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THE TRAGEDY OF ENTROPY BY MARC TURNER

Copyright 2005

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The Beginning of Love On seeing his newborn son, Brian Jones first reaction was to think to himself, what hath God wrought? That can’t be. There followed a sudden shock and sadness for the baby. Brian had never seen a newborn baby with an unrepaired cleft palate and lip. Monstrous. The pride Brian had felt up until then gave way to heartbroken love as he studied the opening where the infant’s upper lip to where his nostrils should have been. In the sweeping experience of giving birth, the fact that Cheryl’s newborn had something wrong was incidental to her. She’d loved her son from before he’d even been conceived - the thought of her own child. And when the doctor told her what was wrong. She saw but still, deep down, didn’t see. Why would anyone hold that against him? It wasn’t his fault. She looked at her poor baby. Cheryl wondered if she’d be blamed - if Brian would blame her. It wasn’t her fault. She’d done nothing wrong. She loved her baby, but her confusing feelings about his birth defect caused her to almost immediately go into denial. Cleft palate - cleft lip? Harelip? What are you talking about? Oh, that...You mean you actually noticed it? I guess I just never see it. In the olden days, children born with harelips were seen as portents of bad luck and were put on the hillside to benefit from the mercies of nature. The moms were stretched on the rack for having consorted with the devil. And later, the Nazis believed that people with clefts were moral degenerates. In American folklore, the harelip represents many things - the uncontrollable overabundance of nature deviating into the unknown for example. Those with cleft palates are often represented as being either idiotic, violent or monstrously perverse. The works of Colin Wilson are sprinkled with murderous harelips, Jesse Pomeroy, the milky-eyed boy who tortured and killed other children being the most notorious. 2


Though they were sympathetic, Caleb’s Mom and Dad were both reasonably attractive people who could never empathize with the challenges of having a facial deformity, so the day after Caleb’s birth, his parents asked Martha Bainbridge, the African American nurse who was the head of the OB unit, what she thought Caleb’s life would be like. Perhaps Caleb’s Mom and Dad felt that by virtue of her being a nurse, she would have great wisdom, or maybe it was her matriarchal nature, or perhaps even that she was black and therefore more in touch with hardships which they felt made her an expert on all types of people. Her answer was glib, its message being best expressed by the song, ‘Don’t Worry. Be Happy’. Their son would be fine, she assured them. God took care of His special children. Caleb’s Mom and Dad were relieved. Caleb would be fine. The African American nurse said so. With that settled, Caleb’s Mom took her baby home and got to know him. Like babies everywhere, Caleb was adorable, his little scar made him even more so, giving him a rakish, Bugs Bunny face while at the same time an added vulnerability. So his parents learned to love him with a certain sadness. In those first couple of weeks, his Mom would play with him, tend to him and take him for walks in his stroller, but after three weeks, she had to go back to work, so during the day, her Mom would take care of the boy. Those were quiet days and nights. When he wasn’t flailing his little limbs, crying or soiling himself, Caleb spent his time looking in wonder at the things in his crib, the many colored pillows and the hanging toys. He’d look at the walls and the ceiling, and then for a change, he would look out the window where he could see the leaves of the magnolia tree pressing the glass. In the day, there would be sunlight streaming through the branches, and at night, Caleb would look at the moon through the wavering leaves.

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Baby’s first Christmas was lost on Caleb. The commotion upset him. The carols, the imagery of flashing lights and the fierce Santa alarmed him. And at his Granny’s house, he was annoyed by his relatives. Their hugely pored, cooing faces and their prodding and touching made him cry. They kept tormenting him with their Coochie-Coochie-Cooing. Rather than being the center of attention in the middle of a lot of noise and color, Caleb was relieved when he was placed on the floor and allowed to crawl under the couch. He fit and was able to watch the Christmas action by poking his head out of the pleated fabric at the bottom of the couch. Even better than that was being able to shut out the blinking lights and the noise of his family by leaving it down like a curtain. Much better here in the shadows away from the limelight was his intuition. At his third birthday party, he’d been forced into the limelight. His home was decorated with brightly colored balloons of pink and gold which pleased him to no end. Then there were lots of toddlers whom he didn’t know running around like they had no sense, which they really didn’t have much of and which, though exciting him a great deal, pleased him much less. At the height of the celebration, he tried to blow the candles out. When he blew as hard as he could, instead of putting out the three little flames, Caleb managed to spray spit on his surrounding party guests as well as cause either his nose or mouth to start bleeding. In stunned surprise, he watched the lovely white frosting become a backdrop for drops of his apple red blood. It was then that he took an early leave of his party guests. As they were diverted from the unexpected crisis with Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Musical Chairs and were fed cookies and ice cream instead of bloody birthday cake, the toddler Caleb lay in his room, gauze against his upper gum where the seam of the cleft ran. Some party, it occurred to him. Before the day was over, Caleb found himself, his party hat still jauntily tilted to the side 4


of his egg shaped head, in the emergency room being looked at. Nothing serious, the doctor diagnosed to the immense relief of Caleb’s Mom and Dad. Caleb would, he assured them, be fine.

SUBTERRANEAN TODDLER KINGDOMS

Bertie was Caleb’s cousin, four years older, the son of his Uncle Pal and Aunt Vee Vee. He was a beautiful blonde child. Back then Uncle Pal and Aunt Vee Vee lived in The Heights, a development on the northwest side of town. The houses were all sided with the same kind of asbestos siding, just in different colors. Uncle Pal, Aunt Vee Vee and Bertie lived in a morning glory blue asbestos house. If at any time back then you’d ask little Caleb what he wanted to do, he’d probably have told you visit his cousin Bertie. From his earliest times, he knew Bertie. When they’d get together, the adults would entrust the older boy to watch Caleb. Bertie lived up to his solemn duty by doing things like leading young and gullible Caleb to the backyard, where, beneath the clear skies that were only broken by the many power lines, he’d fed his young charge a pat of dirt which he’d told him was a chocolate cookie. Fortunately, Caleb’s taste buds rebelled at the gritty, raw mineral dirt flavor, and he’d spit it out, mortified by life’s injustice. It could have gone worse, allowing one older small boy to take care of another. It wasn’t that Bertie didn’t take his responsibility seriously but more that his judgement wasn’t very good. He needed watching himself, but back then people kept a looser reign on their kids. Bertie learned to ride a two wheel bicycle. The bike opened to him an expansive world 5


of mobility and freedom that he wanted to share with his not yet three year old cousin, so he cajoled him into riding on the handlebars. Caleb, who was still in diapers, had found this activity to be too scarey and had made his cousin, dressed in overalls, let him off. They were in front of Bertie’s house. Uncle Pal and Aunt Vee Vee’s sweet morning glory blue house was one on a row of the varying pastel asbestos homes that faced a huge gravel filled lot, on the other side of which was a small grocery store. Bertie used emotional manipulation on Caleb and told him that unless he rode on the handlebars, they would no longer be cousins or friends. A perfect co-dependent in the making, Caleb, against his better toddler judgement, got back on the handlebars and allowed Bertie to hot rod them back and forth on the sidewalk and then to the wilder terrain of the larger, gravel filled lot. Yes, it was scarey, and of course, Bertie wiped out with his cousin on the handlebars in the gravel. They were both skinned up, and Caleb was crying and mad. “Don’t worry. You’re my number one cousin,” Bertie told the crying two year old, and to prove it, or maybe to shut him up, he gave his little cousin one of his old harmonicas, this one in the key of C. He also brought out one for himself and for several hours, they sat on the concrete slab that served as a front porch. Bertie taught his little cousin how to play ‘Old Susanna’, which Caleb thought quite wonderful. During their session, Aunt Vee Vee brought them tall glasses of iced tea. Caleb practiced the see-saw progression of notes as he gazed at the gravel filled lot where he’d earlier suffered his accident. There was the sky, the grocery store in the distance, the gravel, the sidewalk, and the patches of green that made up Uncle Pal and Aunt Vee Vee’s little patch of yard. Pretty soon they were both playing the whole song. They were playing the part that went, well I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee, when a stranger in a suit came up to the 6


porch where they were. It was a cheap looking suit. He was a man probably in his twenties, and he wore his hair slicked back. He looked at the two boys and said, “My gosh, you two ought to be in the movies playing your harmonicas.” Bertie looked skeptically at the stranger. Caleb had no such compunctions about speaking to people he didn’t know, despite his parents warnings to never do so, but before Caleb could explain in baby talk the entire adventure up until that point, the stranger stepped past them and knocked on the door. Aunt Vee Vee answered and said, “What do you want, sir?” The young man smiled and explained that he was with Bergerman’s, which was one of the clothing stores in town. He told Aunt Vee Vee that he’d been sent there by his employers to see if Aunt Vee Vee would be suitable as a model. Demonstrating that Aunt Vee Vee was more feckless than her six year old, she invited the late fifties version of a pervert into her home. Please remember that this was a more innocent time in general, so that even creepy weirdos weren’t commonly violent as they are now nor did people live as suspiciously as nowadays. Aunt Vee Vee never even knew until after the fact that the young man who’d had her stand on her kitchen chair and sway so that her skirt flew up and showed her legs wasn’t really a modeling agent for Bergerman’s. Bergerman’s didn’t have either modeling scouts or models. The two boys had interrupted their harmonica jam to watch Bertie’s Mom provide the stranger with jack off fodder as she twirled in the chair. “Fantastic,” the young man said. Bertie looked at Caleb and said, “Want to do something else for awhile. You can have the harmonica for keeps.” Anything his older cousin wanted to do, Caleb would go along with, even agreeing to get back on the handlebars, so they went with Bertie’s best friend, Jake, 7


hunting for crayfish in a huge drainage ditch the kids called The White City River. Jake didn’t live in The Heights but in a two story brick home. His parents owned two of the gas stations in town. Whereas Caleb was half Italian from his Mom’s family, Jake was full blooded Italian. His skin was a light olive tone and his dark hair was a mass of curls. That day he was wearing a buckskin cowboy shirt. They rode bikes to White City River, Caleb on his cousin’s handlebars at two, manfully trying not to break into tears as they dodged traffic on the cobblestone side streets.

Barefoot they waded in the murky ankle deep water until a crayfish nipped Caleb’s toe, causing the hunt to end as he had a screaming fit. As he lay on the dirty shore of White City River, Jake observed, “He’s quite a baby.” At this insult, Caleb stood up and shouted through his tears, “I’m no baby.” Jake reposited dryly, “Well, you are wearing a diaper and crying.” This was impossible to tolerate, and Caleb decided to find his own way home without the aid of his treacherous older cousin and his mean friend. He dramatically announced, “I’m going home.” Bertie tried to sooth things over. “I’ll give you a ride back on my handlebars,” he offered. “No, no, no,” Caleb asserted, and started on his way home. Being three, he didn’t have any sense of direction, so he headed down the shore of White City River to where it went under the streets for half a mile. Once hidden, it wended it’s way beneath the town until it opened in the country and continued to a small lake. In the subterranean stretch of the drainage ditch, it wasn’t dark, simply damp and shady, 8


and as soon as Caleb had entered it, his eyes became accustomed to the dimness, and he headed toward the yellowish light of the storm drain that was at the corner a block away. “Hey, Caleb, you better come back,” Bertie called. Jake said, “Let him go. He’s two years old. He’ll get scared and come back.” “I’m no baby,” he shrilly screamed in the direction of their voices, for he could no longer see the entrance where he’d come into this underground channel. Caleb was doubly mortified because the exertion of his retort had caused him to shit himself. He looked around. There was no longer a dirt and rock shore, but the drainage ditch was now an austere catacomb of mossy concrete shores enclosed by cement walls and ceiling. Caleb stood by the dark waters in the shadowy light coming through the storm drain above him. Ahead he could see light from the next storm drain. He took out his harmonica and played the song ‘Oh Susanna’ as he walked toward the direction he figured would take him home. Caleb’s impressionable age, the dim light, it all made the long chambers seem spirit filled, and in the shadows Caleb saw other babies like himself, cupid like and all white or all black, peeking at him. Caleb thought he saw one little boy plunge his head in the depths of the silty bottom of the waters. Caleb was afraid to venture where the cupid silently appeared to struggle unsuccessfully to remove his stuck noggin, so he hurried past the sight. And at the corner of every block there was light coming down from the world above, like lanterns showing Caleb the way. He didn’t mind being among the mute black and white cupids who continued to peek at him from the darkest areas. Caleb got tired of playing his harmonica, and when he quit, he was struck by how quiet it was. It was far into the underground channel at one of the darker points between storm drains that Caleb encountered his guardian angel. She was standing on the concrete shore and seemed 9


startled to see him. She said, “I was wondering who was playing ‘Oh Susanna’.” “Who are you?” Caleb asked. His guardian angel scrutinized him carefully. She had long, lustrous, knotted hair, dressed in leaves and twigs. Pale skin. She was in a long diaphanous gown. When she spoke her voice carried an empty subterranean ring. “I’m your guardian angel,” she informed him. For about a minute, the two of them stood there, each of them awkwardly waiting for the other to do something. Finally, as if she’d suddenly remembered why she was down there, she started fishing around in one of the hip pockets of her diaphanous gown. Looking at Caleb she bit her lip and said, “I don’t suppose you have a match.” “Matches! No, I’m a baby!” Caleb declared. “Really?” she said finding her cigarettes and matches. She took out a smoke, lit it and inhaled deeply. “Baby?” “Yes,” Caleb said, “I’m a baby.” Even his toddler brain registered that he was belaboring the obvious. His guardian angel blew cigarette smoke at him, causing him to cough. She said, “Well what are you doing walking down here by yourself if you’re a baby?” “I’m going home,” Caleb explained, then in the nonlinear narrative of the nearly three year old, Caleb started to tell her about the entire day and ask where she’d been when his cousin had been ripping around the gravel parking lot and why hadn’t she intervened in the crab toe pinching incident if she were supposed to be looking out for him. What was she doing instead, smoking cigarettes in the drainage ditch? Even a semi-divine or divine presence has her limits, and from her pocket she pulled out a red object and offered it to Caleb. It was a toy car. Though he recognized what it was, he 10


didn’t understand why his guardian angel would give him a toy car, something his parents could buy for him at Woolworth’s, and he said, “What’s that?” “It’s a toy car,” the spirit told him. Caleb took it from her. It was a little red toy convertible. “Thanks,” he told her. “I’m going now. Bye.” “Bye. You be careful,” his guardian angel advised. He left her. The toy was small, and he put it in his pocket with his harmonica and soon he could no longer see her. Then he came to another grainy light streaming in from outside the storm drain, gaseous and yellow against the slate grey of the vaulted walls and ceiling. Caleb simply continued in the direction that he’d been going until he came to the end of the drainage ditch. He emerged from the dark into the bright daylight and had to squint until his eyes got used to the sun. There was a pond that was surrounded by trees, fields and meadows. Caleb walked around the edge of it, marveling at the metallic sided fish breaking the surface of the water and splashing in the light. All along the shore there were used condoms, which to Caleb looked like pale stars dotting the mud, grass and reeds. Caleb sat down and played ‘Old Susanna’. As he played, he could see the bodies of the fish flash near the surface as they came closer toward the music. The fish were gigantic, and looked not unlike silver and green limbless babies. About an hour and a half later, that’s where they found him, sitting on the bank serenading the fish. Uncle Pal, Aunt Vee Vee and Bertie, who was being carried by Aunt Vee Vee, came out of the drainage ditch just as Caleb had earlier, and he could tell that they were excited. Uncle Pal ran up to him. He seemed really happy or mad. He said, “Bertie told us that a man took you with him.” 11


Bertie was furiously nodding his head, bugging his eyes and in every way indicating that Caleb should go along with this made up story. Caleb replied, “Yeah, the man who was looking up Aunt Vee Vee’s dress!” Evidently this was a part of the story that Bertie had left out because he rolled his eyes, and Uncle Pal began looking more mad than scared. Uncle Pal said, “What do you mean the man who was looking up her dress? What man?” “She was dancing on the chair for him. Then he came outside and took me here.” Uncle Pal said, “Did he touch your tallywacker?” “Naw. Hey, you see my guardian angel?” “What.” Caleb went on to explain about his seeing and speaking to her, but they seemed skeptical. “What about them little babies? Did you see them? Did you see the one. He...he was in the water. His head was in mud. Did you see him? ” “No. Caleb stop making stuff up. You know it’s not nice to lie. Just stick to the truth and tell us more about the man who brought you here,” Uncle Pal said. Caleb was indignant that they didn’t believe him about his guardian angel and the black and white toddlers. “My guardian angel is in there. She gave me this,” Caleb insisted to them, showing them the toy car to prove it. “Did he give it to you?” Uncle Pal asked. “My guardian angel’s a lady,” Caleb corrected them. Uncle Pal started in again. “Are you sure he didn’t-“ ”No one touched my tallywacker. It’s fine. I’m hungry and I want to go home. I thought this was the way,” Caleb said, closing the book on the subject. Not being believed about the fantastic truth was exasperating, but he knew that nothing good usually came from having to 12


defend or elaborate lies. The next step might well be tears. Bertie backed his cousin’s sentiment and said, “I’m hungry too.” Before they went back home, Aunt Vee Vee had to explain that she wasn’t having an affair with some child abducting weirdo, but had been showing off her gams as a kind of audition for a model scout from Bergerman’s. Uncle Pal’s face got red, and he said, “Bergerman’s doesn’t have any damn models. I can’t believe you let some bum in our house and, and showed him your legs. Let me get this right. Caleb said this was the guy who took him, and that you were up on the kitchen chair, and he was looking up your dress, Vee Vee?” Aunt Vee Vee said, “The boys were gone when that fellow left, and Bertie’s bike was gone too, so I thought he was driving Caleb around the neighborhood.” Caleb said, “Now I remember. It wasn’t that man at all. It was another man.” Uncle Pal said, “Who was it now, your guardian angel?” “No, my guardian angel’s a girl I told you,” Caleb again corrected Uncle Pal on the matter of his guardian angel’s gender. Still Uncle Pal wouldn’t drop the stupid Bertie generated fabrication. Now he wanted details. “Tell me about the man who took you away,” Uncle Pal said, all seriousness. It was then that Caleb got the idea to embellish the lie; alas, his magical three year old grasp on reality proved to be an obstacle in helping make his lie credible. Caleb improvised, “The man who took me...he was the giant from Jack in the Beanstalk!” Unable to contain herself any longer, Aunt Vee Vee said indignantly, “Well, if that fellow wasn’t a leg model from Bergerman’s, what did he want me to stand on the chair and twirl around for?” 13


“Oh Vee Vee,” Uncle Pal said. That’s all it took to set off a scream-fest between Uncle Pal and Aunt Vee Vee, and there was no more talk of what had actually happened. Now it was fightin’ time. Vee Vee was from Indian stock, her grandfather having been arrested for running a horse through a crowd and firing a gun for no reason; well, he was drunk. It might as well be said now that bitter verbal arguments, both public and private, were a major component of Vee Vee and Uncle Pal’s married lives. Recriminations, insults, righteous rage, wounded feelings, tears, the flying spray of angry words, and occasional objects being broken were part of Uncle Pal’s and Aunt Vee Vee’s show. It was embarrassing to witness and cultivated in Bertie an unwillingness to argue that he shared with his cousin Caleb, though Caleb’s reluctance for confrontation was more rooted in fear of abandonment. Uncle Pal and Aunt Vee Vee screeched and preened in front of each other, he pointing out that she was stupid to let a stranger in the house to look at her legs and irresponsible for allowing the boys to get away from her supervision. Like Elmer Gantry on the mount, Uncle Pal stamped his feet and pointed his finger at his wife. Then he went back to talking about the guy who conned her into giving him a leg show, and then he touched on to the subject of her profligate spending. For her part, Aunt Vee Vee asserted in a most red faced, shrill and aggressive manner that she wasn’t stupid, and that anybody could have fallen for the smooth operator who had convinced her that he was an modeling agent. Fury nearly made her levitate, her arms to her sides and her fists shaking, her whole body vibrating. She also brought up Uncle Pal’s not making enough money, spending too much time either working or playing cards, his drinking and her suspicions regarding a certain woman who worked the same shift as Uncle Pal. Her performance then became animated, with her stamping her feet and stomping back and forth, 14


cursing like a sailor all the while. What a sight. Even the fish in the pond were watching. But Bertie could be observed actually shutting his parents out and turning inward like some sort of six year old religious mystic. Noticing his cousin, Caleb turned away from the show. “Come on, Bertie, let’s play harmonicas,” Caleb said taking his older cousin by the hand. Bertie led Caleb to the edge of the pond, where the battling parents took a moment to scream at the kids to get away from the edge of the water. They moved far enough away to allow the adults to focus their attention on the important matter of hurting each other’s feelings. Caleb and Bertie sat among the green, leafy, swaying tendrils under a weeping willow tree. The two young boys watched the fish break the surface of the blue sheet of pond. Bertie said, “Dad said in a couple of years you can go fishing with him and me and your dad.” Caleb wasn’t sure what fishing entailed. He had the idea that it was a friendly visit with aquatic life, and he imagined his cousin Bertie, his Uncle Pal, and his Dad all underwater and talking with the fish. With that thought in mind, he then got out his harmonica and began sawing the notes of ‘Oh Susanna’, and Bertie got out his harmonica and joined in as Uncle Pal and Aunt Vee Vee carried on like they hadn’t any sense.

