon them, because they smell of human.” She shook her head with a sad resignation.

“So can we keep them?” My mother would never accept a dog, but I prayed these rabbits were different. She put down the basket of sheets. “You’ll take care of them?”

“I will, I will.”

To prove she had not misplaced her trust, I fixed up the box and fed the baby bunnies warm milk from an eyedropper. My older brother laughingly called their wooden home a ‘bunny jail’, but Chuckie volunteered to be a bunny guard. Bunnies were cuter than Skippy.

When Mrs. Manzi yelled for dinner, Chuckie asked, “Can I take care of a rabbit tonight?”

"They’re a family. Families stay together.” I replied and lay on the lawn with the bunnies curled on my chest.

The sun dropped closer to the horizon. My brothers and sisters watched TV in the den, as my mother prepared dinner in the kitchen. Mr. Manzi came home from the dry cleaning shop. He waved to me and entered his house.

Several minutes later my father walked up the street with a troubled weariness on his face. Years would pass before I realized that he hated his boss, but tonight he smiled at the bunnies.

“Your mother says you can keep them?”

“Yeah.” I lifted a bunny and he patted its head.

“That’s a surprise. They have names?” My father liked things to have a name. He was an engineer.
Rabbits didn’t have souls, so I didn’t have to name them after saints.

“I’ll name them after the planets.”

“None of them look fast enough to be called Mercury.”

“Not yet.” Mars would be the one with the reddish ears.

A bark ripped across the driveway. A large black-orange Doberman lurked behind a lilac bush. His eyes shined with hunger. My father picked up a rock and chucked it at the intruder. His aim was good and the dog yelped into the woods.

“Better keep those rabbits inside or a dog will get at them.” My father patted the rabbit in my arms. “Get inside. It’s time for dinner. And wash your hands.”

“Okay.” I walked inside the garage and placed the bunny jail atop the station wagon. Throughout dinner I couldn’t talk about anything other than the rabbits. Before dessert I asked, “May I please leave the table?”

“To look at those animals?” My mother seemed to regret her earlier decision.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“This better not interfere with your homework.”

“It won’t.”

She nodded her dismissal and I ran to the garage. The rabbits were where I left them. Safe in their box.

“I’ll be right back.”

I completed my homework in record time and then remained with the rabbits late into the night. Once they were older they would race each other for carrots. The losers would get the same amount as the winners.

Close to 11pm I crept upstairs. My younger brothers and sisters were asleep in their beds. My room was dark and my brother out cold. The door to my parents’ room was open.

My mother was under the covers. My father had been asleep for hours. The television was on low. The news showed Kennedy talking to his wife. My mother liked her, but had voted for Nixon. FAILSAFE lay on her chest.

“How are the rabbits?” Her insomnia had nothing to do with my father’s snoring. I had the same genes. Sleep came hard for both of us.

“I think they’re happy to be inside.” I whispered and my mother looked over to my father. “Nothing can wake your father once he’s asleep. Bunny rabbits too. They’ll be fine in the garage.”

“I hope so.”

“Get me some potato chips and OJ.”

“For the TONIGHT SHOW?” She loved Johnny Carson.

“You’re a good son.”

“Thanks for the bunny rabbits, mom.”

I watched a little of Johnny Carson monologue with her and then slipped into my bed with THE AGONY AND THE ECSTACY. My eyes grew heavy and my first dream was of bunny rabbits adorning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Waking early for my paper route I dressed quickly into my school uniform. Grabbing a bottle of milk from the refrigerator, I entered the garage as anxious as a brand new father. My hand slipped inside the box to touch air. It was empty.

“Bunnies.” I called out. “Mars, Pluto, Venus.”

Bunny rabbits don’t make noise, but the tiniest panting came from underneath our station wagon. I kneeled on the concrete floor. Their little bunnies weren’t moving and I screamed. My father rushed into the garage, his tie undone. “What’s wrong?”