No one could understand what Caleb was saying when he began kindergarten. Caleb had not anticipated school. When it had been brought up, he’d thought little about it. Before schooldays had begun Caleb had spent his mornings and afternoons toddling around his parents’ property, petting the German Shepard Sheeba and getting into the chicken pen where he would indulge in a round of chasing the hens. He had enjoyed floating his toy boats in the little stream 15


past the barn and running in the meadow. And as mentioned, he would sometimes visit with his cousin Bertie, about whom more will be said in the next chapter. Kindergarten changed all that. The fact that for weeks no one could understand what he said did not prevent one little girl, Betty Alben, from developing a crush on Caleb. Betty had dark ringlets and was extraordinarily possessive. She was constantly trying to prevent Caleb from playing with anyone but her. She had a fondness for playing pretend family with her as the wife and Caleb as the husband. Caleb, exhausted by his efforts to talk and be understood as well as exasperated by the unwanted attentions of Betty, decided to leave kindergarten. It was sometime during the second week of school that he decided to walk home and have nothing else to do with either education or other boys and girls. For him would be a life spent chasing the hens, exploring the fields and playing with Sheeba. Of course, he promptly got lost half a block from school, started crying and was spotted by an elderly resident of the neighborhood who took his hand and returned him to his proper place. Adjustments included naps on mats on the floor. He couldn’t sleep during the day, and although he had enjoyed picking out his rug, a multi-colored weave with a predominance of purple and yellow, spreading it upon the hard tile floor and lying upon it wasn’t the same as lying in his own bed at night. He’d toss and turn, squirm upon the rug on the hard floor and try to find other students who were unable to sleep. The other reasonable folk to whom sleep in the daytime was anathema would exchange bored looks or make little waving gestures. It was ridiculous. Stupid routines arbitrarily imposed upon him, that and the other kids he had to be around drove Caleb crazy, and he showed his dissatisfaction with it all when it was his turn to use the little single student sized kindergarten toilet. Standing there in the narrow confines of the little 16


person lavatory, Caleb peed all over the floor. He hadn’t meant to, but when he was standing there, he impulsively aimed outside the porcelain rim and cut loose. It was fun in a bad way, but nothing good came of it, and Caleb was almost caught. The next kid in there, little Terry Murph, stepped in Caleb’s puddle and, unsurprisingly, ran screaming out. The teacher, Mrs. Bestsy Bootrite, was quite angry and possibly suspected Caleb, who coolly denied the deed, claiming the puddle had been in there when he’d entered. The rest of the kids who had gone before him testified that there had been no pee when they’d entered the little bathroom. She figured that it was probably Caleb, but Mrs. Bootrite let it go. Caleb made friends, aside from Betty Alben. When she had tired of unsuccessfully trying to control him, he expanded his horizons from playing house to more robust outdoor games. During recess, Caleb and a small, shy, tow headed fellow named Charles Holmes devised a game called Dynamite Boy. Caleb, playing the lead role of Dynamite Boy, would combat different imaginary enemies. Charles was Dynamite Boy’s sidekick, Billy Freemont, who was some kid whom Charles knew and admired. Their imaginary enemies were usually of the cowboy or soldier persuasion, and they would fight the air as well as throw real sticks that they would pretend were sticks of dynamite. When not playing with Caleb, Charles enjoyed quietly cutting construction paper into shapes and pasting the shapes onto larger pieces of paper. Sometimes, when he thought no one was looking, the yellow haired boy would feast upon his paste or even eat small pieces of construction paper. Caleb saw him, and seeing his friend’s furtive habit only endeared him to Caleb. Poor Charlie, he thought. He knew that he did it because it brought him comfort. Much like being alone and quiet generally brought comfort to Caleb. Maybe eating paste and yearning for perfect stillness were ways of coping with the dissatisfaction of being where one is stuck and 17


the dread of anticipating what’s coming next.

From the time he was in kindergarten, Caleb had campaigned to be allowed to go fishing with his Dad, Bertie and Uncle Pal on their annual trip to Reelfoot Lake. Though the men would have let him go at five, his Mom maintained that he was too young. For two and a half years he begged and begged, and finally, when he was in second grade, though she still harbored misgivings and worries, she uneasily relented, and he was allowed to join them. Even the drive there was fun. On the way, the boys put the radio station on KXOK in St. Louis and listened to songs like ‘Ahab the Arab’ and the song about smokin’ cigarettes and watchin’ Captain Kangaroo. Sometimes the signal would grow weak, and they’d listen to the growing static make the voices sound as if they were being transmitted from deep space. The camp was nestled in a backwoods location. On a steeply graded incline where Caleb was afraid the car would tip over backwards, they parked and then hiked to the rough hewn cabin their dads had rented that were situated right on the lake. As soon as they had gotten out of the car, there was the smell of fish and seaweed. The cabins themselves were treehouse shacks that were built directly into the cypress that were growing right out of the water. To get to their shack, they had to walk over shaky docks illuminated by green Christmas lights. To assist them was a crew of cool cats who rented the cabins and boats, cleaned and cooked the fish if you wanted and marginally maintained the camp in the royal manner suggested by the Lao Tzu, that of invisible maintenance. The workers were among the first long haired men that Caleb had seen. Then, after Caleb’s fishing party had settled into their cabins, the wild cool guys cooked them bluegill and hush puppies. Caleb’s Dad and Uncle Pal drank beers with them, Uncle Pal 18


getting more into the spirit of revelry than Caleb’s Dad. One of the fellows had a guitar and another had a radio for some after dinner music. When the guitar player tired of picking the blues, they turned on the local soul station and the men drank and played cards. Caleb and Bertie sat on the dock and night fished. The next morning, Caleb’s Dad woke him at four and herded him outside. It was cold as he got into the little boat. His cousin Bertie and Uncle Pal were in another boat. Both men started little engines and directed the boats to fishing spots all over the lake, and on that weekend, Caleb had beginner’s luck. He pulled in fish after fish and loaded his and his Dad’s ice chest that day. He was won over to fishing.

When Caleb was nine and Bertie thirteen, they campaigned to have their own boat instead of the way they usually paired up, which was fathers with sons. Their Dads said fine. Caleb was more excited than Bertie, who by then was tiring of being with his Dad, Uncle and little cousin. Nevertheless, for Caleb, it was a glorious sign of emancipation. He lay in bed listening to one of the hippie cats playing the soul station all night, and the songs sounded mournful against the backdrop of nocturnal lake critter noises. The Midnight Train to Georgia segued into crickets, frogs and the sound of waves lapping against trees and the shore. Caleb and the others rose from bed about four thirty. At that hour, the air was raw. Their small fishing boats were ready. Caleb and Bertie loaded the ice chests and the fishing gear into the aluminum shells as their Dads stood on the dock overseeing them and smoking a cigarette. The tiny engines sounded loud over the face of the big lake as they cut through the water to a band of trees and reeds far in the middle of the distant waters. Caleb’s Dad and Uncle Pal dropped anchor on the northwest side of the brush, and Bertie trolled his and Caleb’s boat around 19


until they were out of the Dads’ sight. Bertie was just about to drop anchor when someone called them from further around the brush. He steered the little fishing boat to where the voices had come from. “Hey, we need some help over here,” squeaked the voice. It was two fishermen who had gotten their boat stuck in the thick reeds. They were two middle aged, plump looking white men, business types. Both were dressed in expensive new L.L. Bean fishing togs. They seemed surprised to see two boys in a boat. Bertie and Caleb trolled their boat next to the stuck fellows and tried to tow them out with a rope, but they couldn’t. They used their hands to work at pulling the boat loose, reaching into the water and moss and trying to untangle the knotted reeds that held so tightly to the mens’ vessel. For nearly half an hour, Bertie and Caleb worked to free the other boat. As they labored, clouds started gathering overhead. Finally they succeeded. It was as if they could feel something softly break beneath the hull as it drifted out of the treacherous long grass. The soft looking men called thanks as the plumper, older one in back started their motor. The boat they had helped free now puttered away, the weekend sportsmen appreciatively waving goodbye, their fingers like little blimps and their smiles like fading puckered roses, and as they hurriedly left, Caleb and Bertie discovered that they were stuck. Their boys’ yells for help were interpreted as fond farewells by the men they’d rescued, who continued to wave thanks until they were far away dots on the water as the black clouds banked and swirled, and from the horizon came the rumble of thunder. The cousins were just as stuck as the fellows who had been there before them. Now they labored to untangle themselves. They called for their Dads, but they were too far away to hear. While the boys frantically worked, the wind kicked up and the smoke like clouds started rolling toward them like an entity with a mind and purpose. 20


They spent another quarter hour trying fruitlessly to free their boat, and all the while they worked, the skies became darker and the wind stronger. Caleb was tired of tearing away at the long, thick aquatic blades of grass, and he was getting scared. Pretty soon, their Dads did show up, looking uneasy themselves as they called to the boys. Caleb’s Dad said, “Didn’t you hear us calling you? It’s going to storm, we’ve got to get back.” “We’re stuck..” “Oh oh.”. The men didn’t mess around. After some mighty tugs, the boat ripped away from the reeds, and Bertie was able to start his motor as the first sheets of rain swept over the top of the lake. The waves were choppy by now. Before starting back across, Caleb’s Dad and Bertie switched boats. The ride back was terrifying. Lightning was flashing in the blue-black sky, and thunder was rocking the air. The clouds were now like churning sick bruises, and the waves were throwing the little boats up and down, nearly sideways in the swell as the two Dads steered their way back across the lake. Caleb noticed that he was ankle deep in water from the waves relentlessly breaking against the hull and splashing in the boat. He looked across a wave at Bertie and Uncle Pal. The two of them were white as ghosts. Caleb prayed. He told God that if he spared his life, he’d be a better boy. He figured they were all done for.

They weren’t. They were soaking wet when they got to the docks, and the cool cats expressed concerned surprise, or shocked indifference or something when the two boats pulled 21


into the swaying wooden piers. That night, the storm continued. Caleb’s Dad and Uncle Pal drank a bit more than normal with the wild cats in one of the main cabins, and Bertie and Caleb played cards in their cabin. Caleb told his cousin about the promise he’d made to God to be a better boy. Bertie said, “You know what? I made the exact same promise.”

BOYHOOD’S GOLDEN CHALICE

Compared to most couples of that era, Caleb’s Mom and Dad married very late. He was thirty, and she was thirty-one. It was in 1953 when they wed, and 1956 when Caleb was born. As relatively older parents and having grown up in the small town of Chase, they were not given to paying much attention to new fads like rock & roll. Caleb’s Mom and Dad loved the big bands that they’d grown up[ listening to such as the Dorsey brothers, The Benny Goodmen Orchestra and The Lionel Hampton Band. Their idea of fashion was to be clean and have nicely pressed, formal wear, a dark suit for him and a conservative dress for his Mom. Prints were allowable for her, but she eschewed loud colorful ones for those that were more understated. Unlike most married women of that time, Caleb’s Mom worked at the Chase bank as a teller. She’d gotten the job when she was twenty-one. Her job as a banker, her Catholicism and the unadorned fashions of the fifties (the result of the cold war) were the underpinnings of her social and moral conservatism. Caleb’s Dad worked as a dye designer in a machine shop. He could, with much ‘elbow grease’ i.e. cursing, do most mechanical work, as well as some carpentry, electrical and plumbing work. They voted Democrat, but like most white Americans 22


of that time, they had a most republican distrust of the communists, the blacks, gays and the crazy students from the nearby university. In their world, women knew their place. And even if they were emancipated enough to go to work, they weren’t exempted from the traditional household chores and were still expected to cook clean and somehow meet the needs of their kids. So Caleb’s parents didn’t like Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Louis, or any of that. Nevertheless, it was Caleb’s Mom and Dad who told him to stop playing with his army men and come watch The Ed Sullivan Show the night that The Beatles played. His parents thought it was funny, and Caleb did too, imitating their head shaking capers. If only it had ended there, this story, as well as the story of American and world culture would be different. In the ensuing years, Caleb started seeing older boys combing their hair forward into funny little bangs. They wore their pants tight and wore Beatle Boots. Very cool. Bertie’s pal, Jake, led the way growing his curly waves into unruly bangs that fell in his eyes. The girls’ fashions took a mod turn in that the girls stopped wearing their hair high up in beehives and waves and started ironing it straight and wearing it down and parted in the middle, or shorn like Twiggy. Also, there were mini-skirts, which the high school forbade. And when the fads didn’t go away, the schools forbade boys’ hair to be over a certain length. Bertie combed his hair forward and got a pair of Beatle Boots. He was in junior high by then. Caleb, though only in third grade, liked the fashions. He wanted to look mod. The Beatle Boots, the hair and the pants. That would have made Caleb feel handsome. And when he was in forth grade and had to get specs, having mod looking, gold framed granny glasses would have helped him feel better about his appearence. But of course, Caleb’s parents, when they stopped being condescendingly amused by it 23


all, figured that The Beatles, the Twiggys and all of their ilk were a bad influence. So every three weeks, Caleb had to go to Cronin’s Barber Shop and have his hair shaved up the back and on the sides. There was enough on top for a few unsightly cowlicks. Nor were there to be any Beatle Boots on Caleb’s feet. The coolest shoes that Caleb was able to get were ivy-league style penny loafers. Also at the rate that kids grew, Caleb’s dungarees were a bought a little large to accommodate growth spurts. They were always straight legged and with pleats at the hips that could be let out. So he usually looked foolish in his clothes, and when he had to get glasses, it was thick,.black frames for Caleb. Are you getting a picture of our young hero? Harelip, dorky hair, nerdy pants and glasses. His Mom and Dad thought that he looked just fine for a kid his age. His parents were reasonably attractive people. They didn’t figure someone who had problems with the way he or she looked would benefit from following a fashion, not that it would have changed Caleb’s basic appearance; it would have simply made him feel better about himself at the time. But why would it be important to follow weird people who were bad examples, Caleb’s parents might pithily ask. So to fight the power, Caleb would use butch wax to paste the short strands of hair on his forehead into Caesarian bangs, which his Mom and Dad found amusing, “You look like Ish Kabibble,” they’d merrily observe at his doomed efforts to make himself cool and handsome. Around the third or, if he could push it, the fourth week without a haircut, Caleb would try to push the nubs on the back of his neck into a hoodlum’s ducktail, since the cool long fluffy look was entirely out his hair length’s possibility. Caleb also wore his freak flag high by walking around with a transistor radio, a birthday gift from his Mom and Dad, glued to his ear and listening to KXOK. Yes, bopping down the sidewalk with his transistor radio tinnily blaring ‘Hang On Sloopy’, Caleb felt himself quite the mod-dandy, just a breath away from being a long 24


haired, Beatle booted, straight out of Carnaby street cool-boy.

Caleb’s Dad loved horses, and from the time that Caleb could walk, his Dad had him riding, cleaning shit from the stalls, feeding and watering them, but his Dad also had other interests in which he involved the family. Caleb’s Mom was too tired from working all day, then coming home and both cooking and washing the dishes by herself as well as keeping the house clean to give much of a fuck about any damn hobbies. After having worked with the public all day, she would have preferred to have zoned out in front of the t.v. all night, but she went along with her husband’s enthusiasms. On Saturday nights during the fall and winter months, Caleb’s Dad was on a bowling team that played in a league. Caleb and his Mom went with him. Some of the wives of the other players came. Caleb’s Mom and the other wives and moms of the bowlers would sit around, talk and watch their hubbies bowl. Caleb played with two little girls who were the daughters of two of his Dad’s co-bowlers. The girls’ names were Audrey Redmond and Emily Montoni. Their Dad’s names were Snooze and Tony. The wives were Daisy and Frieda. Caleb and his gal pals would play tag among the rows of plastic blue and white chairs where spectators sat. They’d also sit at a red leather booth in the concession and grill room and play Old Maid and Hearts. Audrey was very fair skinned and about three years younger than Caleb. Emily was olive complected and two years older than him. Snooze and Tony both owned camping trailers and motor boats. They camped at an area by Crab Orchard Lake. Evidently they made this activity sound irresistible because before it was spring, Caleb’s Dad had bought both a Shasta trailer and a blue and white fiberglass motorboat. 25


Caleb heard his parents arguing about the purchases the night he’d brought them home. His Mom liked to invest in low interest bearing c-d’s, bonds and occasionally municipal funds. His Dad liked to spend money on stuff he liked. Their yelling upset Caleb so that it took him an extra five minutes to fall asleep. In spite of the marital discord they had inspired, Caleb was thrilled with the trailer and boat. The trailer had a coffee table at one end. On either side of the table were seats that, when the table was folded and fastened to the roof, could be unfolded and pushed together to form a bed. In the center of the trailer on one side was a refrigerator and tiny powder room, and on the other was a small sink, dish rack and cutting board. On the far end of the trailer were two bunk beds. The interior was fake maple. The boat was light blue fiberglass and of a rather boxy design. Caleb sat in it and pretended that he was Batman and that the boat was the Bat Boat. On Memorial Day, the camping season started, and his Mom and Dad took him camping. There were dozens of trailers dotting the area around the lakes inlet. Docks lined the shore and jutted out upon the water, and there was a floating filling station for boats that was right on the water and was next to a beach and swimming area. The camping area was about two hundred acres of rolling green hills and woods. There were water pumps and public facilities as well as a large house where the caretaker and his wife lived. Trees were festooned with lines of gaily colored hanging lanterns, and at the heart of each campsite, in place of the cozy campfire, there were comforting televisions broadcasting St. Louis Cardinals baseball during the daytime, and shows like The Honeymooners and Gunsmoke in the evenings. During the day there were, besides laying about and watching tv outdoors, swimming and water skiing. It took two Saturday afternoons for Caleb to learn to water ski on two skis. Emily and 26


Audrey as well as all of the adults, (with the exception of Caleb’s Mom who never swam or water skied or even owned a bathing suit), all of the rest of them used one ski. On their one ski they would lightly skirt back and forth over the wakes left by the motor boats. Caleb would clumsily ski along on his two slats, his two ski style not as cool looking but nonetheless all he could manage. Even having to use two unwieldy skies it was still fun. They would take off from the big pier at the end of the little peninsula. The boat would drag Caleb on his skies out of the water, and would speed out of the inlet toward the shining waters of the main body of Crab Orchard Lake. On the way to the silvery expanse ahead, Caleb would ski past incoming as well as other outgoing motorboats, pontoons and cabin cruisers. In those days, drinking and boating were considered two fun activities that went well together, like peanut butter and chocolate, so the people in the boats would often raise their glasses and bottles in drunkenly cavalier toasts as they would wave to Caleb and his Mom and Dad. Sometimes Caleb would be skiing next to Emily and Audrey, all of them hopping the waves. Sometimes, The drivers would make sharp turns in the water, causing the skier to accelerate in a crack the whip fashion. After a day of waterskiing, Caleb’s thighs would be sore and tired. The first weekend when Caleb was still learning, he was in the water at the end of the pier. He was facing the back of the his parents’ boat. The nylon rope that he held floated lazily in the green water. Then Caleb looked over his shoulder at the dock where Snooze and Tony and their families were getting ready to get in their boats. Peeking out between the dark green fabric of Tony’s bathing suit and his hairy thigh, like two grapes, or eggs in a lightly haired, blue veined, tan ball sack, were Tony’s balls. As the 27


squat, dark Italian man unfastened the rope holding his family’s purple boat, he leaned, and in leaning exposed the knob of his penis. Caleb turned back toward the boat. His parents were waiting for him to give them the thumbs up sign. Thumbs up, and up and out of the water shot Caleb, Tony’s exposed balls and peter forgotten in the excitement of water skiing. But later that afternoon, when the skiing was finished and the adults were sitting around the television and Caleb was sitting at a picnic table with Audrey and Emily, he looked over at the grown-ups. At first, all seemed well. Caleb’s Mom and Dad and the other two couples were watching television. In addition to watching t.v., the men were cooking supper, grilled barbecue chicken. Everyone but Caleb’s Mom was having a beer. It was then that Caleb again noticed Tony’s dick and balls hanging out of his bathing trunks. Sometimes, like when he was standing around the grill, there would only be demur glimpses of the bottom of Tony’s balls. Although Caleb wasn’t overly bothered by the thought of germs, he still felt a growing unease as he watched Tony hovering around the grill, turning the chicken and occasionally spraying the coals with beer. Keep those balls away from the food, Caleb thought just before Emily chirped, “It’s your turn Caleb.” Other times, like for instance when Tony would be standing up and telling some story, both of his nuts and the entire knob and shaft of his peter would be defiantly bouncing and bobbing as if angrily punctuating the high points of Tony’s stories. Tony’s expressively gesticulating peter and balls reminded Caleb of an old newsreel of Hitler giving a speech. Caleb couldn’t believe that he was the only one witnessing this. Why, even when Tony was sitting in a lawn chair with his legs crossed, there was apt to be one ball happily poking out from under Tony’s crossed leg. Caleb had to fight the urge to go over and give it a good thump, a sturdy flick with his finger; then Tony would think twice about leaving those things hanging loose. 28


Later that evening, when Caleb was back with his parents in their trailer, he said, “Did anybody see Tony’s nuts?” Caleb’s Mom’s face turned red, and she said, “Why, no, what are you talking about?” Caleb’s Dad was a bit more forthcoming, “Did you see ‘em too? That Tony is one crazy guy.” Caleb’s Dad chuckled as if letting your balls and peter hang free for not only your own family but for everyone else’s wives and kids to see was some sort of jolly joke. And that was that. But Caleb didn’t want to just accept it as being ‘that crazy Tony.’ Caleb didn’t subscribe to the, ‘Don’t try to change him, just appreciate him for who he is,’ way of thinking. The heck with that. Caleb felt that if Tony were willing to casually put his dick and balls out there like that, he should also be ready to take some heat. The next day, while all the women were busy taking a morning constitutional, probably to get away from the men, Caleb slipped several bb’s in his mouth and pocketed his makeshift pea-shooter, a large red and white striped straw. He also got a book he’d been reading, My Name Is Aram, by William Saroyan, and he sat outside on the picnic bench, pretending to read and waiting until the perfect moment came. It was when Caleb’s Dad and Snooze were hooking up a record player and were distracted that Caleb saw his chance. Tony was bending over an ice chest to get a beer. As the man bent lower and lower, hello, there were both balls and dick taking their own morning constitutional and shining in the morning sun. Snooze and Caleb’s Dad were so busy working that they weren’t paying attention to anything but the stereo. Caleb knew that he might not have another chance like this for weeks, and he brought the straw to his lips and shot the bb at the back of Tony’s nutsack. God was certainly guiding Caleb’s aim that morning, for He or She sent the bb straight 29


and true to its designated target. Silent joy filled Caleb’s being as he watched Tony blast off about ten feet in the air then dance around the campsite holding his balls and howling bloody murder about having been stung by a wasp. “I think I need to go to a hospital! Look!” Tony cried, holding his balls for Caleb’s Dad and Snooze’s scrutiny. Neither of them seemed anxious to get close enough to Tony’s nutsack to diagnose how serious they thought his wound was, so Tony filled a towel with ice and retired to his trailer, where presumably, he calmed down. After an hour, he warily emerged, limping and darkly muttering about suing the owners of the camp site. Even better, his genitalia was no longer dangling. Caleb was rapturous. And it was even more heartening that ever afterward, Tony kept his peter and balls hidden and, Caleb assumed, under tight wraps.

Camping was lots of fun, but the next summer would be the last one his family would spend doing that. Two weeks before Labor Day, Snooze and Tony got into a fight. Much like The Great Gatsby, Tony had been giving Daisy a more forthright, romantic gander at his dick and balls in private on a regular basis and had been caught by Frieda, who told Snooze. Rather than getting even with their spouses by having a swinging affair of their own, Snooze elected to kick Tony’s ass instead. The unmendable rift ensued. The last two weeks of the camping year, Caleb and his parents trailer was the only one in the camp spot. Caleb missed Emily and Audrey. That winter neither Snooze nor Tony bowled. During the spring, Caleb’s Dad sold the trailer, and the next fall, he didn’t sign up for bowling.