I blubbered out, “The rabbits.”

“Under the car?”

“Yes.” They were out of my reach.

My father picked them up one by one and laid the bunnies on the hood. “Two rabbits are dead. They must have jumped out of the box.

Mars and Jupiter.

The survivors were breathing like they were in a vacuum.

“Why they try to escape?”

“Son, you can’t stop animals from running wild and the other three are too hurt to live. We’ll have to put them down.”

“Put them down?”

I had read THE YEARLING and seen the movie version of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ tale of a boy’s love for a baby deer. The father shooting his son’s pet proved Man has a much greater control over Death than Life.

“I’ll give them whiskey. They won’t feel a thing.”

“Can’t we bring them to the hospital?”

“Wish we could, but it’s better this way.” My mother didn’t like liquor in the house and my father went to the tool cabinet, filling an eyedropper with Canadian Club.

“You want to say a prayer?” My father held up Venus.

“Only if I could make them live.” I had stopped believing in God two years ago. It was a secret. I hated God for letting my friend Chaney drown. He couldn’t help the rabbits either.

“They will in another life.” A squirt into their mouths stilled her. Pluto and Mercury were next. My father laid the five bodies in the box. My older brother stood at the door. “What happened?”

“The rabbits tried to escape.”

“Oh.” His expression said God didn’t want us to have pets. He was still a believer. I cried and my father held me close.

“Go do your paper route and we’ll bury them when you get back.”

Every morning I delivered the Boston Globe and Herald to 54 houses in the neighborhood. My father thought that a boy should have his own money. I earned about $5 a week. My brother had 64 customers. He earned over $6 for a week’s work. We rode Raleigh English bikes. Every other kid in the neighborhood had a Schwinn.

Normally I read the news walking up to each house. This morning the words Civil Rights and Cuba were simply smeared by tears. I returned home thirty minutes later, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. My father had already left for work. My mother was waiting in the back yard with an open shoebox.

“Here’s the bunnies.”

They looked asleep. My brother had a shovel. My sisters were dressed for school. The sun was heating up the day. My mother checked her wristwatch.

“Better hurry up, the bus will be here soon.”

My attendance record had been perfect three years running.

“I’ll do it as fast as I can.” Chuckie trotted across the grass. He had heard the bad news. Skippy wagged his tail. Chuckie whacked him. “Go back inside.”

Skippy scurried back to his doghouse and we trudged into the woods. My younger sisters carried the bunny coffin between them. Rituals were second nature for Catholics children. I hacked at the ground with the shovel.

Soon the hole was about a foot deep. My older sister placed the box at the bottom and I covered my one-day pets with dirt. My older brother made the sign of the cross.

“Shouldn’t we say something?”

“I can’t.” More because I was too sad than convinced prayers were hocus-pocus.

My young sisters started singing HERE COMES PETER COTTONTAIL. The rest of us joined the song, but we didn’t reach to second chorus, because the school bus blew its horn.

“Get on the bus.” My mother yelled and the others running across the lawn to the house, grabbing their lunch boxes and school bags on the driveway.

I lingered at the edge of the woods, the shovel in my hands. My mother called my name. She was going to explain why birds and bees stop flying. I wanted a miracle and returned to the woods.

Nature is cruel. The dog from last night had a dead bunny in his jaws. The fur was white. It was Venus. I raised the shovel and yelled, “Stop.”

With a threatening growl the black-orange Doberman mauled Vunes’ lifeless body.

My mother ran to my side and grabbed the shovel. The dog recognized her hatred of animals and scooted into the woods. I gathered Venus’ bloodied fur in my hands. My mother shook her head. “Now you know why I don’t want you to have pets.”

“They were only bunnies.”

“I had a cat when I was young and it ran away. All my tears wouldn’t bring it back.” She held the box in her hands. The other four rabbits were untouched.

“Go get the bus, I’ll bury them deep, so no animals will get at them. Go.”

She wiped my face and I ran for the bus. I didn’t speak to anyone on the way to school. My older brother cleaned the blood off my hands. He also made sure no one ridiculed me. Chuckie and he were my best friend and they knew when to keep their distance. The death grip on my school bag frightened the other students from thinking about sitting next to me on the ten-minute ride to St. Mary’s of the Foothills.

The black-orange beast had forced the rabbits onto the car roof. Their deaths were its fault. An eye for an eye was best exacted in secret. No one, not my teachers, my friends, or family needed to know my plans and I said nothing throughout the school day.

My teachers and friends were used to my withdrawal from reality. They had seen it pass, but that afternoon
I bicycled my paper route in search of the bunny-killing Doberman. He was the evil spawn of the devil. I couldn’t find the dog anywhere on my circuit of Harborview, Ridge Road, Sassamon, or Neponset Streets
and bicycled back to my house, ready to heave the final Herald onto the stairs of number 157 Sears Road.

A bark thundered across the lawn and the black-orange Doberman bolted from behind a garbage can. I swung the rolled-up paper at his frothing head. Its snarling jaws snatched the newspaper from my hand, nearly yanking me off the bike.

I regained my balance and pedaled to the end of the street. The dog had given up chase in favor of shredding the paper across the lawn like confetti and his feral glare warned me to stay off this street. If it had been a bully, I might have obeyed, only he was a dog, and my genetic code demanded another course of action.

When I arrived at our driveway, my brother was playing catch with Chuckie. We had been raised as Irish twins. Thirteen months apart and he could read me like a comic book. “I know you’re thinking about doing something crazy.”

“No, I’m going to the Canyon.” The Doberman had to come from a house near the old sandpit and I was finding out which one.

“You want me to come along?”

“No, I’m just going to mess around in the Canyon.” This was my fight.

The Canyon was an abandoned sandpit overrun by small trees and weeds. Water oozed from the eroded slopes to form a stream alive with polliwogs. A dog barked from a nearby yard and I scrambled up the sandpit to peek through a hedge. The black-orange Doberman was nipping at the blue sundress of a laughing girl. She was my age. I had seen her at church. Her family was the new to the neighborhood. She was pretty.

I inched forward. A dry twig snapped under my foot and the black-orange dog lunged in my direction. My only instinct was for survival and I leapt into the Canyon, tumbling into the stream. The Doberman barked from the rim. I jumped on my bike and didn’t stop pedaling, until I was halfway home.

The Doberman was no normal dog.

My revenge would require drastic measures, yet if I succeeded, the girl in the sundress would hate me, the police might arrest me, and my parents would question what kind of child they had raised, but I wasn’t arguing with the ghosts of bunny rabbits. In my family’s garage I wrapped a short lead pipe with a newspaper and tape.

“What’s with that pipe?” My brother liked to ask direct questions

“Making a blowgun,” I replied and he accepted my answer with a shrug. Irish twins didn’t have to tell each other everything.

The next morning was a Saturday. Our neighborhood was quiet. Most families slept as I delivered the Globe and Heralds. I reached Sears Road with four papers, instead of three. My weapon was crude and effective.

One whack of the lead pipe wrapped in newspaper would kill the dog. My enemy was well aware of its danger and DJ caught me off-guard, as he charged from a thick bush at 157 Sears Road.

I swung the weighted newspaper. The pipe clunked harmlessly off his skull. This beast was indestructible and I pedaled for my life with his teeth chomping at my heels.

That evening my father demanded, “Why didn’t you deliver all the newspapers papers?”

“A dog attacked me. That dog you threw the rock at. He belongs to the new people on Sears Road.”

“Get in the car. We’ll have a talk with them.”

Within a minute our station wagon parked before the house. Three girls played with the muscular Doberman. The car doors opened and the Doberman’s ears perked up. Keeping his distance, my father asked, “Is your mother or father home?”