Caleb’s Dad was something of a renaissance handyman who could wire a house or fix a lamp, could install and repair plumbing or work on a car or any kind of motor. He worked at a 30


drafting table in a machine shop and designed dyes to be used in heavy industrial machinery. He would have loved to have passed on his knowledge of electricity and plumbing and simple mechanics to his baby boy, but Caleb could break a hammer. Furthermore, his Dad figured, judged solely by his mechanical acuity, Caleb would have to be considered to be an idiot of the highest degree. Ask Caleb to bring you a level, and he would hand you a wrench. Still, Caleb’s sweet old Dad tried his best. That his best oft’ times involved vehement cursing and the throwing of tools was not entirely his Dad’s fault. True, if he’d had more patience, maybe Caleb would have done better. Probably not though. Working on projects of a mechanical nature with Caleb wasn’t only frustrating but downright hazardous. Even under close supervision, the boy had started a car fire in their barn when working on the braking system of the family station wagon. Caleb’s Dad had never been able to figure out how he’d done it. Another time, while working on wiring an outlet in the house, his Dad was knocked across the room by a live wire that Caleb had switched back on after he’d turned it off himself. During a plumbing lesson, the boy had managed to break a seam in the piping that nearly flooded the basement. “You can stop tightening it now, Caleb. No, really, stop tightening it,” was the last thing Caleb’s Dad had said before Caleb, somehow mishearing what had been said, had tightened the water line a little more and broken the fucking thing. While holding a flashlight for his Dad to tune up their family station wagon, Caleb had somehow dropped a pen down the carburetor. “Oopsie,” he’d said. And asking Caleb to go to the tool chest and bring a tool was useless. He couldn’t ever find anything you’d ask for, let alone remember the difference between, say, a regular screw driver and a phillips screw driver. “Goddamn it! Can’t you see the fucking rachet set? I can see 31


the set right on top of the tool box. Fuck, Caleb, are you blind? Shit, Goddamn it!” And at this point he would generally throw whatever tool he was using, drop whatever he was doing and get the thing himself with much angry cursing. And while he never picked up his Dad’s gift for working with mechanical things, Caleb did learn to curse, and would occasionally curse in front of his parents. For instance, they might be in the car, talking about their day, and if Caleb had a hard time with his teacher, he might sigh and tell them, “That Mrs. Hatfield was such a bitch. She can just kiss my ass if she thinks I’m going to do that extra work. Fuck her.” Such an utterance would earn Caleb a swat to the head from his Dad, and his Mom would say, “I hate that word, the f word. Where did you learn to talk like that?” Caleb would say he was sorry and that he didn’t know where he’d heard such things. Caleb wasn’t always a potty mouth, and had been, in some ways, from an early age a sensitive boy, easily overwrought and anxious, easily worried and frightened. Perhaps the rarified luxury of so much solitude weighed too heavily upon him. His Mom fretted over him a lot. There could be an argument made that Caleb was, in fact, a hothouse flower rather than the hale and hearty good fellow well met sort. You the reader can decide for yourself. There was his strong reactions to some songs. For example, although Caleb loved the show The Twilight Zone, he couldn’t abide the scarey theme song. He’d cower or leave the room until it was over, earning jeers from Bertie when they’d be staying at their Granny Jones’ house and The Twilight Zone would start. The stories might be scarey, but he’d watch them; however, listen to the theme song? No. It wasn’t just The Twilight Zone theme song, but throughout his childhood, certain melodies would elicit in him the shuddering jimmy-jams. The Jimmy Webb song ‘Cheer Up Sleepy Gene’, sung by the Monkees was another bit of music that he couldn’t abide. It was a 32


good song which was hinged on a lovely pop hook, but if it came on the radio or they started playing it on their show, Caleb would have to turn it off or walk out of the room. Something about it creeped him out. ‘No Time Left For You’ by The Guess Who. Same thing. Again, it was a good enough song, but something about the lyrics and melody...”No time for a summer friend. No time for the love you send. Seasons change and so did I...” These songs spoke to his fears, his sense of regret and impermanence. And what was there to be afraid of? Abandonment? Being alone? That’s what Caleb liked, and it wasn’t that he disliked the songs. On the contrary, Caleb found each of them compelling, but inexplicably, they also filled him with a nameless and overwhelming dismay. And his fear of the dark had lasted longer than normal. Once he accidently turned off his night light on one of his nightly bathroom trips, and, suddenly enveloped in darkness, had imagined all sorts of things surrounding him. Crusty handed drunks and wolfish hillbillies. He could feel their presence as if they were gamboling inches from him. “Yeeeeeeee,” he’d screamed, bringing his parents running to his aid. Something as innocuous as squeezing too much toothpaste on his toothbrush could bother him. Being allowed free reign of the adult section of the public library since early childhood, he read enough for two hothouse flowers, and certain books would cause Caleb to be feverish with anxiety for days. A children’s collection of East European folk tales entitled, Noodlehead Stories so completely entertained him that he’d read it all day and into the evening, furiously devouring noodlehead tale after noodlehead tale until, about nine-thirty in the evening, he finished the book. He’d felt light headed and wired from having read so much, and that night thoughts and dreams of the fools in the stories had caused him such anguish that he’d awakened 33


his parents to tearfully tell them that, above all else, he did not want to grow up to be a noodlehead. Ray Bradbury’s I Sing The Body Electric was another book that spoke to Caleb in a very personal and disturbing way. In that collection of stories, it wasn’t the monsters that frightened him, but rather the tales that were grounded in reality and portrayed displaced, lonely, humans. There was one story in particular that really caused Caleb some unnamed anxiety. In it, a middle aged weight lifter lived with his Mom and kept trying to make friends with younger men. Nothing beyond that happened, but its melange of closeted homosexuality and crippling mother love alarmed Caleb.

But really, Caleb wasn’t a hothouse flower. True, there was that incident on the field trip. One of Caleb’s classmates, a Gary Kindler, had a father who owned the town funeral home and mortuary. In fourth grade, Kindler the elder arranged with Caleb’s teacher, Mr. Kemp, to have his class over for a kind of tour/lecture to help familiarize youngsters with our culture’s death practices. At least that’s the reason Caleb later speculated when he tried to figure why he’d been taken there, of all places, for a field trip. Despite Caleb’s odd anxieties and goony night fears, he considered himself a regular guy. He was quick and strong on the playground; well, not at games involving a ball, but with team tag, or in races or rough and tumble play, he was accountable. He enjoyed pretending to be a soldier with his pals when they would play army and dangerously throw clods of dirt and rocks at each other. Caleb wasn’t squeamish about pretend violence. On the bus ride to the funeral and mortuary, Caleb wasn’t feeling dread or any fear whatsoever. He was sitting with his loud pal Johnny and his quiet little tow headed pal from kindergarten, Dynamite Boy side-kick and paste eater Charles Holmes, and Caleb was having so 34


much of a blast cutting up with Johnny and making Charles laugh that Mr. Kemp had yelled at his class twice on the short ride there, threatening them with turning the bus right around if they didn’t behave...etc. So Caleb was in high, nearly irrepressible spirits when the bus pulled up to the gigantic, three story Victorian house that held the business on the first floor and the rooms where Mr. Kindler embalmed and otherwise prepared the bodies in the basement. It was only as the class was walking up the expansive steps of the funeral home that Caleb started to have misgivings. He tried to dismiss his fears as he filed through the double door into the baroque foyer, all deep red velvet drapes and rich red and black carpet. He tried to control his unease as Johnny pushed him into Susan Williams when the class stood in the hallway between the three visitation rooms. Caleb sneakily elbowed Johnny in the ribs as Mr. Kindler stood before them and began to drone on about the inevitability of death and the importance of providing the proper arrangements for yourself and your loved ones. It was never too early to plan these matters, Mr. Kindler stressed, and as he went on, Caleb focused on what the man was saying. Death...mortality...burial...the proper vault...an appropriate coffin. Mr. Kindler conjured images of distant Elysian Fields and the rivers of eternal rest as they moved into the largest visitation room. Caleb and his classmates watched the director speak of his professional manner in dealing with bereaved families. There were green and gold tones predominating in this place. Mr. Kindler stood before them in front of an open casket, which the class came in closer to observe as he described the superior construction and luxurious detail of this top of the line model. Caleb felt distinctly ill as he looked at the pale mortician, his pencil mustache and dulcet tones oozing from his mouth like poisonous vapors. Several of the students reverentially ran their hands over the satin fabric of the casket’s interior, but the sight of them touching the death cloth gave Caleb the dizzies so badly that he had to look 35


away. Then, when everyone had gotten their fill of admiring Mr. Kindler’s flagship model coffin, he led them from the grand visitation lounge to a room in the rear of the house which was the showroom for both caskets and vaults. Caleb stood queasily in the center of the space as far from the merchandise as he could. His classmates, on the other hand, casually walked among the bronze and iron vaults and the sundry caskets much as they might check out the different models at a car show. Mr. Kindler filled them in on the necessity of a vault in the prevention of the corpse’s decay, lovingly describing the corrosive properties of air and water on a body’s remains. Decay...Decomposition. Caleb thought of dead animals he’d come upon where he lived. How they looked like they were asleep but wouldn’t wake up. And there were maggots and the nauseatingly sweet smell, the smell of death. He thought of his Gramps Jones, whose funeral he’d been to when he had been three. He’d thrown a fit. They’d had to remove him back then. Caleb recalled his Grandpa’s dead profile as he lie in the casket and his futile attempts to wake him up. It was hot in this funeral home. As Mr. Kindler showed them differences among the caskets, Caleb felt himself break into a sweat. Johnny excitedly came up to Caleb and said, “Which coffin do you wanna’ be buried in, Caleb? I think I like that hot little red number in the corner. It’s got some smooth lines, and the interior is super boss.” Caleb forced a smile on his face. He was sweating. “The red one is nice,” Caleb murmured weakly, trying not to look at anything in the room. “Are you alright?” Johnny asked quizzically, adding, “You’re a greeny-white color, Caleb. And you’re sweating like a pig.” “Ah, I’m fine.” 36


Then Mr. Kindler had the class descend a huge winding oak staircase into the cavernous basement. Overhead were florescent lights giving off a sickening illumination to everything. One entire wall was broken into body sized refrigeration units. There were carts, saws and rows of cosmetics. Mr. Kindler addressed the students from behind an alter like table where, he told them, he prepared the cadavers. It was down here that the mortician’s talk of draining putrefying bodily liquids, the mysteries of embalmment and its history, the sewing, stuffing and painting of the fetid, gutless autopsied bodies proved too much for Caleb. Mr. Kindley’s words suddenly took on a magical hollow echo. Caleb’s head grew lighter than helium, and it was at that moment that he fainted dead away. His consciousness was somewhere flying in those Elysian Fields of which Mr. Kindley had been earlier speaking while Caleb’s corporeal essence crumpled to the floor. When he was brought to by his well alarmed teacher and his disquietingly calm host, Caleb blinked himself awake. The overhead florescent lights shined in his eyes and affected his vision so that his classmates looked like a host of wing-necked cherubs. Caleb found himself on the autopsy table! The sweet cherubs started spinning. Caleb’s eyes rolled back. He pitifully and girlishly called for fresh air, a splash of water, oh heavens! And then he fell into another swoon. Back to the distant Elysian Fields, the pretty clouds and the distant shimmering cemetery, I mean, distant shimmering city. When Mr. Kemp was at his quarterly teacher evaluation meeting with the principal, a Mr. Rankin, the principal, questioned the appropriateness of the annual field trip being to the local funeral home. From then on, Mr. Kemp’s class would have to go somewhere else for their annual field trip. Next year, Mr. Kemp didn’t take his class back to Kindley’s Funeral Home. He took 37


them to Vandalia Minimum Security Prison.

Mr. And Mrs. Andellini were the nice elderly couple who had lived in the little house next to the far southeastern corner of Caleb’s parents’ land. There came a day when Mrs. Andellini passed away, and Mr. Andellini moved into town with his daughter and rented out the small country house that was painted a restful color of green with lavender trim. The new tenants moved in two months after Mr. Andellini had settled with his daughter. Both of Caleb’s parents dubbed the new family strange right away. There was a Mom and Dad and a daughter that was Caleb’s age and a son who was a year younger. And why were they strange? Maybe they weren’t so strange. They were poor white folks who lived on ADC, which was some sort of public assistance program, when they were perfectly capable of working. The Mom and Dad were also pretty much public drunks who when they weren’t in one of the more disreputable bars in town, Perry’s Tavern or The Las Vegas, could be found drinking on their porch or in their yard. At times, you could spot them or their lazy, drunken friends lying in their small front yard. Of course, this wasn’t immediately apparent when they first moved into the lovely house. The Mom and Dad, Mr. And Mrs. Goldflag, looked pretty awful. The Mom was emaciated. Her shoulder length mousey hair was oily and slicked back over her ears. She wore thick cat-eye glasses and dingy nondescript house dresses which, twenty years later, would become the stylish garment of choice for inner city women far in the throes of crack addiction. Mr. Goldflag looked like an ill tempered, thick-set lout who favored wearing the same overalls for months at a time. No one knew where Mrs. Goldflag had come from, but Mr. Goldflag came from a very nice, church going, hard working family who had lived in Chase for generations. 38


Both of the kids went to Caleb’s school, East Side Elementary, within biking distance of Caleb’s house. Sometimes after school, when there was nothing to do, he would bike to the playground and either swing as high as he could get and then jump or balance in the center of a teeter-totter and pretend that he was surfing. He was teeter-totter surfing one afternoon when he noticed that the new neighborhood brother and sister were watching him. Caleb introduced himself. The girl’s name was Lolly. She was tall, thin and pale. Lolly was heavily freckled and had dark brown hair. She had some sort of rash around her lips. Her younger brother’s name was Earl, and he was shorter than Lolly by a good half foot. His hair was longish, not in the mod style but in a style that Caleb didn’t recognize then but would later come to see as being the neglected style adopted by the impoverished. It fell in his eyes and was a lighter, chestnut tone. He shared his sister’s proclivity for freckles, and he was thin too. Caleb showed them how to surf on the teeter-totters, and they played at that for nearly half an hour. Then Caleb invited them home. Since his Mom and Dad were both at work, Caleb’s Italian Noni was babysitting him. When the kids came in the house, Noni looked at Lolly and Earl in a funny way, like she felt sorry for them. Caleb and the siblings were playing Mouse Trap in the living room when Caleb’s Noni came in the room with sandwiches and plates of cake. She made another trip and returned with glasses of Googly Grape Drink in tall jelly glasses. Lolly and Earl acted as if they were eating off of priceless golden china and sipping their grape drinks from expensive royal goblets. When they were done with that serving, Noni insisted on Lolly and Earl having seconds. Caleb was watching his two new friends wolf down sandwiches and cake when his Mom 39


came home from work. Caleb introduced her to Lolly and Earl, and Caleb’s Mom smiled and was nice, but she got a funny look on her face too. Funny but different than Caleb’s Noni’s funny look. Maybe it was the way that Lolly and Earl smelled, which was not too good. Caleb hadn’t noticed it outside, but once they had been indoors for awhile, he picked up the smell of body odor and stale, unwashed clothing. Still, Caleb’s Mom was nice to the kids. Then after about twenty more minutes of play, Caleb’s Mom told Lolly and Earl that Caleb had to do his homework and that they needed to go home. He didn’t say anything, but it was unusual because she had never sent any of his friends home before, and had in fact been enthusiastic in setting another plate at the table for Johnny or any other friend that Caleb might have over to his house after school. But it was different this time. Once the brother and sister had gone, Caleb’s Mom had a talk with him. She told him that although it was no fault of their own, Lolly and Earl were not welcome in their house. It was because they were dirty, she said. She was afraid that they would give everyone lice or worse. “Did you see the sores around that poor girl’s mouth?” Caleb’s Mom asked him. “There’s no telling where she got that from or what it is, but you don’t have them over any more, and don’t you go into their house if they invite you. You don’t have to be mean or rude, but just say that you’ve got to do your homework or something.” Caleb weakly defended them for about two minutes then gave in to his Mom. He then had to take a shower, in case he’d gotten any of their supposed cooties. His Mom sprayed the area they’d been playing in with Lysol and threw away the plates, forks and glasses that the kids had used. Even at his age, Caleb figured that his Mom was overreacting. The next day at school, Lolly proudly told everyone in class about her and her brother’s 40


play date at Caleb’s house. The cake and sandwiches had been exquisite. The game of Mouse Trap an uproariously ingenious contraption. She was so proud. When she asked if she and Earl could come over and play again that afternoon, Caleb lied and said that he had to do homework and chores. The day after, Lolly invited Caleb to her and Earl’s little house, but Caleb nervously made another excuse. Every day for a week, Lolly would try to hang out with Caleb, but he would make one lame excuse or another: homework; chores; even nonexistent music lessons. Finally, Lolly got the idea. An knowing veil fell across her features. After that, Caleb was invisible to her. For awhile, when Caleb would see Earl, the younger boy would look with a shy, pained smile and turn away. As the year passed, the Goldflag’s house fell into disrepair. Windows were broken and not replaced, as were both the front and back doors, simply torn off their hinges in drunken rages. Junk and litter accumulated in the lot. Dirty old toys, a washing machine and a broken down truck. The grass grew into tall weeds. Lolly and Earl stayed on their property and played among the debris. Sometimes Caleb would watch them. He felt badly for them. He imagined the whole family sitting around candles in their ruined house. Aside from seeing Lolly and Earl frequently playing in their weedy, overgrown lot, Caleb also saw Mr. And Mrs. Goldflag frequently in their yard. As mentioned before, they were unregenerate alcoholics, and they would party hardy in their yardy. The Goldflag’s enjoyed the company of people similarly debauched as themselves, and often there would be another couple, the Smedley’s, enjoying cocktails, or rather raw whiskey and gin with them au fresco. In their drunken revelry, the Goldflags and the Smeldleys would engage in the sophisticated European thing of making out with each other’s spouses. As the Smedleys were as unfortunately genetically bestowed as the Goldflags, seeing these two middle age couples french 41


kissing each other’s toothless maws and groping their withering and drooping limbs and appendages was enough to put you off sex for a day or two at least. Although Lolly and Earl were close to the action, they were so used to their dysfunctional parents’ hijinks that they absent mindedly continued to play. Caleb was grossed out, and his parents even more so. “Disgusting,” was Caleb’s Mom’s pronouncement. “Mrs. Goldflag is a slut,” Caleb’s Dad cracked. “Go inside,” Caleb’s Mom ordered him, and he happily obeyed as his parents remained outside and watched their pagan like neighbors orgiastic doings, the couples either disappearing inside the house to fuck, or lying fully clothed in the yard and passionately rolling around on each other. At school, Caleb’s classmates left Lolly and Earl alone, mostly because Lolly would kick anybody’s ass if they said anything smart to her or Earl. Once at recess, a boy named Phil laughingly remarked on Lolly’s smelly, worn dress, and she blackened both of his eyes. The teachers rightfully figured that Phil had gotten what he deserved, and everyone else left Lolly and Earl alone after that. But while they didn’t tease her, Caleb’s class unanimously rejected both children. They were invited no where. Were avoided always. One morning, Caleb got out of bed and saw the flashing lights of both an ambulance and a fire truck at the Goldflag’s house. Caleb’s Mom and Dad didn’t know what was going on. That day at school, Lolly and Earl were absent from their classes. When Caleb got home, he found his Mom there. She was home from work early. Her friend from town, Nadine, was there too, and they were sitting at the kitchen table. Both were drinking coffee, and Nadine was smoking cigarettes. “I found out what happened,” his Mom said. “Nadine told me. Mrs. Goldflag killed 42


herself. They found her dead this morning. She’d drank spirits of wintergreen.” It didn’t sound like a very comfortable way to die to Caleb. He thought of ghosts in candy white cowls, giving off noxious minty fumes. “She must have been in agony,” Nadine suggested, then said insinuatingly, “Did you see that tall fireman who was looking at me?”

Lolly and Earl’s school attendance became increasingly spotty after their Mom’s death. Their Dad continued his degenerate drunken activities. Caleb’s Mom said that she’d heard that Mr. Goldflag had Lolly and Earl with him at The Las Vegas, and that Lolly was possibly being sexually abused by adults at her father’s behest. Then the family disappeared, leaving behind the windowless, doorless, dilapidated house to the ghost of Mrs. Goldflag and the troubled spirits of wintergreen flitting in and out of the windows.

Though Caleb always worked for his Dad on the farm, his first job in the world of commerce came when he was in seventh grade. Caleb’s Dad was friends with the principal of the Chase Junior High, and he got Caleb and his pal Johnny the jobs of showing movies and running a concession at the Saturday Afternoon Junior High Matinee. Johnny was the technology guy who was responsible for running the ancient eight millimeter film projector. It was a big box that was the flat color of a rock, and from it shot out the mantis like spindles that held the large rolls of film on their metal cages. The machine was temperamental, constantly threatening to cause the old movies to burn up, but Johnny was vigilant and kept the old Abbot & Costello and Dead End Kids movies rolling. Caleb was in charge of the concession. He sold his wares and occasionally made a batch of fresh popcorn. Between movies, Johnny would help 43


Caleb at the concession stand. Once it was time for the movie, Caleb could relax. Sitting at a table in the entrance of the school’s darkened movie auditorium, from where he was at in the half light, Caleb could watch the movie in luxurious privacy and eat a free candy bar, one of the perks of the job. It was a sweet duty, and Caleb looked forward to his Saturday Afternoon Matinee job. After work, Caleb liked to take his bike to the library. There he would roam the corridors until he found a good book, and then he would sit in the one of the large air-conditioned reading rooms and get lost in whatever story he had chosen. It was a great way to spend his Saturdays. Not gay and nerdly at all. Really. One afternoon after they had shown the double bill, Hillbillies in a Haunted House and the Hope and Crosby version of Ghostbusters, Caleb and Johnny were packing up, and Caleb wondered if Johnny would want to share his afternoon library adventure. “Hey, Johnny, what are you doing after you leave here? Wanna’ go to the library and read something? Reading is cool!” As Johnny rolled the projector and its table into the small room at the back of the auditorium, he cast Caleb a sideways glance that communicated his utter disbelief at Caleb’s suggestion. Let’s go to the library? Reading is cool? How twee can you be? Johnny couldn’t have been more affronted than if Caleb had suggested they strip to their underwear and kiss. In a tone dripping with contempt, Johnny said, “Naw thanks.” Caleb locked the change box in its secret spot where the principal would collect the money on Monday morning. “What have you got going on?” Caleb asked. Johnny adjusted his gold framed granny glasses and replied, “I found a paint can full of gun powder. Me and a few guys are gonna make a bomb and blow it up. That and smoke 44


cigarettes. Also, there’s a chance that Bobby Ross is gonna’ steal a couple of beers from his Dad’s fridge. Wanna come?” Too juvenile delinquenty for Caleb, who said, “Noooo thanks.” Cigarettes, beer and home made bombs? From there it was one step to shoplifting and drugs! Caleb said a little prayer that his wild buddy would be alright. When they were done with the post matinee chores, the boys went their separate ways.

In seventh grade, Caleb suffered from the attentions of a bully. Roger Reed was one of the smaller boys in the eighth grade, probably due to having taken up cigarette smoking in the third grade. Nevertheless, he was a junior high hellion, the king of detentions for his wacky, disruptive stunts. There was his patented under arm fart noise, which he had perfected so that he could make the sound of a long, drawn out poot that never failed to raise the hilarity meter to new heights. Roger was also famous for making his hand into a kind of living puppet, with the extended middle finger as the nose and the two fingers around the middle one as scampering feet. The hand would scurry over school desks and up girls’ legs. Everyone knew crazy Roger for his smart alecky answers to his teachers. “Tell me and we’ll both know,” he’d once said to his Math teacher, Mrs. Davis, when she’d asked him the answer to some hard math problem. It had earned him a week’s detention as well as the admiration of his peers. And while neither Roger nor any other student in the junior high ever said that particular thing to a teacher again, saying it to each other it became part of their vernacular. “Tell me and we’ll both know.” But that wasn’t his most beloved catchphrase. One day, upon being handed a failing geography test, Roger had looked at the teacher and said, “Aw, Shhhhhhugar.” Saying sugar 45


instead of saying shit. Jonathan Winters had done it originally, but Roger’s version radically prolonged the sh sound. Everyone started doing it. What could teachers and parents say? It could be argued that using sugar as an expletive was cute, like what your Granny might say if she stuck her finger with a needle while sewing. This guy was Caleb’s nemesis. They had P.E. together, and Roger would constantly torment Caleb. Showing more originality than Milton Berle, who made fun of harelips through old fashioned mockery, Roger called Caleb, ‘Peter Lips’, asking him if he’d gotten his harelip from sucking a sour peter. He would do that or jovially walk up to Caleb, punch or slap him and yell, “Pe-ter Liiiipssss!” He would do these things to Caleb in the locker room or in the hallways, much to the appreciative laughter of the others. Johnny’s advice was to kick his ass. “If he were a real bully, I wouldn’t advise you to stand up to him. But what the fuck, Caleb. He’s smaller than you, and you’re pretty tough. You could kick my ass, and I know I could kick that little squirt’s ass. Come on, it’ll be fun. If you’d like some help, I’d be glad to lend a hand.” “Naw,” Caleb said a little pensively. It was in the locker room the next day. Caleb was tying his shoes to get ready for indoor volleyball. Roger came up to Caleb and was about to say something, possibly call him Peter Lips and ask him if he’d been a-sucking sour peters when Caleb hit him with a balled fist as hard as he could, connecting between Roger’s jaw and earlobe and sending him to the floor, much to the appreciative amusement of the others in the locker room. To optimistic youth, all manner of cruelty plays as if it was all some wonderful comedy routine. Roger had been about to crack them up with his always hilarious, ‘Hey Peter Lips’ gambit and Caleb had trumped his comedic majesty with his own delightful bit of slapstick, the always witty sucker punch to the hinge of the 46


jaw. There were slaps on the back and comments of, “Well done, Caleb,” as the young men made their way to the gym. Roger, still on the floor but not knocked out, was sitting up and rubbing his jaw. The punch had communicated to him on a deep level. In its way, it was an emissary from Caleb, one that said, “Hey, we’re not so different after all, Roger. Let’s be friends.” It must have been like that, because during the volleyball game, it was Roger who, when Caleb scored a point, yelled, “Way to hustle, Jones.” And back in the locker room after the game, there weren’t anymore punches or slaps or even rude comments. All Roger said to him was, “Good game.” After that, he left Caleb alone.

WHO’S BURNING THE SWEET ROLL?

Eventually Caleb and Bertie would both break their promise to God about being good, but Bertie became a bad boy earlier and in ways that Caleb never came close to approaching. It was because Bertie was a handsome, blonde blue eyed child who had girlfriends young, as was evidenced one Christmas at Grandma Jones’s house when Bertie spent the entire long day sprawled on the couch making out with his first girlfriend, Eva. Everyone looked away from and around the young couple who were in the fever of love from late morning through Christmas dinner and until late afternoon, when Eva thoughtfully uncoupled from Bertie long enough to sweetly thank Grandma Jones for having her over. Grandma Jones hugged the girl but made 47


sure to beard her with her rough, stubbly chin whiskers, her old stubbly cheek against Eva’s tender pink cheek. Because of his looks, when Bertie entered puberty, he was given the nickname Hollywood. When he was sixteen, his parents bought him a red convertible. When Caleb entered high school, though he and Caleb were still close, Bertie was a shining star of a senior, popular because of his expansive personality, great looks, cool car and partying ways, and Caleb was a freshman with a harelip. They didn’t eat lunch together and hang out. Bertie didn’t take Caleb under wing, and by then, Caleb had a few friends of his own and neither expected nor much wanted to be in Bertie’s shadow. That might have been just as well, as by the time Caleb was beginning high school and his cousin in his last year, Bertie had become something of an all around partier. Caleb’s Dad started getting reports that his nephew was drinking beer with his friends, and that was certainly true. Bertie was drinking not only beer, but wine and hard spirits as well. He and his friends or he and his dates might get drunk on certain Friday or Saturday nights. Bertie got some of whatever his Dad was drinking and stashing in the garage, for Uncle Pal had become a part time secret drinker. In other words, he would allow Aunt Vee Vee to see him drink a bit, but then he would rachet his buzz up a notch by repairing to the garage for a quick snort or three. Aunt Vee Vee would claim that he was an alcoholic, but he didn’t miss work. He didn’t pass out and wet himself or punch anyone. He did drink though, and Bertie picked up on his Dad’s boozin’ ways. Caleb’s first drinks were nips stolen from the bottles on the top shelf of his parent’s closet. They’d always been up there. When Caleb was twelve, he went from going to his Noonie’s after school and waiting for his Mom or Dad to pick him up, to going home and 48


goofing around until his parents got home. On those days when he was by himself in his house, he felt a voluptuous sense of aloneness, and would wander the sunny rooms like a spirit, looking through drawers and taking inventory of the familiar. It was on one of those enchanted afternoons that he noticed the bottles that he’d for so long taken for granted. The liquor bottles were pretty. Caleb tasted the vodka. Horrid. The gin was like drinking perfume. The vermouth was sour. The bourbon burned and made him think of the nickname for whiskey, firewater. The scotch, though hot, had a less disagreeable bite. The Creme de Menthe and Creme de Cacao were about the least offensive to the taste buds. But Caleb somehow instinctively knew to take a long slug of the vodka, followed by one of scotch. After a minute or so of shivery swallowing near nausea, the alcohol made Caleb feel pretty marvelous, and his day took on a platinum cloud glow. Caleb got some lighter fluid and squirted a circle in the kitchen sink. When he tossed a match in the sink, it ignited in a pleasing dramatic way, much like a magician’s trick. The possibilities of his day were fantastic. Caleb put the lighter fluid away and went outside. He climbed to the top of the tree near the back porch. At the very tip top, with the branch that he was holding to swaying with his weight and the birds fluttering around him in alarm, Caleb could see past the neighbor’s meadow and all the way to the town cemetery. His Mom and Dad’s property reminded him of an ancient Roman countryside because of the tall thin Lombard trees lining the driveway. And that is how Caleb began his drinking career. By the time he made his initial forays into alcohol abuse, his older cousin had graduated to pot as well as the psycho-tropics prescribed to his Mom. At Caleb’s first concert, Jethro Tull, which he went to see with Johnny, he saw his cousin Bertie before the show, shirtless and 49


glistening with sweat and being led around by Eva and Jake from a belt around his neck Bertie’s hair, newly covering his ears and parted in the middle was also wringing wet from the poisons pulsing in his blood and settling into his muscles, sympathetic nervous system and bones. His usual golden coloring was, as the song went, a whiter shade of pale. Caleb, who didn’t even smoke pot at the time, was shocked and dismayed at his cousin’s condition. Bertie, for his part, was managing to stand and be led by whatever creatures (Eva & Jake) were holding the thing attached to him (his belt). As for what they all were, Bertie either didn’t know or had risen above caring, depending on how one might view what Henry James termed the transcendental experience. Language and thought were gone, and when Jake and Eva found their seats, Bertie promptly passed out, and when he did, his girlfriend and pal made out to the prog rock medieval type performance of Ian Anderson and company’s epic, Thick As A Brick. It was really too bad that Bertie had to sit that one out because Jethro Tull rocked like crazy, old Ian Anderson singing, dancing and playing the flute like some sort of demented court minstrel. He also frequently spat upon the audience in the front row, and Caleb thought, what showmanship. It wasn’t lost on Caleb and Johnny, who were awed. They also might have been getting a contact high from the college students surrounding them. Before the band even came on, the kids were smoking big joints of old time Mexican rolled from four finger lids. The acrid sweet smoke rolled throughout the auditorium, and Johnny said, “Who’s burning the sweet roll?”

That was not only Caleb and Johnny’s first concert, it was also their first encounter with marijuana. Although marijuana was common at the university, in Chase it was just starting to become more accepted. Later, it would get to the point that everybody in America either got high or had friends who did, but things hadn’t gotten to that point yet. Caleb and Johnny had 50


read about pot, but neither had ever seen it. Many of the upper classmen, Bertie among them, were more than familiar with it, but Caleb and Johnny were innocent. At this1972 Jethro Tull concert it had hung in the air like a San Francisco London Fog. Later that month, Johnny scored two joints from a fellow named James Deroi. One night Caleb and his pal smoked them in Johnny’s parents’ basement, stinking it up something awful. It was a good thing that his Mom and Dad were out for the evening. Caleb hadn’t felt a thing. He didn’t know what he was supposed to feel, but he felt nothing. Johnny didn’t feel anything either. Caleb had been afraid that after smoking it, he would have a bad trip. Now he was mildly disappointed. Humph! Much ado about nothing as it were. He suggested they take a drive. They got in the huge box like club coupe that Caleb’s Dad had bought for him. On their way out, Johnny grabbed a box of Ritz crackers. They proceeded to drive into the country, wending their way east until they found themselves on a highway and then a tall, tall, bridge that spanned the glistening, sinuous Mississippi River, seemingly miles below them. He felt strangely compelled to look at the tiny peaks of the waves, highlighted by the moonlight. Caleb felt as if he might drive off the side at any moment, but of course he didn’t. On and on, unstoned, they drove into the guts of Kentucky, seldom saying anything, the car radio on KXOK, playing Sly’s ‘Thank You’ like a beacon in the scary rural state. Then some other song. Then the d.j. The car went through forests and small towns until around midnight, when they were so far away from everything that they could no longer get any radio signals. Caleb said, “I guess we should head back. I’m scared to go any farther.” “Me too. Go back,” Johnny said groggily, his mouth full of crackers. When they got home, they agreed that pot wasn’t anything at all, good or bad, and they 51


decided that neither of them would smoke it anymore.

Johnny went against this decision fairly soon after his and Caleb’s Kentucky experience. He, like virtually all their old friends, started going out and getting high during lunch period at school. Even little Charles Holmes was showing up at school every day with glassy eyes. Caleb didn’t go with them, and he didn’t get high, although they put pressure on him dozens of times that year. Johnny became evangelical about marijuana, but to Caleb, it just made Johnny seem kind of tough, like a hardened tough guy rather than his old pal. And Caleb could say the same about all his old friends who were suddenly smoking weed. In fact, many of them were trying other drugs: angel dust, downers, acid, MDA, cocaine and speed were beginning to change Caleb’s friends in ways he didn’t like. Most of them, like Bertie’s pal, Jake, grew their hair really long, which Caleb would have loved to do, but his parents wouldn’t let him. At this point, Jake was reputedly a dealer, which he adamantly denied, but he certainly looked like he was up to something, with his wavy hair falling to the middle of his back, his jean jacket, bell bottoms and love beads. Others followed guys like Jake and Bertie/Hollywood. Finally, when even conservative middle aged guys started wearing their hair long, Caleb’s parents allowed him to grow his hair about halfway over his ears. The girls all started wearing the wonderful mini skirts and hot pants. Sitting in class, Caleb would glaze over to look at the beautious girls crossing their legs and sometimes shooting beavers. Some of the girls butt cheeks would hang out of the bottoms of their hot pants. Sometimes their skirts were so short that they wouldn’t cover their behinds when they were sitting at their desks. 52


That was all great, but what Caleb didn’t like was the weird, kind of dumb and kind of patronizing and superior way that all the hip boys and girls behaved, and the self conscious care he felt he had to exhibit when dealing with them when they were high. Although they presented themselves as hippies, they were not accustomed enough to marijuana to have any sort of tolerance, but Caleb didn’t know that their dopey behavior was because of their own inexperience and not because of the zombifying properties of brain rotting weed. And he hated being pressured to get high with them. Sometimes they would tease him because he wouldn’t, suggesting him to be scared. It was true. He was scared. Johnny’s hair was parted in the middle and feathered in a fabulous shag. It was so cool, and Johnny had started dating. He dressed like a hippie, and had a nice flower child girlfriend named Dee, who wore short sun dresses. She liked Caleb and didn’t mind him hanging out with them. Caleb tried to cut his newly longer hair into a Rod Stewart mop top. He used a trim comb, which was a large tined comb with a razor embedded at the base. The idea was that you would thin your hair as you combed it, but Caleb became overenthusiastic in his trimming and combing, specifically at the top of his head where during his efforts he gradually began detecting a grave error. Too late, he saw that he had given himself a monk cut of sorts, there being a nearly shaved oval patch the diameter of a big plum on the top of his head. As the sight of what he’d done sunk in, his heart started beating fast at the thought of how people at school and, equally dismal, how his parents would react to seeing him with a bald spot on the top of his head. Not well he reckoned. As soon as he saw the results of his handiwork, Caleb did what he would do many times throughout his life. He wished that he could go back twenty minutes and not fuck things up. 53


Too late for that. What would he do now? The solution that occurred to him was not so clever, but it was all he could think of. He got one of his grandpa’s old hats and cut it into a JugHead type beanie. He figured if he could just get away with wearing it for a couple of weeks... Caleb’s Mom and Dad, being of the Greatest Generation, didn’t allow beanie wearing at the supper table. Had they known of the unusual tonsorial surprise that would greet them when their son removed his beanie, they might have considered allowing him the privilege of continuing to wear it indoors. If they didn’t care for the hat, they liked Caleb’s baldie patch even less, nor did they buy his defense of, “I’m starting a new trend.” In their response, the words, idiot, fool and dim bulb were thrown out and his common sense seriously questioned, and he determined that anything that could piss his Mom and Dad that much must be worth doing again. Since they wouldn’t allow him to grow his hair, he would from that point on cut it himself. Just not with a bald patch.

Because of this shift between himself and his buddies, Caleb distanced himself from all his old pals, including Johnny. He spent introspective hours reading, taking long walks through the countryside and thinking lonely teenage boy thoughts. Those were his dreamy pass-times, that is when he wasn’t in the bathroom playing with himself, for his skyrocketing testosterone had rendered him either extremely lonesome or constantly horny. During one of his pointless wanderings on his family’s land, Caleb found himself in the barn one afternoon, and he noticed all of the old unused lumber that was in a pile. As he looked at the scrap wood, Caleb had a vision. And later, with his Dad’s permission, Caleb started building a tree house.

54


The tree he chose was a tall old oak that was one of a line of trees abutting the top of a highly eroded ridge over a deep and overgrown ditch near the edge of his Mom and Dad’s property. As Caleb was hammering bits of two by four to the tree to use as steps, Johnny drove by with Dee. He stopped, and Johnny quit working to greet his friends. As Caleb explained his vision, his old pal untied a fringed suede stash bag with plastic inner lining . Caleb pointed to the chosen tree, and he said, “I want it to be way up there. And I’d like to run electricity and even have a water tank and a shower and a toilet.” Dee was enchanted. She was wearing a sun dress and ballet shoes. “What about windows?” She asked. “Gosh, I hadn’t thought of that.” Johnny stuffed his pipe and lit it. He was wearing jeans, tee shirt and a green velvet vest. After inhaling deeply, he offered it to Caleb. “Want some?” he asked. “Naw.” “Want some help building your tree house?” “Sure.” Johnny promised to come tomorrow, and Dee said she would come and help too. After Johnny and Dee got high, they left, but before he left, Johnny broke off a piece of bud and put it in a small matchbox. He gave it to Caleb. “Someday you’ll thank me,” he said. “Uh, thanks?” Caleb said accepting the bud. “That was sooner than I thought. Listen, that’s good weed. It’s called Red Point, and some time you can have a party by yourself if you like,” Johnny explained. Then he and Dee took off. 55


Caleb continued to work on the tree house, carefully holding on to his vertically climbing steps with his knees and legs as he nailed another piece of two by four to the old grey trunk. By the time Caleb’s Mom and Dad called him in for supper, he’d nailed all of the steps to the first area of construction. He had taken with him several boards, hauling them one at a time to the space where he first would wedge them into the crooks of the thickest branches. When they were in place, he would then nail them secure with five inch nails. He was sweaty, and it was frightening being that high up the tree. The bulk of the old oak hung over the bluff of the ridge, so Caleb was about one hundred feet over the thick growth of the ditch bottom on the one side. If he fell and landed just a little too far west, he would land in the ravine. The next day, and every day thereafter for a week, Johnny and Dee helped. It was like things were before his friend got stoned. Not entirely, because Johnny and Dee were usually high, but they forgot to maintain their hippie, stoner pose, and Caleb forgot to think of them as being different. They even stopped offering him weed and looking down on him for not smoking with them. Free spirit that she was, Dee continued to wear different sun dresses each day she helped, and Caleb tried to stay eye level or above, as he didn’t want to gawk at Johnny’s girlfriend’s lovely legs and ass. One day, Caleb was bringing several pieces of cut boards up the tree. They were for the railing on the very top, where Johnny and Dee were working. As Caleb was maneuvering at the entrance to the first floor, trying to carefully get the planks positioned to get them through the hole in the tree house floor that was the front door, he looked up and saw Dee’s beautiful butt. Instead of being on the third floor, she had come to the first floor and was measuring the window 56


opening for possible window sills. In doing so, Dee was leaning out the open space and unintentionally affording Caleb the view of a lifetime. As he unexpectedly gazed at the generous, heart shaped ass, pantied in white and radiant with possibility, Caleb was entranced. He could not look away, nor could he continue to focus on the task at hand. He grew light headed, and that’s when he slipped. Fortunately he fell on the bluff about twenty feet below and not off the other side where he’d have doubtlessly died from the extra seventy foot drop. Still, the fall knocked the wind out of him, and for seconds, he was unable to breathe. Johnny and Dee heard him fall, and Dee was out of the tree house first. Johnny watched her legs and butt dance in his vision like heaven as she came down the tree to see how he was. Johnny closely followed. They helped him sit up. Caleb was lucky. Nothing broken. When they saw that their friend was alright, they both gave him a hug hippie style. Caleb was off put by his pal’s embrace. Dee, on the other hand, smelled like the musky perfume of the time, and Caleb thought he would swoon.

Every day, Johnny, Dee and Caleb measured, sawed and nailed planks and plywood. The tree house had a main area with windows on every side. This level was mostly enclosed. The second floor was also enclosed, but only to about chest height. Then there were vertical boards serving as a kind of railing every three feet as well as holding up the third open level. On the top floor there was no roof nor any walls, but it did have its own safe and sturdy railing that went up chest high. On each floor there were hammocks, lawn chairs and patio tables. The project took them nearly three weeks. When they were finished, they sat on the top deck and looked at the road and the meadows from high up in the branches. To celebrate, Dee and Johnny had brought a portable eight track player, some hash and a bottle of Boone’s Farm 57


Strawberry Hill. Caleb had a glass of the sweet wine, and he lit some scented candles. There never would be electricity or plumbing in the tree house, but they didn’t know that at the time. ‘This will be our place’, they pledged. To Johnny and Dee, it would become a place where they could have sex uninterrupted, talk at length, play music, get drunk and get high. It would be a place where they dropped acid together and spent many nights tripping in the treehouse. It was big enough that if Caleb was there and they wanted privacy, they could go to the other floor or even to the open top deck. Although if love was in the air, Caleb would usually leave altogether. To Caleb it was simply a place to go and read, write or draw. He’d bring candles and incense to create an atmosphere. That summer, he took to spending most nights in the tree house, sleeping in a hammock that he hung on the second floor. As the weeks passed and Caleb spent more and more time with Johnny and Dee, he developed a deep friendship and a deeply sublimated crush on his pal’s girlfriend. Ever since he’d glimpsed her magnificent legs and butt, he’d found himself trying not to think about her when playing with himself. The more he got to know her, the easier it was not to objectify her, but he still really liked her and was attracted to her. So he put his desire for her out of his mind, channeled it into being as good a friend to her as he was to Johnny. One evening as they were all listening to tapes of Leon Russell, Yes and Led Zepplin, Dee suggested that she and Johnny fix Caleb up on a date. Caleb’s first impulse was to tell them, no thanks, and he told them just that. The thought made him flush with embarrassment, but when they told him with whom they were thinking of matchmaking him, he decided to face his fears and say, yes. Shelly Sherman was a very cute friend of Dee’s, and she had told Dee that she thought 58


that Caleb was a nice guy. When Dee told him this, Caleb blushed even deeper at the thought of anyone paying him any mind. He thought, ‘she thinks I’m nice; gee, that’s great’. Dee and Johnny liked their friend’s wide eyed enthusiasm as they spoke of a kind of double date wherein Caleb and Shelly could get to know each other in a nonthreatening group setting. “We’ll see a movie, and like go to Pizza Inn afterwards,” Dee suggested.