“My mother is,” the oldest girl replied with the dog by her side. “I’ll get her.”

Her mother came out in an old cotton shift and hair rollers. She was as beautiful as her youngest daughter and was well aware of her effect on men.

“I’m Mrs. Rolla. These are my three daughters. We moved from New York.”

“Welcome to the neighborhood.” My father saw no reason not to be polite.

“Can I help you?” The woman recognized this wasn’t a social visit.

“Seems your dog has been attacking my son on his paper route.”

“DJ? He’s dumb as mud.” The woman patted the dog and DJ grinned idiotically. “Sure, all dogs bark.”

“And barkers bite___”

Mrs. Rolla leaned against the door, studying my father with a covetous interest. He was a good-looking man.

“I’ll keep DJ inside in the morning. Your son can deliver us the paper. Is that okay?”

“I don’t___”

Mrs. Rolla’s youngest daughter smiled, as if school had been let out early for summer. Delivering their newspaper meant collecting the subscription money every Friday. The young girl might answer the door. The opportunity to speak with her outweighed my desire for revenge.

“I’ll drop the papers in the door tomorrow.”

“This arrangement makes the world a much happier place. It was nice meeting you.” He stammered a good-bye and we walked to the station wagon. I looked over my shoulder and almost yelped in terror, for DJ’s eyes were beaming with a murderous intent. The youngest daughter slapped him on the head. “DJ, stop that.”

It was too late to tell my father that the Rollas were aware of DJ’s ferocity.

On the way home he complimented the mother on raising such polite girls.

Thankfully Mrs. Rolla kept her promise and DJ vanished from my morning and afternoon paper route.

As April turned to May, the fear of DJ was replaced by my desperate attempts to attract the attention of Mrs. Rolla’s daughter. She blissfully disregarded my acrobatically riding on my handlebars or waving to her at Sunday Mass.

With each failure I withdrew deeper within my pubescent cocoon. I stopped playing baseball, fluffed my homework, and disobeyed my parents. My grades were slipping and my mother received a phone call from my teacher. She was not happy to hear that I was a C student. “Wait till your father comes home.”

My father’s harsh words were much more frightening than her smacking my hands with the wooden spoon and I dashed out of the house to the sandpit.

Bees buzzed between the wild flowers and birds flew after insects. I took off my shoes and waded into the cool water. The mud squeezed between my toes and the sun was warm on my skin, then a dog growled across the stream.

It was DJ.

His bark signaled that running wasn’t an option. This was a final confrontation. When I grabbed a flat stone from the ground, a girl’s voice asked, “You’re not throwing that at my dog, are you?”

Fearing DJ, I didn’t turn my head.

“If he attacks, I will.”

Mrs. Rolla’s youngest daughter walked into my line of vision. She was holding an ice cream cone. Her thin legs stuck out from under her sundress like two white rails. Her brown hair was pulled back into a bouncy ponytail and her eyes gleamed like green pearls. DJ had witnessed hundreds of boys’ reaction to the Rolla girls and smirked with yellowed fangs.

The Doberman’s head and DJ plopped by her feet.

“See, he’s a pussy cat.”

“DJ’s not a normal dog, is he?”

“No, we found him eating our garbage” The girl offered the dog her cone. He gulped it with the ferocity of a rabid shark. “He smelled horrible and looks like he had been living in the woods for the entire winter. None of us mess with him when he’s eating, but he won’t bite a friend and you’re a friend, right?”

She patted DJ’s neck and the Doberman looked like he was waiting a command.

“You had him attack me, didn’t you?”

“I had seen you at church.” Her admission was a surprise. Boys and girls our age were supposed to hate each other, but 13 was only two years away for the both of us and there was no sense in wasting time. She stood with one foot tucked behind the other. “My name’s Kyla. You still throwing that rock? I mean if you throw that rock, you might hit me. You want to hit me?”