They went to the drive-in movie to see Kelly’s Heroes. Shelly and Caleb sat in the back. She wore a sun dress of a turquoise paisley print, and she smelled like coconut and, something else that was indescribably good, some subtle, gently biting fragrance. Caleb nursed a beer while the others drank and smoked throughout the movie. Despite his sobriety, the antics of Donald Sutherland, Clint Eastwood, and Telly Savalas went unnoticed by Caleb, who was fixing Shelly’s thigh’s in his peripheral vision. At some point during the movie, he hazarded reaching over and touching her hand, and they ended up holding hands. She told him to call her. Caleb was so happy. Even when he was back home that night, Caleb was on such a cloud that as he lay in bed, he resisted whacking off so that he could better set every detail of his wonderful evening in his memory. Her hair was straight and a dark golden honey color. Her skin was golden too, and her eyebrows were sun-bleached as was the silky down, the tiny hairs on her arms and legs. He knew he would remember for the rest of his life that faint, nearly sour perfume she had worn. He re-imagined the touch of her hand in his. He felt the breeze of his window fan on his skin in the summer night. As the hum of the fan and the summer wind blew on him, Caleb felt the world opening. It was impossible to sleep, and he wondered if Shelly would end up being his girlfriend. 59


He called her the next day, and for two hours he listened to her talk about Nixon and French literature. The Watergate trials were going on at the time, and Shelly was following them. She passionately hated Nixon, and she loved French literature. On and on she went about Nixon and Rimbaud, Caleb hanging on her every word. Although Caleb early on favored the seventies trends of nihilistic defeatism, cynical apathy and passive resignation, Shelly’s didactic rants about Nixon were bracing to hear. Nixon did deserve to die. He was responsible for the continuation of Vietnam, the escalation of the military industrial complex and the compromise of the integrity of his office. Right on. He preferred it when she read him some of the literature she was talking about. She read in French then translated what she’d said. She recited the wild lyrical flights of the symbolists Mallarme, Verlaine and that Rimbaud character. She read selections from a guy named Baudlaire’s book, Le Fleur Du Mal, and evil sounding stuff by a guy named Lautremont and some crazy gay criminal stuff by a cat named Genet. After telling him all this stuff, Shelly said, “Well, I’ve got to go now. I feel like we must have known each other in another life or something.” “Wow. Me too,” Caleb gushed. His whole body had flushed with pleasure when she’d said that. We’re soul mates, he told himself. “Call me tomorrow,” Shelly said. For a week, Caleb and Shelly talked on the phone and casually hung out. He learned more about Watergate and Nixon as well as feminism, gay rights, the exploitation of the working class by global corporations and more French literature. Several times she told Caleb that she felt she knew him, really knew him, and when telling him he would imagine gazing intently into her eyes. Near the end of the week, Shelly gave him a copy of Le Petit Prince. It was in French, 60


so Caleb couldn’t read it, but he could read the English inscription on the inside of the jacket, Shelly’s message to him. It said, “To Caleb, a love and a legacy! Shelly.” He didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded thrilling and deep, and it did say, “love.” That weekend, Dee had engineered another double date. They were to go to Carbondale again, this time having dinner at an exotic Chinese restaurant call Wok Lo’s. On this date they would see the epic romance Gone With the Wind, which was playing indoors at a small theater. But like those best laid plans of mice and men, it all went awry. Johnny was supposed to pick Caleb up around six, but at four-thirty Shelly called and said that Johnny and Dee wouldn’t be going out that night at all. There was mention of a terrible argument and of Johnny and Dee’s breaking up. Shelly sounded almost as upset as if she had broken up with them. Her empathy touched Caleb’s heart deeply. What a friend she was to Johnny and Dee to care so much. It was so very heavy and so very real, and Caleb nearly told her that he loved her. Instead he persuaded her to go with him to see Gone With the Wind anyway, which she was strangely reluctant to do. It didn’t seem right somehow, she told him, for them to enjoy themselves when their friends were “in such a bad place right now.” Caleb was amazed at her dedication to her friends. It made him love her ever so much more and he already loved her more than he could bear, Still, he patiently explained, they owed it to Dee and Johnny to go without them, since they had wanted Shelly and Caleb to get to know each other. “Wha?” Caleb opened himself to Shelly. “I think,” he began, “that it meant a lot to both Dee and Johnny that you and I became such good friends. I know that it brought Dee so much happiness.” It sounded like an exasperated snort on the other end of the phone, but Caleb reckoned his lady had daintily coughed or sneezed. “I just think we owe it to them to go, but I 61


don’t know,” he concluded. There was a distinctly audible sigh, and if Caleb hadn’t been so infatuated he would not have read it as a sigh of her awakening to the logic of his love. Tonight he planned to kiss her! Finally she spoke. Unenthusiastically, she said, “Oh alright.” Skyrockets of euphoria! Caloo Calay! “I’ll be by at six,” Caleb trilled. “Okay, but, look, could you by any chance get some pot?” Shelly asked. Caleb remembered the large bud that Johnny had given him. “Yes,” he said. “Bring some.” He picked her up in his parents golden station wagon. In her ultra short, black sun dress, she was like Eve on the first morning or Venus rising from the sea. Caleb had fantasies of Shelly’s exquisite legs wrapped around him. She was distant, and had little to say on the drive to Carbondale. She loaded her bowl with the a bit of the weed and nervously smoked. She handed the bud back to Caleb, who pocketed it. She kept looking out the window. Since until then she had been the one who had done nearly all of the talking, Caleb was thrown by the change, and his attempts to get her to talk about Nixon or French literature were largely unsuccessful. Nor did she want to talk about Johnny and Dee’s breakup. When he asked her what the argument had been about, she muttered testily that she had no idea what it was about, but that it was awful, the worst thing that had happened since that fascist criminal Nixon gave the order to his hired thugs to break into the Watergate. She hardly touched her food, and seemed morose. Throughout Gone With the Wind, she sobbed, but when Caleb attempted to take her hand, she pulled away. Three times during the movie she went into the lobby to make phone calls. Sensitive to his friend’s feelings, Caleb gave her plenty of space, let her know that he was glad to be there with her and that he was enjoying 62


her company because of her, because of who she really was. And that she didn’t have to pretend that she was having a good time to please him, which she wasn’t. So it was a rather quiet ride back home. But instead of having Caleb take her back home, Shelly had him drop her off a block away from her house. Because it was a little past curfew and she wanted to sneak in, she told him. He did as he was bidden. After Caleb dropped Shelly off, he drove around town for about an hour. He felt fine. It was fine not to rush things. He really loved Shelly for her touching concern for Johnny and Dee. Caleb thought about learning French so they could read Le Petit Prince in its original version together. French, the tongue of Amore! Finally, after nearly two hours of cruising around town and thinking like an idiot, Caleb drove home. As he was going up the long drive, he saw Johnny’s car. He was at the tree house. He and Dee had made up. Caleb thought of going on in the house and not disturbing them, and he didn’t mean to disturb them, just to say hello and that he was really glad that Johnny and Dee were back together, and that Shelly would be so relieved when she found out. Things would be back to normal. And he’d thank them for being his friend and for introducing him to Shelly, whom he figured he must have known through ten or even twenty lifetimes. That was what he was thinking as he climbed up the hand holds. Perhaps you can imagine his surprise when he found Johnny there not with Dee, but with Shelly. “Oh, uh, hi, guys.” “Caleb,” Johnny said. “Oh, uh, hi, Caleb,” Shelly said. Caleb was stunned. Johnny and Shelly were stoned and slightly chagrined, Shelly more 63


than Johnny. They were disheveled, hair askew. Both of them were slightly breathless and their clothes hung crookedly on them as if they’d been hastily donned. What Caleb assumed were Johnny’s briefs were lying on the far side of the first floor room. Caleb looked at it, and both Shelly and Johnny saw him look at it, but neither commented. “I guess you heard about me and Dee breaking up.” Caleb was not processing the obvious. “Yeah, wow. Sorry,” he replied. Shelly said, “I just wanted to talk to, you know, Johnny and Dee and see how they were doing, you know, after I let you off, but Dee wasn’t around, so...I was really scared for Johnny, so I figured he needed a friend, you understand,” Shelly explained. “Well sure,” Caleb said half heartedly. “Yeah,” Johnny added. “I was really bummed and Shelly came by, and we thought coming out here would be a good place to, um...talk, you know.” “Yeah. Well, sure, this is a cool place to come talk. I know.” Johnny took a formally solicitous tone as he addressed Shelly. “Man, Shelly, thanks for letting me, ah...cry on your shoulder. I feel lots better.” In her overly earnest voice, Shelly said to Johnny, “Johnny, you and Dee are my friends, and you know, and I know that Caleb understands, that anything I could do...” “Yeah,” Caleb offered, “I could see how worried and ate up about it you were tonight.” Johnny and Shelly left, Johnny coolly picking up his briefs on the way out, leaving Caleb sitting in the dark on a lawn chair. Caleb went to the top deck, lit some candles and lay down to look at the sky through the trees. It was a beautiful, breezy evening, the vast night shadowing like astral jet streams sweeping around the stars, islands in the blue. The stars were clustered closely together in some 64


areas and were sparse in other patches while all around him and above him, the branches pulled and the leaves rustled greenly. This will always be here, Caleb thought. Caleb heard a car pull into the drive and then park not far from the tree house. Caleb figured it was Johnny, or maybe Dee, or Johnny and Dee, or even Johnny, Shelly and Dee. He didn’t figure it would be Shelly. He listened to whomever it was climbing up the foot and hand holds, then climb into the first floor. Then climb up to the second floor and approach the ladder to the deck. It wasn’t Shelly, or any of the other possibilities he had conjectured. “Hey,” the unexpected voice of his cousin Bertie rang out. “Little cuz, you up here?” Caleb sat up as his cousin’s head appeared at the top opening. “Bertie, hey, how you doing?” Caleb said as his cousin came up and pulled up one of the lawn chairs and sat down. “Your pa told my Dad that you’d built a really cool tree house, so I had to see what my little cuz had done. This is fantastic, Caleb. Man, can I bring chicks up here sometime?” “Sure, everybody else does. Well, Johnny does anyway.” Bertie looked intently at Caleb and said, “What’s up, pup? You seem really down, clown. Gee! What’s the haps, paps?” “Aw, I don’t know. Man, Bertie, I really like this girl, Shelly, and Johnny has a gorgeous girlfriend already named Dee, whose really sweet and is a friend of mine, and tonight Shelly left me to mess around with Johnny, who broke up with his girl. And I caught them. Damn it!” Bertie had been listening intently, his elbows resting on his knees as Caleb spoke. Bertie looked thoughtful. “Wish I had some weed,” he mused. Caleb remembered the weed Johnny had given him and that he’d brought for his date with Shelly. “Hey,” he said. “I’ve got some.” Caleb produced the matchbox of bud and handed 65


it to Bertie. “You?” his cousin said incredulously. “I don’t smoke it. Johnny gave it to me, and this Shelly wanted to smoke some of it tonight, so that’s why I have it on me now. You can have it,” Caleb listlessly explained. Bertie was breaking some of the bud into a rolling paper. With one hand he rolled an immaculate joint while handing the small box back to Caleb. “Cuz, this is good herb, and it would be uncool of me to take it from you since you don’t yet know what you’re trying to give away. But tonight, you will find out.” And so it was on that summer night in the early mid seventies that Caleb was initiated into the world of getting high by his beloved cousin Bertie, courtesy of Johnny’s good bud. And this time, unlike his initial experiment with Johnny, Caleb knew that he was high, gloriously high. Suddenly, the world shifted, all was slow motion sweetness. The leaves around them, the branches sheltering them and the tree house deck upon which Caleb and Bertie sat were in harmony with the shimmering blue ocean of stars and space holding them. And the summer smells and outdoor sounds filled Caleb with a quiet hilarity that dissipated his romantic disappointment. He said, “Bertie, I love this.” Bertie said, “Johnny is a real pal to turn you on to this. Especially not knowing that you might do something stupid like throw it out or give it away.” “Man, Bertie. Johnny cheated on Dee, whose a friend of mine. And he cheated on her with a girl I was hoping to kiss tonight. Aw who cares.” “Now you got it. Who cares and what does it matter? I know you feel bad, but you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t be mad at Johnny or Shelly or yourself.” “Yeah, I guess.” 66


“No, really. What the heck, Caleb, they’re still your friends. All they did was fool around. Maybe you can still get with this girl. She sounds pretty nice.” “I don’t know. Sheesh.” “Man, don’t be jealous. There are plenty of girls out there. All they did was do what comes naturally. Dig it, I know Johnny’s girl, Dee, and Dee is sexy. Say that you and Dee got it on.” “I wouldn’t do that to Johnny,” Caleb said indignantly. Bertie shook his head sympathetically. “Well, maybe you wouldn’t, and there are plenty of straight shooters like you, but lots of people aren’t like that. And say that somehow, you and Dee got together somehow. Would that mean that she didn’t love Johnny or that he wasn’t your friend?” “No,” Caleb admitted, thinking of Dee’s creamy legs and the beautiful view of her panty encased ass that had so impressed him that he’d fallen out of the tree. He thought about it. Given the right circumstances, like if he had the opportunity, it was conceivable that he would betray his old pal, but it wouldn’t really be betrayal. Or maybe it would, but it wouldn’t have any bearing on the way he felt about Johnny. If anything, the guilt would make him love his old buddy more. “I see what you mean,” Caleb said. “Shoot, Caleb, my girlfriend all through high school is with my buddy Jake now. Fact is, they were fooling around on me for years while her and me were still together.” Caleb couldn’t believe his cousin’s ears. “How could you let that happen? Weren’t you jealous?” Bertie said, “Heck, Caleb, I was fucking other girls on the side. It didn’t mean that I didn’t love her or that I didn’t find her sexy. And I knew that she was the same. Tit for tat. 67


What’s good for the goose and all. Ahh, if you love someone, then let ‘em go. That’s why I can’t get jealous. I wish them both well. Shit, every now and then, I still tap my old baby’s ass. Don’t mean she ain’t in love with Jake or back in love with me like we were. Just means...I don’t know. Maybe one way of looking at it is that we’re all a bunch of horny sluts. Who cares? They’re still my buddies, and anybody who gave you this grade of pot, well, that person is the best friend you can ever have, my friend. Even if he did fuck a girl you like. So what?” “In that case, roll another one,” Caleb asked In a heartbeat, Bertie had another joint rolled, and he bit off the twisted paper ends and offered it to his little cousin, along with his lighter. Caleb lit the joint and drew in the smoke. He closed his eyes and could see satellites firing against the insides of his eyelids, and he gained perspective on what had happened. He liked Shelly, but she wasn’t interested in him as anything but a friend, and even if he did seduce her, which was unlikely as he was as callow and clueless as a five year old, she would only go along with it out of misguided friendship. Still, she was his friend, as was Johnny. As was Dee. And they were all sluts. It was okay. Caleb opened his eyes and exhaled. The summer night was luminous, the flickering candles throwing animated shapes on the wooden plank floors, the railing and the surrounding tree that nestled their tree ship. Caleb wished Shelly, Dee and Johnny were there too, to listen to his wise cousin Bertie explain all about worldly sophistication.

COLLEGE EQUALS DRUGS

The fall after Caleb’s senior year, he went off to college. He bid his Mom and Dad a 68


teary farewell, ignoring his Dad’s grousing about having to feed and take care of his horses himself, and Caleb went two and a half hours north to a small college called Eastern Illinois University. It was small by college town standards with about ten thousand students who attended the campus and around forty thousand people in the surrounding town of Charleston. Caleb lived on the nineteenth floor of tower A of a dorm called Carmen Hall, which consisted of A and B towers, both of which were connected by a unifying first floor which held a huge student lounge, the cafeteria, the mailboxes for students in both towers and a basement where there were ping pong and fooze-ball tables and a few televisions. The first floor common area was very airy and naturally illuminated because of all the skylights and the walls of glass. Carmen Hall was stuck out by itself in a field of corn. Caleb’s high up room faced the other dorms and the campus, and from his window he could see everything from the quad to the green and white student union all the way over the grey classroom buildings and treetops to the farthest turrets of the castle-like Old Main building. Caleb’s roommate was eleven years older than him. Albert Rould was twenty-eight and was a short, rather stout, unassuming young man who was a Vietnam veteran. Though a beginning freshman, he was older than everyone else on Caleb’s dorm floor, and possibly older than everyone else living at Carmen Hall. His hair wasn’t very long, but it was longish, frizzy and parted on the side. He wore thick aviator style glasses and rode a big Harley everywhere. He was a really nice guy. Albert also carried around with him a briar pipe. No, it wasn’t filled with pot, but with exotic tobacco mixtures. It gave him a scholarly air, and while the smell of the fruity, aromatic tobacco blends wasn’t as wonderful to Caleb as the sharp scent of marijuana, the apple, or rum or bubblegum flavored tobacco wasn’t awful to be around. Anyway, Albert seldom actually 69


smoked the thing. He’d gotten it because he knew that professors and college types sometimes had them. It was a touching attempt to fit in with Albert’s idea of the intellectuals. Albert was neat and orderly. Caleb was very sloppy, but Albert was good natured and accommodating toward his younger roomie. Despite Caleb’s tendency to let clothes (both clean and dirty), books, papers, discarded food wrappings and other paper products, records out of their covers and ‘other things’ have their way in the room they shared, only once did Albert very gently, even apologetically, suggest that they might be able to find things if Caleb would clean and straighten his stuff. He even helped Caleb. And he was so nice about it, that Caleb tried for two days to keep things neat and orderly. Everyone on Caleb’s floor smoked weed, and Albert, though not abstemious, didn’t smoke very much at all. He told Caleb that in Vietnam, he and his buddies had smoked lots of really good pot. Black marijuana, he told him. He and his friends had even, he told Caleb, slammed heroin in their down time, just to temporarily relieve the horrors of what they went through. Some of Albert’s buddies who had survived had come back to the states addicted to narcotics. Albert hadn’t done it that often, maybe hadn’t liked it like some of the others. For whatever reason, like a lot of things, Albert had left it back there like he’d tried to leave the other bad memories of his time in the military. When he’d gotten back, he’d made an effort to fit in with everyone, be an ordinary guy. He told Caleb that he still had anger problems, but Caleb couldn’t see it. Albert was patient with everyone and just the nicest guy imaginable. Nice to all. A sweet guy. In order to be able to study, Albert would spend long hours in the library those first few weeks of college. Caleb studied, but study often dovetailed with partying, or getting high by himself and listening to loud music while studying. When Albert would see Caleb sitting in 70


front of their window and smoking bong after bong as he listened to Ambrosia or Split Enz and did his homework, he would smile and sadly shake his head. Then he would go to the library for several hours of quiet study. When Albert would get home, he might smoke a hit with Caleb and whomever else might be around before putting plugs in his ears and retiring. Not once did Albert ask either Caleb or anybody else on the floor to keep the noise down. Compared to most of the other fellows on the floor, Caleb, who usually went to bed between eleven and twelve, was almost as much of a sober and studious fellow as Albert. The other boys went to bed at various times between midnight and tomorrow, and they spent many of their nocturnal hours devoted to mindless escapades such as water balloon fights in the corridors, all accompanied by the rousing melodies of Led Zepplin and Nectar. The second week of school, Albert got a part-time job in town as a bouncer in one of the bars frequented by the college kids. His life was divided between classes, study and work. He wanted to get a degree in criminal law. Caleb was influenced for the better by Albert’s example of Spartan discipline and moderation. Once, when Caleb asked Albert why he worked so hard, he told Caleb that it was because he was so grateful just to be there, to have the opportunity to have a life. Albert said that many times in Vietnam, he’d been afraid that he’d never make it back. Scared shitless. Or excited to where what he did during a terrible battle, he did automatically. He told Caleb that so much of what had happened had been bad and negative that now that he had a chance to live and get an education, a good job and a wife and family someday, he just wanted to do his best and not fuck it up. He wanted to get past the war and be like other regular people, that’s all. In the third week of classes, the students started getting their first important grades of the semester back, whether the evaluation was by test, essay or some other type of accessment, the 71


grades were coming back. Caleb was in fine shape, A’s and B’s in all his classes. The third week was when Albert started having bad dreams. Caleb, a light sleeper, would hear Albert thrashing in his bed across the room, hear him moaning and talking angrily or fearfully. The next day, Albert told Caleb that he’d gotten his first grades back and...he was flunking everything! He didn’t understand it, and neither did Caleb. In a show of support, Caleb cleaned their room, or rather, he picked up his dirty clothes and stuffed them in his closet and straightened everything so that as long as you didn’t look under the bed or in the closet, their place looked orderly. Caleb tried to bolster Albert’s confidence by telling him that it was just the first tests of the year. There was plenty of time to catch up. And everyone on the floor was pulling for Albert. Caleb would sometimes go with Albert to the library, and some of the guys on the floor tried to help Albert with his work. His nightmares continued, and he began to have headaches. Albert told Caleb that he felt one of his professors wasn’t treating him fairly and had dreamt that he’d killed the professor when the man was blathering at his lectern. One night Albert came home from work with a black eye from a fracas with some guys he had been kicking out of the bar. Albert told Caleb a war story about having been in the canteen eating breakfast when the building was blown to bits and all of the sudden Albert was wearing pieces of the person to whom he had been talking. Caleb, filled with shock and awe, didn’t know what to say. To say anything was wrong. Albert did try harder. He spent more time at the library and got tutoring for his science and math classes. He taped his lectures and listened to them, then listened to them in his sleep on headphones. Albert highlighted what he read, then took notes on his highlights. He cut out bong hits entirely, and limited himself to one beer on the nights that he worked. All he did on 72


the weekends was study or work. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. You can do anything if you just put your mind to it! That’s the American way. The second barrage of big grades came out, mid-term grades. Caleb had come home from his Life Science class one Wednesday afternoon and found Albert sitting at his desk. He looked hurt, like a bewildered kid. Crushed. He was still flunking everything. Absolutely every-fucking-class. All the hard work and effort Albert had invested just didn’t matter. Forget that he was older than most of the students and more mature. Forget the sacrifices he’d made for his country, which had turned out to be sacrifices for nothing, but that hadn’t been Albert’s fault. He hadn’t questioned his country’s leaders. Forget what he’d seen and endured and had to do. It didn’t matter. Forget that he wasn’t even a dumb guy, that he was a fairly smart guy. Just fucking forget it. Albert quit right after mid-term. Caleb had tried to talk him out of quitting, as had several of the other guys in the dorm, but Albert was too frustrated to continue. It was humiliating to try so hard and have privileged youngsters who didn’t even value what was being handed to them, to have them effortlessly do better than him. It was harsh to study so hard and fail everything. The rejection was too severe for Albert to endure. Anger and bitter resentment were festering. It was time to find another dream. When the going gets tough, the tough get going, yes? Albert got rid of his possessions on a Thursday. He gave them to various guys on the floor. To Caleb, Albert presented the briar pipe he’d bought to help in his hoped for transition to academia. Albert said, “You can smoke dope in it.” Caleb, the gentle irony lost on his callow young self, gratefully assured Albert that he would do exactly that. On that Friday, Albert packed a few clothes and necessities in a roll that he tied on his motorcycle, and he said goodbye to Caleb and his pals at Carmen Hall. Caleb 73


watched him blast out of the immense Carmen Hall parking lot. And then he was gone.

When I said that almost everybody on Caleb’s floor smoked pot, I probably understated by omission. Perhaps I should have said that after Albert left, because he wasn’t a total stoner like the rest, everyone else on the nineteenth floor of Carmen hall that year smoked pot all of the time. Don’t get me wrong, they drank a lot too, mostly beer in cans that they would stack into pyramids in their rooms. But all of them to a man smoked pot from the time they got up until far into the night, when they would usually be awakened periodically by concerned roommates and made to smoke even more pot, lest they forget what being high was like during their sleep. In every room there were pow-wows in constant session, but instead of Indians there were long haired boys and gals sitting on bunk beds or in bean bag chairs on the floors. Like tepees, the interiors of the dorm rooms were often decorated in ingeniously primitive fashions. Fishnets, parachutes or tapestries might be hung from ceilings or walls. Most rooms had black lights and the attendant posters depicting dungeons & dragons or carnal motifs. Caleb’s walls were depicted with three black light posters, one of a pirate ship on a moonlit bay, another of a bunch of people in an impossibly huge open balloon, way up over the tree tops and the third, a black light rendition of a Maxfield Parish painting of a bunch of people lying by a pool. Also, from each room blared rock. Very little jazz, no classical or country music. Just rock, from every room all the time. AC/DC’s Highway to Hell for instance. Everyone had at least one bong. There were plastic, glass and ceramic bongs, even bongs of wood. Caleb’s next door neighbor, Roger, had an electric bong that shot out smoke. It worked from an aquarium pump and a long plastic tube. Everybody went through at least an 74


ounce of pot a week for personal consumption. Some industrious lads ground up the pot and put it in brownies and breads for heavier, longer trips. Caleb never once in his entire time as a student at EIU went to class not stoned. But being perpetually stoned wasn’t all that there was to Caleb’s experiences at college. It was there that he also discovered hallucinogens like acid and mushrooms as well as uppers, downers, and crazy drugs like angel dust and MDA. It was after Albert had gone, in October, that Caleb first tried acid. Caleb’s partner in tripping was a freshman like he was, a fellow from the floor named Paul S., who was an art student. Caleb and Paul S. got four microdots from the dorm’s social director, Dave, for two fifty a hit. It was a bright and sunny, late October afternoon, around four, when they ate one of the tiny pebbles of purple-red acid apiece. Unlike a drug that you smoke, ingesting a substance takes longer for it to take effect, and as there was nothing to do in Caleb or Paul’s room, they went for a walk. Nothing happened. That fucking Dave! They walked through the quad between the library, the union, and a couple of dorms. They walked to the stadium where a football game was in progress. Standing at the outer fence and feeling frustrated, Caleb and Paul S. Ate another hit apiece. Two hits apiece. THEN they started getting off. From the first hit that is. Things immediately became disjointed. They forgot that they were at a football game and couldn’t for the life of them figure out what the brightly dressed creatures were doing on the crazy green field with all the lights and white geometric designs all over the greeen, green grass. They barely made it away from there. Caleb and Paul S. Staggered back to Carmen Hall, where there was some sort of dorm wide party going on. Maybe not. They went back to Paul S.’s room, where he suggested that he draw Caleb’s face while they were both tripping. 75


Caleb was facing the door, and Paul had his back to it as he glared angrily at Caleb, or so it seemed, and sketched. He sketched and glared, sketched and glared until finally he threw up his hands and declared, “HOW CAN I DRAW YOU IF YOU KEEP GROWING THOSE TWO FUCKING NOSES?” Caleb continued posing, not comprehending what was going on. Paul S. fearfully continued. “One is going that way.” He pointed to his left. “And the other is pointing the other waay.” “What are you talking about?” At this, Paul S. Got up and started waving his hands angrily. “You know what I’m talking about...Wha...I forgot your name. Whoever you are, Mr. Two noses. STOP GROWING YOUR NOSES, FELLA!” As Paul S. Was carrying on, the door opened behind him, and his roommate, Donnie Smith stood in the doorway and took in Paul S.’s fit. His tirade ended the instant he noticed Caleb staring at Donnie Smith, who was by now looking distinctly nonplused. This triggered not only startled surprise from Paul S. But several minutes of hysterical laughter. Caleb left his trip partner to the tender mercies of his roommate. He barely managed to find his room, where he spent the remainder of the evening doing bongs, drinking beers and playing tunes as he sat in front of his nineteenth floor apartment window and gazed at the sky and the town lights. Acid was good, Caleb kind of decided. It was kind of good except for the paranoia, the feelings of extreme disorientation and loss of identity. Except for Caleb’s brain thinking several things at once every second (each thought breaking into several thoughts) and reading infinite ambiguities into everything, it was 76


great. Although he didn’t experience full blown hallucinations, things that were still were moving in place, vibrating. Things that did move were casting trails and lights. Colors were extraordinarily radiant, and lines and patterns would morph into infinitely moving patterns. Paul Stanley, the Kiss member, was in a Kiss poster on Paul S.’s wall, and as Paul S. had been trying to draw Caleb, the poster face had become three dimensional, and Paul Stanley had been silently singing or saying something. Now, as Caleb was coasting in his own room, the stars and the campus lights were all breathing together in some sort of harmony. So it was kind of alright. It must have been because Caleb did it again. And again. He received great insights after having eaten a four way hit. He and three pals had each eaten a four way hit of blotter. There had been full blown hallucinations too numberless to start recounting. Time stopped. At some point Caleb forgot he’d eaten acid, and if he’d been told wouldn’t have understood what had been said. He reckoned he had lost his mind. Caleb figured he’d be known as the crazy guy from that point on. Or maybe he’d always been that way and was already known as the crazy guy, the noodlehead. He soon after lost the ability to speak for a time. There was someone he knew who kept trying to do a card trick. Hands disappearing as the cards were supernaturally shuffled. Were the disappearing hands the trick? Pick a card. Then the vanishing hands and cards shuffle. Is this the card? I dunno. Sometime after time had began again, one of the trippers freaked out. Caleb didn’t know how to talk, let alone know his own or his fellow trippers’ names. He could, however, see through their skin into their veins and muscles. Suddenly one of the people he was with jumped from the beanbag he’d been sitting in, cried out, “Arrrrrrrrrgggg,” or something, and ran out of the place where they were, wherever that was. Caleb tried to follow, but every movement caused the entire universe to erupt in circuses and blinding lights, so he stayed put and watched the 77


hieroglyphics spin off the ceilings and walls. They all loved acid back then. And although Caleb and his floor-mates would trip in the dorm or take acid and hazard the bars, the best place to trip was in the country or some other open space. Camping and canoeing trips were dosed with acid. On a campout at a state park called Three Cliff River Park, Caleb tripped while dancing in the flames of a bonfire at the campsite, which was atop the highest of the three cliffs. A miracle he didn’t catch on fire or topple off the edge of the rock. At another paganesque acid celebration, he was standing on the shore of Fox River during the spring. Drawn by the spirit of the water, Caleb had leaped in the dangerously rapidly moving current and nearly drowned, losing his shoes to the swift moving river, all while tripping his brains out. On another occasion, an ounce of mushrooms led him on a twelve hour hike which brought him a sense of divine emptiness and left him lost in the middle of some farmer’s cornfield. Death and rebirth. The interchangeability of micro and macro. Mandelas. Time and space, etc. Other stuff. If you’re interested in that type of thing, you might read the Henry James article about transcendental experiences. Or drop some acid or eat mushrooms if you can find them. Caleb dropped off acid use because it was lots of work, was frequently terrifying and lasted too long. It was deep, yes, and things that hippies, mystics and scientists yammered about came to life. The doors acid opened to Caleb, the insights and epiphanies and the beauty revealed in the everyday fabric of reality were gifts that can’t be described or understood by anybody who hasn’t experienced a profound acid trip. Still, he could never get over the feeling that at any minute, he might start crying or go crazy forever or realize that he already had been crazy forever or something. There were no such misgivings when taking quayludes or seconal. Oh, after taking one 78


of those things and drinking a beer, Caleb might lose his ability to speak, but it would be more his loss of motor function than having actually forgotten what words were or what they meant. Caleb frequently felt talkative, not to mention happily violent when under the influence of downers and alcohol. When he wasn’t bumping, falling or breaking something, he’d attempt to talk to girls he didn’t know at the bars in town, but his words would fumble out in incomprehensible sludge. The women weren’t liking that trait. No matter. It was under this class of drugs that Caleb first dared to dance. Thankfully he was pogoing in a glut of other drunk and stoned revelers so slamming into one’s neighbors wasn’t the faux pax it might have been elsewhere. Downers were fun, but ultimately, they were too heavy. True, you could fall backwards off your front porch and not hurt yourself, but you could also be kicked out of a trailer park for merely being unable to stand upright in the front yard of your hosts’ abode. Nor were downers a very benign hangover. The day after, Caleb would not only feel groggy, but moody and prone to anger. Fuck that. As a matter of fact, fuck all those hard drugs. Caleb did angel dust a handful of times. It was like being dead drunk while tripping his balls off. MDA, (this was before the popularity of this drug’s cousin, MDMA), made him feel as if he’d be able to go outside and jump over the house, except he also felt frozen to his spot on the couch. Wasn’t able to move for several hours from that stuff. Nitrous oxide was wonderful, and for a time, Caleb would do whippets until he would be green around the gills. He eased up because he figured that anything that made him feel that good for that short of a time couldn’t be very good for him. It was like diabolic pleasure. Speaking of which, the few times he did cocaine during his undergraduate days, he had fun, but it was more of a drug that the frat boys did. Speed was fine for finals, but after a week of taking whatever was in those various colored pills, he’d crashed unexpectedly and hard, taking 79


to bed with the jittery fantods. After that, he would take them only when he had to get lots of work done in a short time. The come down was awful and made Caleb feel as if he’d been beaten up, which would probably be healthier and smarter than taking speed. Still, it was a better study aid than acid, which Caleb used one finals week his junior year. Not that acid was bad to use everyday for finals. A person’s tolerance for acid develops so quickly that after a couple of days it acts more like a mild stimulant, something like a really special coffee. No, acid wasn’t bad for studying, just slightly more diverting than regular speed. But to hell with hard drugs. Although, okay, let’s not condemn acid, mushrooms and Ecstasy, which wasn’t even around for regular folks then. But the rest of those synthetic drugs, to hell with them. Don’t do hard drugs, kids. Seriously.

Drugs were part of the mix that brought about Caleb’s first sexy experience. Maybe that’s not much of a deterrent for young folks not to use drugs. You might even say that maybe it’s an ringing endorsement, an advertisement, an enthusiastic invitation to use drugs and have sex. Sorry. There will be ample material to luridly show the consequences of hard drug use later on in the book, but not here. No, if you just took this isolated incident, you might take away the lesson that if you’re looking to find sex, just take some drugs and look for like minded partners. One of the guys from his dorm floor was Ben, and Ben had a cute girlfriend named Brenda. Brenda and Caleb would innocently flirt sometimes when they’d all be together doing bongs. Brenda had big blue eyes and a very short haircut. She also had a killer body, curvaceous and muscular, which she always clothed in tees and overalls. Ben was a nice enough guy at first glance. He was overly earnest about art, literature, music and philosophy though. 80


Ben, Brenda and Caleb were sitting at a table in the cafeteria of the student union. Ben, chain smoking, would go on and on about Sartre and existentialism, or his take on it. As Ben would fuss with his nasty tobacco (he insisted upon rolling his own cigarettes), and went on about Being and Nothingness this and Nausea that, he touched on the death of God in a particularly vindictive and nasty way that bothered Brenda. Even Caleb, who at that time wasn’t religious, felt uneasy at Ben’s blasphemy. “I wish you wouldn’t say that kind of stuff about God,” Brenda told Ben. “Why? Are you going to try to prove to me that there’s a God somewhere? There is no God! You can’t prove there is one,” Ben taunted her. Then, lighting his cigarette, he said something else blasphemous, enjoying Brenda’s discomfort. Still, she tried. “Well you can just look around and see that there’s a God,” Brenda weakly offered. “That doesn’t mean shit,” Ben spat, clearly enjoying himself. He went on to ask he how a loving God could allow suffering, etc. He pointed out the hypocrisies of the world religions and how they had caused violent atrocities throughout history in the name of God. Then he talked about existentialism, which he figured offered each individual the choice to create his own world and belief system. Except, evidently, Christians. On and on. And he capped it off with what he considered another witty blasphemy that made both Brenda and Caleb squirm. On that particular day, Ben had a one o’ clock class in Ancient Civilizations, and he left them in the student Union cafeteria. After he was gone, Brenda said to Caleb, “Do you believe in God?” “I don’t know. Religion doesn’t make much sense, but I’m not really atheistic either. I don’t know. I know that I don’t like it when people say weird stuff about God, blaspheme like 81


Ben did.” “I don’t like it when he does that either. Even if he doesn’t believe in God, it’s totally disrespectful of my beliefs. Sometimes, he can be a real jerk,” Brenda said. She might have added prig to her jerk accessment of Ben. Ben had unflappable confidence in his own intelligence and opinions. He was one of those folks who are bemused by others’ differing opinions. They find differing opinions to be ‘funny’ and those people holding such opinions to be quaint. That was Ben, a condescending boor, a patronizing know it all. His philosophy 101 course had sold him on existentialism, but he had equally insufferable attitudes toward art and music. Ben on ART: One day Brenda bought Ben a Norman Rockwell print of some apple cheeked kid getting his haircut in a good old barbershop. Caleb was with Ben when Brenda presented him the print. He and Ben had been sitting on the quad and smoking a joint when Brenda came up to them. Instead of saying thank you, like a regular person, Ben, all blank expression, balled up the print and tossed it in a waste basket as he pronounced, “That isn’t art.” Brenda stomped off angrily, which prompted Ben to nervously pick through his tobacco pouch. “She just doesn’t understand how offensive the draftsmanship of that old dilettante Rockwell is to someone like me, someone who cares about art. Art must be about the expression of the artist’s vision in an original, a new way. Anyone can be a craftsman,” he fussily pontificated as Caleb finished the joint. Caleb didn’t know what the fuck Ben was going on about, but he was sure that he didn’t like the way he’d treated Brenda. He could have been gracious instead of...assholish, no matter what he thought of the fucking picture. But that was Ben. Ben on music: Simplistic hard rock like Sabbath or AC/DC was too pedestrian for his tastes. Punk and disco he merely found to be funny. Punks and disco lovers amused him to no 82


end, and he was fond of saying that he could make a punk song as a joke if he wanted to. Though he wasn’t a musician, Ben demanded the music he listen to adhere to his highest standards of musicianship. Therefore, Ben paid homage at the alter of Zappa. Zappa the genius. Ben had hard to get bootlegs and every esoteric cutting from Mr. Zappa’s extraordinarily prolific career. If he came to visit, he’d bring a cut he wanted you to listen to and would insist that you take whatever you were listening to off while he enlightened you. Because Ben lived among so many others whose musical tastes were philistine, he learned, after having been slapped like a bitch for making a rude comment about Foghat, to keep a civil tongue in his head when someone else’s song was on. But Ben didn’t extend this courtesy to Brenda. Instead, he pouted or ridiculed her when she would put on music that she liked, whether it was Heart or The Cramps or Saturday Night Fever. If she wanted to listen to a particular song, he would purposely talk throughout the damn thing, and if she asked him to let her listen to it, he made fun of her song. Because it wasn’t important. It wasn’t REAL MUSIC. Actually, Ben was like that about lots of things. The only good modern comedians were the geniuses Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Richard Pryor and Woody Allen. Chaplin and the Marx Brothers were all he would watch from the old comedians. Oh, and he never watched television. How did Brenda, or Caleb or anyone else on the dorm floor stand Ben? They were all stoned all the time is how. The haze of marijuana smoothed things like prickly personalities and other differences so that everybody more or less liked each other. Still, there were people like Ben, who if you scratched below the surface weren’t that great to be around. Everyone had their own idiosyncracies. On the floor, there were people who were right wing (except for their drug use) as well as left wing types like Caleb. Caleb liked the right wing guys and they liked him. There were whitey hating African Americans. They made allowances 83


for the whites on the dorm floor. Also, there were whites who weren’t crazy about African Americans, but who liked the black guys on the floor just fine. There were guys who had stupid ideas about women and fellows who called gays faggots. People overlooked their stupidity. There were guys who were openly gay as well, and they were accepted by everyone on the dorm floor, even the insecure gay intolerant types. They all got along. Being constantly stoned made them either tolerant or complacent with each other. Either there was much love or they all just didn’t give a fuck. But it should be no surprise that Ben would drive people away from him if they got below the surface and spent time where they had to endure his bullshit. Brenda must have really loved him though. When she would talk about him to Caleb, she would refer to him as being her soul mate. To Caleb, Ben was okay to smoke pot with, but he was kind of a pain in the ass. No, he wasn’t a super handsome guy. He was constantly either smoking or rolling up his twiggy little cigarettes and he always smelled like tobacco. Maybe he was good in bed. Brenda certainly cut him a great deal of slack. Or maybe it wasn’t that he was good in bed. Maybe it wasn’t that at all. One afternoon, Ben and Brenda had stopped by to visit. Ben had been thoughtful enough to bring Frank Zappa, Live at the Fillmore for their listening enjoyment, and Caleb, because he was high and because he liked Brenda, went along with Ben’s wishes. As Frank and the Mothers of Invention doo wopped about The Mudsharks or went through their rock/jazz fusion of time changes, Ben ran out of tobacco. He didn’t want to go back to his room to get more though. He wanted to light the bong hit that Caleb had just handed him, and so he asked Brenda to please go to his room and get his other tobacco pouch. She left, and he horked the hit from Caleb’s bong, a beautiful ceramic Chinese dragon whose nostrils were carburetors and whose mouth held the bowl. Ben 84


held the hit for half a minute before exhaling, and he blissfully said, “What do you want for this dragon bong?” Before thinking, Caleb quipped, “I’d trade it for Brenda.” And they laughed. Brenda soon came back. They smoked some more pot, and then his guests left. Late that night there was a knock on Caleb’s door. It was Ben, and he was clearly troubled, Caleb could tell, because he hadn’t brought with him any of his beloved Zappa cuts. Caleb held out the customary bong bowl and Ben absently lit it up. Caleb had been asleep. “So what’s up?” he asked before taking his turn at the bong. “Brenda’s gone, and I wanted to talk to you,” he said seriously. Caleb loaded another bowl. “Having an existential crisis?” he asked. Ben looked at Caleb with wounded, doleful eyes. “I told Brenda what you said...about trading the bong for her.” “Aw fuck. Why’d you tell her that?” Ben looked unnerved, and his eyes focused on some distant point along the campus skyline. “Brenda thought it was a good idea. I told her we’d been kidding around. She said that she wants to ‘make love’ with you.” Now Caleb was awake. Caleb liked Brenda, and he’d long wanted to fuck her as well. Being a virgin, he was both eager and a little scared about going to bed with a woman, but this was just too weird, her being Ben’s ‘soulmate’ and all. Ben looked like a little boy wearing a Rasputin beard. His eyes were full and his lip was trembling. “Uh-“ ”She said that you can go over there tonight if you want. Or she said you could call her 85


and she’d...she’d come back here if you’d rather.” “Uh, why do you think she, um...” Ben was trying not to sniffle as, with trembling hands, he sloppily rolled one of his nasty cigarettes. Caleb wished he’d bring weed once in awhile instead of his fucking cigarettes or cuts from sublime genius-man Zappa. There was a quaver in his voice as Ben said, “Ahh, she thinks you have a nice body.” Ben was blushing behind his long whiskers, and he sighed deeply before continuing. He said, “She also likes that you’re a virgin, and she likes you.” Caleb was kind of freaking out. His heart was beating at the thought of Brenda putting all this out to him through her boyfriend. He didn’t get it. Caleb said, “Ahh, does that mean that Brenda and you aren’t soulmates anymore? Are you still, ahh, together? Does she want to be my girlfriend?” Ben looked panicky. “I don’t know,” he bleated like a calf on its way to the slaughterhouse. Despite the fact that Ben deserved to have his girlfriend make the really over the top existential choice of deciding to fuck another guy and having him set up the tryst, and despite the fact that Caleb really, really liked Brenda and would have loved for her to be his girlfriend, no, his soulmate, despite all that, it was just too strange. It was all too European and sophisticated for him. “Naw, man, I don’t want to...not that I wouldn’t like to. It’s just too weird,“ Caleb tried to explain. Ben looked like a man on death row who had received a reprieve. He looked like the guy who’d had a terrible load lifted from his back. Looking Caleb in the eye, he said, “Man, you are a true friend. I love you for not going through with this, Caleb.” Then, dribbling ashes everywhere, he awkwardly gave Caleb an unwelcome hug and removed his smelly ass from 86