“No.” My use of the English language was reduced to one word.

I dropped the rock and told her my name.

“You can come over my house. My mother will give you an ice cream cone.” She snapped her fingers and DJ dashed into the undergrowth. We walked to her house and by week’s end my neighborhood became a paradise populated mostly by her Eve and my Adam.

My father’s snoring woke and my head shuddered, as I discovered that I was no longer ten. Kyla was gone and I sat up rubbing my face. I checked on my father. He was out cold and his eyelids vibrated with the REMs of another place and time. The fire was dying and threw on another log, before going into the kitchen. My brother was washing dishes and I helped him dry.

“Have a good sleep.”

“Yes, and I remember DJ.”

“And how one Thanksgiving Mom cooled the turkey in the garage and DJ ate it on the front yard after you had left the garage door open.”

“I figured that it cooled faster that way.” DJ had buried his muzzle inside the turkey carcass. My mother called a hotel for dinner. She hated that dog and every other animals even more than before. I never heard the end of it.

“Mom told you to stop playing with Kyla.” My brother had a wicked memory.

“Only for a short time.” Kyla and I remained sweethearts almost all the way through high school.

“What are you talking about?”

My youngest nephew asked from the door. He loved hearing stories about the stupidity of adults, which were the only stories to tell on a Christmas Eve after the non-family members had gone home. Frunka sat on my lap.

“About a dog eating our turkey. My mother spent hours cooking turkey. We all had chores. Your father called it KP day. After the turkey had been cooked my mother had me put in in the garage to cool.”

“Why she do that?” Frunka was naturally curious.

“I have no idea, but I did as I was told and left the garage door open. We were throwing a football in the backyard and my best friend pointed to the front lawn and said, “What’s with DJ?”

“Who was DJ?

“A bad dog.” My brother answered from the table. He was holding hands with his wife. They were very much in love, even this many years after their wedding.

“The dog had its head stuck inside something and then I heard my mother scream.

“The turkey.” My nephew might have heard this story before, but not my version.
“I picked up a stick from the ground and charged to save our holiday meal. DJ ran from our yard, leaving behind a mauled meal. My mother cried, “Where are we going to find a turkey now?” My father looked at me and I thought that this was my fault. I didn’t even bother to explain my side of the story.” “When you’re wrong as a child, proving you’re right is a waste of breath.” My older brother was telling that to his son. “We thanked Uncle Bubba for ruining Christmas, but it didn’t turn out so bad, since DJ’s owners paid for our meal at a nearby hotel and DJ’s owner, Kyla kissed Uncle Bubba on the cheek.” Kissy-face.” “Later that summer this girl ate ice cream and smeared chocolate over her face. And Uncle Bubba would kiss her.” My brother and I loved making each other uncomfortable. All part of a healthy sibling rivalry. My nephew shuffled his feet nervously, as if he had once cherished a girl as messy as Kyla. Before he could ask my brother or me a troubling question, I grabbed the finished turkey carcass from the table and fit it over Coco’s head. The puppy squirmed in terror, and then barked with delight from within the Promised Land. “Bad Coco.” My niece and brother laughed. My brother less than anyone else. He really did like Coco. His wife entered the kitchen with a load of plates and reproached me with a playful slap. “Bad Bubba.” She was angry at my not asking her friend out on a date. We laughed harder to the cheers of ‘bad dog’ and ‘Bad Bubba’. My father came into the kitchen to see the commotion. I freed Coco from his prison and he snapped at my hand. My father said that the dog was dangerous, but Coco was no DJ. Two minutes later we were rehashing my abandonment at the Kittery tollbooth. Another family myth, but none of us challenged the untruth, because tomorrow was Christmas and I was with my family. It was a good feeling.Coco licking my hand. I must have tasted of turkey. Dogs are a sucker for food, then again so are men, which is why they are man’s best friend both now and forever.