Caleb’s messy but splendorous nineteenth floor room. It seemed like Brenda was also grateful to Caleb for not going through with fucking her, though Caleb was initially afraid that she would be resentful or distant. She wasn’t. She was super friendly and even more flirtatious than ever. Caleb and Brenda started hanging out on their own as friends, and Ben didn’t think anything of it because he considered Caleb to be a true blue buddy, and after the night of Caleb’s rejection of Brenda’s wild idea, when he’d gone back and phoned Brenda and explained Caleb’s refusal, she hadn’t brought it up again. Ben figured that they were back to being soulmates. So when Starwars came out and Brenda wanted to see it, Ben felt perfectly comfortable in lecturing his soulmate about how science fiction could never be considered to be serious ART. This Starwars was just big budget, Hollywood, commercial pablum to be served at the trough of public consumption for the masses who were too lazy to use their imaginations and too jaded to invest themselves in real drama. It was all too funny to Ben. And, seeing the beginning signs of anger in Brenda, Ben then told her that if she really wanted to see a good flick, why, he’d be happy to accompany her to a showing of The Seventh Seal by the genius film auteur Bergman. It would be shown in the sub-basement viewing room at the library next Tuesday at dinnertime if Brenda wanted to go, and he gently assured her that he would be happy to explain the symbolism in existential terms for her. Sure, she told her soulmate, and in the meantime, Brenda made arrangements to see Starwars with Caleb. It was showing on the north end of town in a regular theater complex, which Ben would never attend for aesthetic reasons. When Ben came by Brenda’s dorm room in the other tower of Carmen Hall, she had a surprise for him. It was a three way hit of lavender blotter acid, which she split with Caleb an hour before the show began. They walked to the complex, which was 87


about two miles away. Caleb and Brenda smoked pot several times along the way. The first time was on the marble steps that led down to the library’s lower level. Ivy dripped from the granite blocks of the building itself. They smoked some good Mexican weed in a bowl. The afternoon’s late summer breeze made Brenda’s long earrings sway, and the movement made the metal hoops sparkle in the afternoon light. Caleb leaned in close and gave her a shotgun hit from his bowl. The second time they smoked was as they were walking down the street of the residential area of Charleston. The sidewalk was about six feet higher than the road was for several blocks. This time, Brenda produced a joint she’d rolled and tucked into her overalls. They were high from the marijuana and had just started getting off from the acid when they got to the theater. “Let’s hold hands so we don’t lose each other,” Brenda suggested. Brenda and Caleb sat tripping in the front row as Starwars famous music started blasting out the speakers. It was kind of overwhelming, but in a throughly good way. The ambiguities and confusions that usually accompanied his acid trips were at a minimum during Caleb’s Starwars experience with Brenda. They were laughing and transfixed at the spectacle on the screen, and at some point, it all strangely made them both horny. It wasn’t the love story between Luke Skywalker and Princess Carrie Fisher. It was probably the stirring music and special effects. They had been holding hands from the time when they had been in the line for tickets, and now as they watched the movie, they started quietly squeezing each other’s hand, then mutually rubbing each others palms with their thumbs and feverishly snaking their fingers around each other’s fingers. Brenda’s hand fell to Caleb’s thigh and Caleb’s hand slid into and down the side of her overalls where he felt the side of her panty on her hip. Her hand started traveling up his thigh 88


until it was down his pants and she was massaging his dick. He looked at her face and the pupils of her brown eyes were huge. Then to the romantic strains of some Starwars battle song, they enjoyed a sweet kiss, which was followed by much drugged out tongue wrestling as they groped each other in the fortunately otherwise empty first row. They decided to leave early, and leaned heavily against each other as they walked up the aisle of the movie house. Rather than walk the several miles back to Carmen Hall, they walked a few more blocks north and were on the outskirts of Charleston, where they walked along some farm land until they came to an tree covered embankment, at the bottom of which ran a sandy bottomed creek. Caleb and Brenda took their clothes off and spread them on the sandy beach of the little stream. Then they embraced, at first tenderly, their synapses firing against each other’s smooth skin. Then they kissed, and within moments they were lying on the makeshift pallet and fucking. Though mildly tripping, Brenda had the presence of mind and the experience to help pace Caleb so his virgin ass didn’t come immediately. They took turns being on top and then stretched into other positions, their clothing having been pushed aside so that they were fucking on the grass. Then in the stream. Tiny minnows nipped at Caleb and Brenda’s skin around their wrists and knees where their skin touched the water. The sandy bottom and shore were copper colored against the candy enamel green finished look of the trees and surrounding bush. Brenda sat in the shallow stream, and Caleb buried his face in her pussy. From where he was at, he had a close up view of the metallic coils of her shiny, blue black pubic hair. As her pussy was half submerged, so was Caleb’s face half submerged. He sounded like a little kid making motorboat sounds in his cup of Bosco as he burbled around her pussy for as long as he could hold his breath. Brenda seemed to be in rapturous ecstacy at the sensation and Caleb was driving her crazy with sexy pleasure until one of the minnows that had been darting around their 89


bodies somehow got swept into Caleb’s mouth and slipped halfway down his gullet, whereupon he unceremoniously began choking and coughing. Brenda assisted him by helpfully pounding on his back until the wee guppy was projected back up Caleb’s throat and out his mouth, where he swam away, hopefully wiser for the lesson. As for Caleb, he went back to eating Brenda out for awhile before she rolled him over on his back and slowly lowered herself, groaning as she slipped down on his dick and catching her breath as her ass rested in his lap. Again, they started making the water around them peak and fly as they thrashed in the shallow stream.

Brenda could have broken up with Ben and been with Caleb, or Brenda and Caleb could have continued to carry on behind Ben’s back. Instead, Brenda elected to tell Ben what had happened and work on their relationship; after all, they were soulmates. Except for her attachment to Ben, Caleb thought that Brenda was great. He wanted to be her boyfriend. But oh well. Rather than react in the detached manner approved by existentialists of sophistication everywhere, Ben got pissed and distanced himself from Caleb, which was probably a smart move. He got a job off campus in a hardware store, and before the school year was out, he and Brenda were married and out of Carmen Hall. Then they were both out of school, and Caleb lost track of them. He ran into Ben when he was in his senior year of college. Ben was no longer working at the hardware store, but was in real estate. His hair was cut, his long radical beard was shaven, and he had put on forty pounds, which since he had been twenty pounds underweight, made him merely pudgy now. Ben seemed happy to see Caleb, as if what had happened between him and 90


Brenda had never occurred. He invited Caleb over to their house for dinner, and Caleb accepted, curious to see Brenda. Although Ben no longer smoked nasty self rolled cigarettes, he still smoked weed, which he demonstrated as soon as Caleb came to visit. Ben brought a beautiful clear glass bong and a bag of good weed from his and Brenda’s bedroom. They smoked up, and then Ben took both bong and pot back to the bedroom. He didn’t bring it back out that night. Caleb and his host repaired to their back patio, where Brenda was grilling hamburgers. She didn’t smoke any pot, her excuse being that she was two months pregnant. She seemed glad to see Caleb too. All was gentle water under the forgotten bridge. They had their hamburgers under the stars, and Caleb admired Ben and Brenda’s life, the restful back yard with its patio and garden. They had a lovely two story house with white siding and green and white awnings. While they were eating, Ben frequently forced himself to chuckle as he spoke of his university days. He couldn’t believe the fanciful things that he had taken seriously, especially his having been a philosophy major. Ben said, “I guess I thought that once I graduated, I’d start a philosophy store.” Caleb got the feeling that Ben hadn’t just thought that one up as his host laughed at his own words. Philosophy, Ben found it all so amusing now that he was engaged with ‘real life’. It was while he was eating his hamburger that a strange feeling came over Caleb. Caleb regarded the solidity of Ben and Brenda’s nice house. He felt their easy familiarity with each other. And he knew with certainty that he would never have those things. He wanted someone like Brenda. He liked the idea of having his own home, of being a father. But that was not his life to be. It was then that he knew it. 91


That evening as he was walking home, Caleb thought to himself, no one will ever love me like that. I’ll never make myself do what Ben has done to get that life. Taking something like real estate seriously was something Caleb would never do. Wearing suits and looking like a button down idiot simply wasn’t going to happen. The thoughts looped back on themselves...no one will ever love you...you’ll never have any of those things...no one will ever love you...you’ll never have a home...a real job...no one...no one and nothing...Over and over these thoughts clamored in his brain until he thought...so what. SO WHAT! Good. No one will love me like that. Brenda and Ben seem stupid and goony anyway. It’s good to be away from both of them, but they’ll be stuck with each other and maintaining their gross soulmate charade until they’re well sick of each other. And I’ll never have a pain in the ass responsibility like a house to worry about. Fantastic. I won’t need to have to learn about mortgages and interest rates, whatever those are. I won’t have to ever try to fix broken shit that goes wrong around the house like my Dad used to do and which I have no interest in doing and can’t do anyway. So these things that I’ll never have are things that I’m better off without having anyway. So fuck it. As the joint became a roach, Caleb’s gait became hopeful, downright jaunty in fact. He paused long enough to urinate on somebody’s car, and then he walked on to his home, his room at Carmen Hall, feeling light and happy and free.

Little has been said about Caleb’s classes during his years as a college student. That’s because they were rather useless. He made A’s and B’s, earned a BA in something wonderful and learned a lot of stuff that, as he feared and hoped, wouldn’t help him in life at all. Later, Caleb would use his college credits when he went BACK to college to get a certification in something that he hated doing, (though he was meant to) which was teaching. So, to any young 92


readers who might be like Caleb, listen to me. Don’t go to college. Save somebody a fortune and do something else. Do what? May I suggest being a cowboy, a hobo or even a pot dealer, but bypass college. Now, if you have talent, the proper connections or have a good, decent attitude, you can disregard this advice. By all means, go to college, and afterward, use your drive, talent and connections to get yourself a job that you can stomach. Make it your career. If, on the other hand, you don’t have an overabundance of talent or any helpful connections and, like Caleb, are by choice as well as genetics, marginalized, if you have the equivalent of a harelip AND a horrible attitude, then you’re fucked, but going to college won’t make you unfucked. And, aside from the cowboy, hobo, pot dealing suggestion. I don’t have any constructive alternatives to offer, sorry.

During Caleb’s third year, he and two of his floor mates moved out of Carmen Hall. They rented a house off campus. There was Caleb, Davo and Henry Peck, or Peck, as he was called. Peck claimed to be the nephew of Gregory Peck, which Caleb later found out was a fanciful tale. Peck also had an older girlfriend, a twenty eight year old woman named Joan who had two sons, a seven year old named Jas and a nine year old named Ron. Joan was recently divorced from an attorney, the father of her two kids. Joan was a free spirit, and Jas and Ron were growing up in the hippie manner. They were always at the house that Caleb, Peck and Davo were renting, and it was during this time that Caleb recognized a couple of things. The first thing that Caleb realized was that he had an affinity for teaching kids. He inadvertently stumbled on this talent while Peck was entertaining Joan in his bedroom, and Caleb and the kids were left to their own devices in the living room. As Caleb was doing bongs, he noticed that the kids were playing with the big chess set Davo had hand made. Jas and Ron were 93


using the pieces as if they were army men. Caleb exhaled a plume of smoke and, almost as an afterthought, said, “You guys wanna’ learn how to play chess?” In a matter of minutes, Caleb had them playing chess. It started with them sitting at the board and watching him explain what the pieces were called, where they went on the board and how they moved. It was simple. Pawns move forward one space at a time, except for the first move, but they take other pieces only diagonally, like this. He showed them, then they demonstrated that they remembered what he had shown them. Then they moved on to the other pieces and how they worked, constantly and patiently reviewing what they had learned. Caleb started with the pawns and worked his way to the king, and the game’s larger objective of trapping the opponent’s king. And Ron and Jas were then playing chess. Wondrous. It gave Caleb a good feeling. Caleb figured that if it had been his Dad trying to teach the kids how to play chess, he would have ended up cursing them out and throwing the chess pieces across the room. Caleb saw that he had the patience to help Ron and Jas learn. Not that Caleb put two and two together and had an epiphany wherein he realized that his destiny lay in the field of helping the children through the blessed act of teaching. No, Caleb didn’t want to be a teacher, hadn’t thought of doing it professionally. If the future would have been revealed and Caleb would have found out that he would eventually become a teacher, he’d have shuddered, fallen into a deep depression and taken to bed. As it was, when Caleb eventually did become a teacher, it was to make his Mom happy. She kept saying that growing pot was a bad way to make a living. “Caleb, you’ll get caught. Oh the shame of it all,” and that type of thing. So Caleb went back to school and got a teaching certificate, and he taught, but he referred to teaching as being, “...the last stop on the road to nowhere.” Still, watching Ron and Jas tentatively move their pieces across the board, Caleb knew 94


that he’d helped the kids learn a hard game in a short time, and that he’d been good at helping them learn. Here’s something else that Caleb learned by being around Ron and Jas. A disciplinarian he was not. The little fellows enjoyed it when their Mom would spend inordinate time in Peck’s bedroom if Caleb were around because he allowed them to do whatever they felt like, which usually involved lots of running madly through the house, trampolining on furniture, bouncing off of and drawing on walls, the destruction of lamp shades and light fixtures AND the occasional lighting of fires on tables and in wastebaskets. Whereas other adults would caution them or get pissed and try to stop them, Caleb felt that they should be allowed to express themselves however they saw fit and would convey his hearty approval and deep admiration for their efforts, occasionally joining in on the destructive fun as a gesture of solidarity. Solidarity with youth culture! So Ron and Jas would wreak havoc until they were in a state of overstimulated and frenzied exhaustion. Joan would then emerge from Peck’s bedroom and marvel at how seemingly calm and well behaved her youngsters were; they who had already vented their manic energies and were now spent and ready to rest or eat. So unbeknownst even to himself at the time, Caleb learned two important things during his years at college that he would come to later realize in bits and pieces throughout his teaching life. He was good at helping people learn, and he was bad at discipline. The other thing that he started to learn was that hard drugs are bad. That lesson took a long time to register.

THE LONESOME END OF COWBOY JONES 95


Caleb’s Dad had moved to the country early in his marriage so that he could have horses. He’d always loved the big, thoughtless creatures. More than that, Caleb’s Dad had always himself embodied the wild, untamed pioneering essence of men who had lived on the American frontier. He was a big hearted man who laughed easily but also lost his temper easily and harbored no shit from anyone. Caleb’s Dad was a free spirit who chafed at the restrictions of working for someone else. The most famous example of his fiery independence occurred when the plant manager somehow pissed him off, and he chased the guy around the machine shop until the man ran up into an enclosed booth and locked himself inside of it until Caleb’s Dad calmed down and allowed him to come out of the booth. His work was evidently good, or maybe it was that he was popular, or perhaps his union protected him. Something prevented the management from firing him. He wouldn’t even work overtime or on Saturdays, and lots of times, he called in sick. He had better things to do. Things like clearing fence line, repairing breaks in the wire or working on never ending barn renovations. Things having to do with horses. Caleb didn’t like horses. It was his Dad who loved them, so Caleb had grown up around them. Caleb was a great rider, being not only able to ride bareback but without bridle or reins as well. Still, riding wasn’t a passion for Caleb, and while the horses were nice to see in the way a sea scape is nice to look at, they weren’t like dogs, weren’t affectionate like dogs or even cats for that matter. They were interested in eating, and sometimes in sex, although the males where Caleb’s family lived were all gelded. If they hadn’t been, Caleb had been told, their terrible lusts would have made them unmanageable. A stallion could smell a mare from five miles away and would kill itself trying to break through a stall to get to the pussy. And you could certainly forget riding a stallion who had love on his mind. Not even Roy Rodgers would be able to do 96


that, and if you’ve ever seen a horse weiner unsheathed, you can begin to get the idea why they would be driven to be the swinging sex addicts they are. As it was, even the geldings would still get semi excited in the presence of mares in heat, and they’d prance around and show off their giant tumescent penises for the women horses, who would become frustrated. Then the geldings would become frustrated. It was rendingly sad to have the males gelded, but it was better than the alternative of having sex crazed stallions wrecking havoc over the countryside in their single minded mission to bone. And while Caleb could take or leave watching horses peacefully graze or even riding them on occasion, he could definitely leave the care involved in horse ownership. Cleaning horse shit and lining the stalls with clean hay on a weekly basis was just the beginning. Baling and putting up hay involved jogging next to moving pick up trucks, grabbing bales and hoisting them into the beds, either that or being on the trucks and grabbing and stacking the bales as they flew on. Then the bales had to be stacked in the barn lofts. Hot and itchy work, and hell on the sinus, but it was a good workout. Then there were also the daily chores. Every day of the year, the horses had to have their grain just as people must have their food. The horses cuisine never varied, a mixture of raw oats, grain husks and rabbit food pellets, all glazed with a fine spray of sorghum. Occasionally Caleb would reach in the bag and have a taste. It was almost exactly like Sugar Smacks. From the fall through the winter, they had to be given hay, and during the coldest winter months when the pond was frozen over, they had to be given hand drawn buckets of water daily. Like pampered children, they had to be brushed frequently, especially if they’d been rolling in the mud, which they liked to do. Caleb did this from little boyhood to now, post university graduate. The only break had been when he’d been in college. 97


Then there was the tack, which consisted of the bridles, saddles and blankets that had to be maintained, oiled and put away in the tack room. It was all very rustic, and the smells of saddles and horses and the accouterments were kind of nice, but it was lots of work. And riding was okay, but horses were large powerful animals, and not only riding but even being around them wasn’t without its risks. Caleb had been thrown countless times and had been bitten dozens of times, out of nowhere the horse trying to bite a plug out of a thigh or arm. He’d had his feet stepped on and even had once been full kicked in the shoulder and sent flying ten feet. It had been when he’d turned his back on one of his Dad’s mares, Ginger. He’d had a hoof imprint on that shoulder ever since. They would also inadvertently, sometimes purposely, pin you against the walls of their stalls and casually squash you, and if startled, and it takes very little to startle a horse, a leaf blowing across its path can induce spontaneous panic, they’d be liable to do anything. Of course, Caleb had his own horse that he’d bought when he’d still been a kid with the money earned from taking care of his Dad’s horses and helping with the fence and barn repairs and additions. Caleb’s horse was named Rocky. Rocky was reddish brown and had pretty brown eyes. Caleb’s Dad found Rocky and suggested he buy the horse. Caleb’s Mom decidedly did not like to be around horses. She didn’t mind looking at them from a distance, but like swimming, Caleb’s Mom didn’t do it. Not only would she not get on a horse, she wouldn’t get near one. She didn’t hate them. They were simply too big to be played with, in her opinion. What she found most objectionable about them was the cost of their upkeep. Caleb’s Mom’s hobby was saving money and investing in low interest rate T-bills and mutual funds. Despite her husband’s affectations of being a slick gentleman horse trader, she knew that at his level, horses were a waste of money. She and Caleb’s Dad had argued 98


about it, but he had prevailed. They were his hobby, so who was she to try to deprive him? Fine. She would go to horse shows and rodeos with him. They weren’t any fun for her, but anything to keep him happy, right? Caleb’s Dad had loved horses all his life. As a boy, he and Uncle Pal had ridden horses at their Uncle Ivy’s farm, and they’d enjoyed many bucolic summers riding and swimming their dusty days away. His Dad’s horses’ name had been Ribsy, and Uncle Pal’s horse’s name had been Bobbin. Uncle Pal had outgrown his love of horses, but not Caleb’s Dad. He liked to wear gentleman rancher attire, cowboy hat, boots, shirt and Farrah boot cut slacks. He walked with a hitch in his gait and enjoyed nothing more than talking horse flesh with the riders and the competitors at the rodeos, the horse shows and the fairs. He owned four horses, five counting Caleb’s Rocky. He even enjoyed riding the things, getting a big bang out of sitting on top of a horse and having it walk him somewhere. Nothing would have made Caleb’s Dad happier than to be able to be a rancher, to buy and trade horses, to have winning quarter horses, and to have Caleb ride for him in the shows and events. Caleb didn’t like it, cowboy drag, horse shows, rodeos. Much to his Dad’s disappointment, Caleb drew the line at donning a cowboy hat and competing in dangerous events like the barrels or, God forbid, bull riding. Caleb would ride Rocky in the wild countryside, but to hell with being a performing monkey. It was enough that he was cleaning the stables, feeding, watering the fucking things and helping maintain fence line and barn repairs. So although Caleb’s Dad would have loved to live the easeful life of a gentleman rancher, he couldn’t afford it. He used Caleb as a source of cheap labor, convincing him to buy Rocky when he himself had his eye on the horse. He had to finance his hobby from money he 99


earned at his job designing dyes in a machine shop, money that his wife figured could be better used by being invested. Caleb’s Dad made decent money, but, as mentioned, he hated his job. It grated against his independent spirit. He liked horses. It was during a day that Caleb’s Dad had blown off work to have him and Caleb work in the barn that he had his heart attack. It was a blistering afternoon the summer after Caleb had graduated college, and his Dad had the both of them hammering boards in the sweltering loft. Caleb’s Dad had called in sick to spend the day in the infernally hot barn muscling boards into place and pounding them in the small close space of the loft. At about two that day, Caleb’s Dad excused himself to go inside and get a drink, leaving Caleb to continue the hellish task. After half an hour or so, Caleb got sick of working in the heat by himself, and feeling a bit pissed at having been left alone out there, he went inside. He immediately went into the basement to get high. Caleb was smoking a bowl when he heard a pounding from above. He finished his bowl and was about to go up when he heard the pounding again. When he went upstairs, he found his Dad lying on the floor. His face was bloated and red, and he was gasping for breath and in terrible pain. Caleb called 911. He thought he was going to have to take him to the emergency room himself and was trying to drag his Dad to the car when the ambulance arrived. It is said that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Friedrich Nietche said that. He died insane after having suffered a nervous breakdown triggered by the sight of a horse being beaten. His insanity was brought on by syphilis, but still; the point is that what doesn’t kill you might not make you stronger. It might terminally fuck you up very badly, and that is what happened to Caleb’s Dad. 100


Oh, it made him stronger if by stronger you mean more demanding and imperiously needy in the way that kings, presidents and petulant celebrities can be. Caleb and to a greater extent his Mom had to both walk on eggs not to upset his fragile emotional balance in the months after his heart attack. He couldn’t return back to his old job, so he became to a degree financially dependent on Caleb’s Mom, having to have her help him buy grain and feed for his beloved horses. He could no longer buy things on his own but had to ask her. That was fun for all. To say nothing of Caleb’s basically worthless and unemployable ass. Throughout that last year and a half of his Dad’s life, Caleb was glad to walk on eggs and stay out from underfoot if that’s what he had to do to keep his Dad among the living. He continued to feed the horses. Although sometimes he’d go with his Dad to the coffee shop or the body shop, Caleb no longer went to horse shows or events. Still, he spent lots of time with his Dad. Sometimes if Caleb were with him on some errand, he’d leave him in the truck and would get to talking with whomever was inside, and he would forget about his son for up to an hour. Caleb would become exasperated, but he couldn’t say anything to his poor, sick Dad. Perhaps what changed Caleb’s Dad even more than the physical debilitation of his heart attack was the way some of the people in town treated him. They thought of his heart attack and disability as being a novel way of his getting out of having to work, and he became a figure of fun among them. One of them was a minor politician from Marion with ties to, well we won’t say what party since both parties are the same. When Caleb’s Dad came to him to ask if there were something the politician could do to help him find work, the politico took his old friend’s earnest request and told his cronies that Caleb’s Dad was looking for the kind of job where he wouldn’t have to do very much, not because he couldn’t, but because he was a lazy fuck, which was for those guys a vastly amusing concept. 101


The politician from Marion said that Caleb’s Dad wanted to represent the gentleman rancher contingency, and they started called him Cowboy Jones behind his back. Boy... good one, huh? Well, at least for once, a politician didn’t use his pull to help a friend gain an unfair advantage in getting employment. Caleb’s Dad spent the last part of his life still dressed in his now frayed cowboy refinery. His mornings found him in the local coffee shop, where he’d cheerfully say hello to any of his old, still useful buddies who would happen to pop in during their busy days. His afternoons were usually spent at Snooze’s body shop, now owned by George Crenshaw, who was a newer acquaintance of Caleb’s Dad’s. George would let Caleb’s Dad hang around and would sometimes send him on errands. It was like high cruel comedy to some of those old acquaintances. His Dad stopped hanging around them. Even that was a cause of hilarity. What was wrong with Cowboy Jones? In the evenings during that time, Caleb’s Dad would watch tv, his favorite show featuring one Sheriff Lobo. He would also read Louis L’Amore westerns. Caleb sometimes would pick up one of his Dad’s books and read it. He figured his Dad liked the clean world evoked by the novels, the comfort of a wilderness where he could have lived simply, healthily and without being judged by people. Caleb’s Dad would also go to the small parlor on the far end of the house. He’d lie on the couch and listen to his police scanner late into the night. Caleb would hear the distant crackle from the scanners radio static, then the garbled mumbling of the police talking back and forth with each other and their dispatcher. Sometimes Caleb’s Mom would join him in the parlor, and she would read her Harlequin Romance novels as Caleb’s Dad would listen to his scanner and read a western. Sometimes Caleb would join them, him reading his crazy William 102


Burroughs or Genet or Joseph Campbell or a music publication like Creem or Rolling Stone. With the protection of the static and the faraway radio wave voices from the scanner insulating them and something to read to divert them, Caleb’s family would make believe that everything was okay for awhile. For that evening anyway. Imagine everyone’s half surprise when Caleb’s Dad had another heart attack and died a little over a year and a half later. The politician who had made the jokes at Caleb’s Dad’s expense took his Mom aside and assured her that he’d had no idea that he had been as sick as he was. He’d loved Caleb’s Dad, and would have never said anything to really hurt him. Imagine that. Caleb’s Mom forgave that guy, but someone she didn’t forgive was another of his Dad’s old friends. This one had been a friend from the horse shows and rodeos, and when Caleb’s Dad passed away this guy told Caleb’s Mom that he had a buyer in Florida for his Dad’s horse trailer. He’d told her that under the pretext of using the trailer to transport a horse he’d sold to some guy in Florida. He hadn’t sold the trailer at all, and the guy in Florida wasn’t inclined to make a special trip to Illinois to bring back a trailer he hadn’t asked for. Caleb’s Mom threatened his Dad’s old pal with the law, so he paid her the cost of the trailer out of his own pocket, protesting that he hadn’t been trying to cheat her. But he had. To Caleb, his Mom said, “I am tired of being shit on. No more.” When his Dad was in the hospital those last months, Caleb spent most of his time with him in intensive care. The room itself was relaxing, the machines making reassuring white noise, and the colors of the room done in restful tones of blue and green. Caleb would read in his Dad’s intensive care room. He was reading two books, The Once and Future King by T.H. White and The Golden Bough by Ian Fraiser. His Mom would show up about four-thirty. 103


They’d sit there together until it would be time to go that night. They both knew that it was only a matter of time. The priest was brought in, and Caleb’s Dad died on a bitterly cold January night with Caleb and his Mom at his side.

Relationships don’t end when separation or even the loss of death occurs. The heart and the brain still process the memories, and the relationship ultimately continues to go through changes, and Caleb’s relationship with his Dad did exactly that after his Dad’s demise. Some sensitive types can see spirits and commune with ghosts. Caleb was not one of those. The thought of seeing his Dad appear as a ghost was scarey to him; anyway, the memory of his poor Dad was ghost enough for Caleb. Caleb’s Dad came to him through dreams. It was through dreams that Caleb’s relationship with his Dad evolved in ways that Caleb would be hard pressed to articulate. In the first weeks and months after his death, Caleb would dream of his Dad as being either near death or somehow, though not a ghost, having died but come back to life temporarily. In these dreams he was as sickly looking as he’d been near the time of his last hospital visit, gaunt and cadaverous with a pitiable expression. Was it accusatory or did it merely register pain? His skin was pale as a fish belly and was thick looking. He’d be vulnerably dressed in either a hospital gown or his underwear, and though silent, his entire being would emanate discomfort and distress. The settings for these dreams would be either bleak nightmarish landscapes or their home, always on sunny days. The first time his Dad spoke to him, he was in his tighty whities and was balled up in the fetal position on the front room couch. He looked up at Caleb and weakly muttered that he wanted to go home to his own Mom. But his Dad changed as the dreams went on. The first change was that his Dad started 104


appearing clothed, and not in his regular cowboy garb. At first he would be in his regular casual clothes and then later, his Dad progressed to stylish suits. The settings leveled off from being nightmarish to being merely unfamiliar, still holding undercurrents of tension but not horribly awful. When a dream would take place at the family house, it would no longer be their house, but other houses. Most of all, Caleb’s Dad lightened up. In fact, he went too far. In Caleb’s dreams, his Dad started partying in strip clubs and bars. Caleb and he were now getting high together, and not just on weed but on cocaine as well, which at this point in Caleb’s life, he seldom did. In one dream, his Dad introduced Caleb to a gorgeous girl only a few years older than himself. “Caleb, I want you to meet my new girlfriend, Sue. Uh, you don’t have to tell your Mom. She wouldn’t understand, but me and Sue have got something special. I think we’re soul mates,” his Dad divulged before giving this Sue, a trailer trash succubus, a lingering kiss. In yet another dream chronicling Caleb’s Dad’s evolution, he went from snorting cocaine to stealing sixteen wheel semi-trailer trucks of the stuff from machete bearing drug big wigs. They were looking for him in order to chop him up machete style, but Caleb’s Dad was in a whimsically serendipitous mood, possibly the early effects of the cocaine. Despite being behind the wheel of a highly visible sixteen wheeler and being sought after by a frothing mad drug cartel, Caleb’s Dad was tooling around in the big rig, waving to Caleb and honking the loud assed horn. In our final example of how much Caleb’s Dad had...changed, we find father and son at the top of a high, ancient hill, actually an ancient landfill overlooking a city that was all red light district. “So son,” Caleb’s Dad said wistfully, “What’s say we go find us some trannie whores!” 105


THE HOW TO CHAPTER

Caleb opted to take the painkillers left over from his Dad’s illness. It took Caleb four months to realize that they weren’t the fun kind of painkiller, if such exist, but these were heavy and would cause him to sleep most of the time, and when he was awake, he felt acute ennui. You could find Caleb in bed mid-afternoon or lying on the couch in a daze much of the time during that period of his life. Then finally, he realized he didn’t like the feeling and threw the pills away. Once they were gone he no longer slept all the time anymore, but the ennui remained. Caleb wasn’t working much, just occasional lawn mowing or some other odd job. He didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, his degree was useless as there weren’t many real jobs in Chase, and those that were available didn’t need Caleb, and that was fine. It was impossible for him to take anything seriously. Caleb gave off the invisible and silent, ‘I don’t give a fuck’ vibe. Actually he liked not caring, and while he no longer took his Dad’s poisonous meds, he did increase his liquor and weed intake to facilitate his wonderfully deepening state of apathy. He became a regular at Perry’s Tavern. As many of Caleb’s heroes were life long fuck ups, the mantle of ne’er do suited him admirably, and he bore it with the regal dignity befitting village idiots everywhere. Many was the afternoon that you could find him at the bar waxing philosophical; well, not so much waxing philosophical as quietly getting drunk, occasionally retreating to the women’s bathroom to smoke if he or someone else had some herb 106


Bertie noticed the rut that his younger cousin was falling into, and he decided to intervene. As always young Caleb was still his favorite cuz, and Caleb’s Dad had been Bertie’s favorite uncle. He couldn’t simply stand by and watch his blood become a bum. There was something that he could give Caleb to do, something that would keep him occupied, teach him a trade and help Bertie out at the same time. Since Bertie had a day job in a machine shop, he would be needing help with his special field project. “You should come by tomorrow after I get home from work,” Bertie advised Caleb one evening as they smoked a joint of Bertie’s good weed in the bathroom at Perry’s. “What’s going on?” Bertie knew his cousin. “I’ve got some black hash I want you to try.” The next day at four o’ clock, Caleb was parked in his cousin’s drive. Bertie was renting a kind of shack on some country property that abutted even more wild undeveloped land, a couple hundred acres of wooded area and meadow. Bertie pulled up and led his cousin to the back yard. “I thought you were going to show me some hash,” he said as they walked to the back edge of the property. “I couldn’t tell you what I wanted to last night,” he said, and then they were at his project. Caleb looked at something he’d never seen before. Bertie had about one hundred young marijuana plants growing in small plastic casings. They were varying shades of green, from a yellow lemony shade to a nearly blue-black kind of green. They were beautiful. “Wow,” Caleb managed to say. “I need a partner this year,” Bertie began. He further explained, “The guy I usually 107


grow with, the guy who taught me, he can’t do it this year. If I didn’t have to go to work, I could maybe manage it, but with me working, it’s too hard. You want to be my partner?” “Yeah!” “Great. Now let’s celebrate.” Bertie took out a large bowl of black hash and offered it to his cousin, who fired it up. It seemed that Bertie wanted Caleb to water the young plants twice a day until they were ready to be put out. In a few weeks, they would spot plant the young weed in the surrounding meadows where they would get full Sun. Bertie would teach him everything he knew, and they would split the sinse fifty-fifty. And Bertie knew a lot about growing marijuana. Before they planted, they had to get the soil ready. Over a weekend, Bertie and Caleb mixed a large bag of fertilizer composed of green sand, blood meal, potash, and rock phosphate. He also brought ground limestone to balance the ph content of the soil. To give the heavy clay soil of the region a better texture, they brought vermiculaite, perlite and gypsum. For each spot they picked, they liberally worked everything about a foot and a half deep into the soil. It took them a full weekend to accomplish, carefully choosing their spots so that the plants would get full sun or southern exposure at least. They made paths through the young spring grass of the meadows. Every time a plane would go by overhead, they would take refuge in underbrush. By Sunday night, Caleb was sore as a boil from carrying heavy bags of mix and digging. Caleb began an exercise regimen of running several miles a day. This was to enable him to carry heavy loads of not only fertilizer or soil mix but water as well. Not only did they have to be able to carry these loads, they had to be able to lift their knees high so as to make the paths less obvious. They had to be able to carry water, tools and soil amendments for up to half a mile, sometimes moving upright while other times having to crouch and duck-walk across open 108


expanses where they might be easily spotted were they to walk upright. This became known as guerilla farming. The following Saturday, they carefully carried the plants and water to the prepared spots. They used water from a rain barrel that had bat guano at the bottom of it and a pump to continuously circulate the rainwater. Bertie referred to the brown tinged water as compost tea, and they had to make a special trip to carry it. They used five gallon jugs that had been spray painted flat green. The tea was bolstered with a synthetic water soluble fertilizer. Bertie would have preferred to use fish emulsion, but raccoons liked water soluble fish emulsion and would tear up newly transplanted herb to try and get to the essence of fish in the damp soil. Also, the synthetic fertilizer had an N-P-K content of 12-12-12 as opposed to the fish emulsion, which had an N-P-K content of 5-2-1. Caleb was disturbed by the pathways they made going back and forth. It seemed no matter how carefully they trod, they still made paths. Bertie said it was inevitable and that if people crossed the path they would think deer had made them. Caleb was skeptical. He started a small patch of his own on the undeveloped property behind his Mom’s land. Caleb loved the hard physical work. He loved learning to move through the woods and meadows. To get to his own spot, he walked along borders, along the edge of wooded areas, on fallen logs and on the edge of wild meadows rather than through them. He learned to recognize poison ivy and poison oak. He learned to shower immediately after every trip to tend to the plants, and to not make more trips than absolutely necessary. Dark green clothes and either a cap or a head band were necessary since the work caused him to be drenched in sweat. He also learned how to pull off ticks without leaving their heads buried in his skin. The ticks came in all sizes, from regular size to ticks that were smaller than the head of a pin. One day, while 109


Caleb was watering his own plants, he felt a tick on his shoulder. When he pulled it off, he realized he’d just pulled off a skin tag. Bertie never mentioned who his partner had been and why they no longer grew together, but as the growing season progressed, Caleb developed theories of his own. Although Bertie was in superb physical shape and could easily hold up his end of the physical labor involved, after the initial soil preparation and planting, during the hot dusty weeks of summer when watering was necessary, Bertie didn’t hold up his end. He would call Caleb and tell him that he couldn’t water because he had a hot date, or had some important errand, or some old buddy had come in from somewhere and he had to show him a good time and couldn’t risk him finding out about the plants. It was always something. Once he begged off helping water because he hadn’t worn his socks and didn’t want to get poison ivy or chiggers. That time, he’d sat at the edge of his property and watched Caleb disappear into the flora and fauna, bent under the weight of two five gallon jugs. Time after time, Caleb found himself going alone to the plants with the drums of supercharged water. Watering was a time consuming process. It had to be done slowly or the water would run off the desired area around the base of the plants. Maybe that was why Bertie tried to get out of it. But he did take the time to go out and show Caleb how to both prune and tie back plants so that they looked more like bushes. To keep the deer away, they bought a commercial mixture of foul smelling stuff that they carefully sprayed around the plants, making sure not to get any on their weed. They also got some hair clippings which they scattered around the plants. In late May Bertie had insisted upon their pinching the growing tips of the plants so they would branch out, and again in late June they pinched the two growing tips to produce four bushy main branches, from which auxiliary branches grew. The resultant buds would be cherry 110


blossoms (Bertie’s term) rather than colas. In mid-July, Bertie taught Caleb to watch for the branch nodes to begin developing tiny grape cluster looking pollen sacks. When they saw those, they cut down the plants to prevent pollination of the females. They were growing sensimilla, seedless marijuana. Bertie also practiced the old growing method of supposedly increasing potency by stressing the plants. He taught Caleb a method of lightly snapping the side branches so that when they mended, they had small knots where the tiny fractures occurred. And of course they composted around the bases of the plants. When Caleb wanted to put more compost on later, Bertie said that while it had many benefits, it could also carry fungi such as botrytis and powdery mildew. He also eschewed foliar feeding for the same reason, particularly after the remaining sixty-seven females began budding, as did Caleb’s own patch. He showed Caleb pictures of sick plants and taught him how to diagnose cannabis diseases. When the plants ripened, the leaves became heavy with the white and pink pistils shooting from the newly burgeoning calyxes, like hairs protruding from the thousands of bud sites on the branches. By mid August, the branches were heavy with buds. By then, Bertie and Caleb had switched from the 12-12-12 fertilizer to a one high in phosphorous with a 5-2-30 distribution. The buds swelled every day and grew more aromatic, spreading the scent of lilacs and skunk over the meadow. The strains were various indica and indica sativa hybrids. Pure sativa, preferring the longer seasons of equatorial and tropical locales, couldn’t finish in southern Illinois. The indica, on the other hand, either in its pure or hybrid form, was more suitable to the shorter growing season. The smells were loud, and Caleb could pick up the scent of his own patch from outside the back door on some evenings in August and September when the wind was just right. 111


He didn’t pinch the growing tops during the vegetative stage, so his plants developed one main cola and many side branches. The plants with more of a sativa expression were shaped like rangy Christmas trees and were a bit taller. They were a lighter shade of green too. Their buds had a delicate pineapple scent. Those that had more of an indica expression, were shorter and bushier, the leaves thicker and serrated. They were dark green, and had the loud skunk and lilac smell that carried on the breezes for so far. Caleb spent several afternoons in the land back of his house tying the auxiliary branches apart to maximize exposure to the sun using nylon and cable ties. This was to prevent cutting the plants’ skins and risking infection. Caleb didn’t intentionally stress any of his plants. One he unintentionally stressed when transplanting it to a sunnier spot. He broke the stem. Caleb had taped it together, and it had remained small throughout its vegetative stage. When it budded, it was one long cola, nearly white with resin. So maybe there was something to stressing plants for potency. It cut down on quantity though. And it seemed cruel to torture his beautiful pot plants. It was bad enough to cut them down at harvest time. Caleb also felt badly about not allowing the males to pollinate the females. Whereas Caleb’s secret garden was a source of great peace and pleasure to him, his and Bertie’s project was scaring the bejeezus out of him. It was because of the paths which had been pronounced from the beginning and were now a series of well worn pathways linking all of those plants in the overgrown, autumn meadow, the bushy green pot plants showing through the broom wheat like big green shrubs, anywhere from four to seven feet tall. Also, he hated the stretch of land where he had to duck walk. It was wrecking his knees. There was also the matter of his resentment toward Bertie for sloughing off so much of the watering chores on him. Still, Caleb loved his cousin, and he couldn’t forget how much Bertie had taught him. But it 112


seemed useless. Anyone walking across this field for any reason would have to see the paths, and then they’d either call the law or rip them off. When he brought it up to Bertie, his cousin dismissed his concerns. Despite Caleb’s issues with his cousin’s Tom Sawyer like proclivity for getting out of work, Caleb knew that he had much for which to thank Bertie. Now every morning, Caleb would roll out of bed after his Mom had left; he’d drink a coke, eat a burrito or some leftovers, get high and then go running. In the afternoon, if he didn’t have to go over to Bertie’s and water the plants, (usually a once a week occurrence), he would either go running or he would visit his other private patch of herb. He knew the rule about unnecessarily visiting your plants, but he was self indulgent and would visit them for no reason, just to look at them and smell them. They were beautiful and fragrant. The pistils were withering, turning from luscious white and pink hairs to a shade of dry lavender as the calyxes swelled and radiated white, powdery resin. They weren’t quite ready yet. Caleb broke the rule about unnecessary visits. His paranoia about his and Bertie’s spot was difficult to deal with. Even his own plants, as much as they brought a sense of peace, were also a source of paranoia. It was always in the back of Caleb’s mind no matter what, but sometimes it would hit him with a ferocious intensity that made him feel as if there were no way they couldn’t be either ripped off or busted. Caleb imagined life in prison, and it would worry him to numbness, until it couldn’t worry him anymore for awhile. It seemed that starting in late August there were suddenly no end of planes going over both the field in back of his house as well as his and Bertie’s spots. When he would be out with the plants, the sound of a distant plane would send him diving for a place to hide until the engines faded. Caleb and Bertie went to a store that specialized in artificial flowers, and they bought 113


out the entire stock of white baby’s breath and six spools of florists wire. At the counter, the young cashier looked at the Jones boys and said, “Are you guys catering a wedding?” “Something like that,” Bertie said smiling, and the cashier blushed and smiled back. They used the florists wire to affix the baby’s breath to a few of the auxiliary branches. It really did a good job of camouflaging the weed, disguising it a bit and distracting from the greenness. Planes would hopefully be thrown off. They stopped watering in the first week of October.

Ever gone to get something important, and it isn’t where it was absolutely supposed to be? Here is what happens. Your heart immediately starts beating fast, and you get the sensation that you’re being watched. You don’t believe whatever it is that should be in that spot isn’t there. You look around the area, as if it will somehow miraculously spring forth from the fabric of reality, where it definitely isn’t. You might actually search for it and come back to the same spot, as if it’s possible that you merely overlooked it initially and will now spot it and think, “If it had been a snake, It’d bit me,” or something. But you didn’t overlook it and it hasn’t moved on its own. It’s gone. It happened to both Caleb and Bertie that year. First it happened to Bertie, who called Caleb and desperately asked if for some reason Caleb had harvested the plants that day. Caleb hated to tell him no. Caleb had expected as much, what with the big paths connecting the plants. Bertie said that whoever had ripped them off had missed about eight of the smaller plants, which would afford both of them a half pound of bud. Although he still wanted to leave the remaining plants out for another week, Caleb pleaded with him to take them down now before the thieves came back. 114


He had planned on leaving his own patch out for another week to a week and a half, until two thirds of the pistils had withered. They were almost there, and the branches were sagging beneath the weight of the snowy, dark green bud. He couldn’t resist checking on them daily at this point, somehow feeling that he was home free. And someone must have seen him going out to the field, and then looked until he found Caleb’s spot. He went there the tenth of October and found sixteen out of the twenty gone. He quickly harvested the remaining four and skedaddled. From them he would get a little over a pound of bud. He didn’t like thinking about how much he and Bertie had lost. Bertie went around for days with a red face. It was hard to take, and useless to speculate upon who had taken their weed.

The next year, Caleb planted on his own. He resisted the urge to constantly visit his plants and managed to harvest four pounds from eleven females. The year after that, he planted on the refuge and had his crop decimated by deer despite using deer repellant and scattering human hair around the plants. The year after, he tried again, and had problems with powdery mildew and botrytis which destroyed three quarters of his crop. Over the years, Caleb kept trying to fight the good fight throughout the countryside, like Johnny Appleseed. But it was a hard fight indeed. To battle botrytis and powdery mildew, Caleb used everything from baking soda solution to copper bordeaux. He tried to plant places that would be hard for deer to find, in the middle of briar for example. Each year, Caleb learned more and more about growing techniques. Even so, there were many years that Caleb would end up having most of his crop stolen, leaving him just enough to get by. When planting in an area, there was always the dilemma of 115


whether to plant everything in one spot only, or to have several spots in one area. Planting in one spot ran the risk of putting all of one’s eggs in one basket. If someone found the one spot, everything was lost. On the other hand, if you had several spots in an area, and even one spot was found, whoever found the one spot would be sure to comb the rest of the area for any other places. Caleb liked to have one spot per area in several areas. On those years when Caleb couldn’t even grow enough for stash, he could always rely on his cousin, Bertie, who kept a steady flow of pot growing, maturing and being harvested and processed for wholesale and retail. Bertie had moved operations indoors. Sometimes, Caleb would sell for either his cousin or another friend who grew. This friend’s name was Sir Dan and he grew in a greenhouse on a hill overlooking the town of Murphysburo.. And that is how Caleb spent his twenties (the years, not the bills). Trying to grow pot, or selling just enough to have some for himself and put a tiny bit of money in his pocket. His life became a lovely routine centered around running five miles a day, planting, selling or getting high on weed, and, well...

CALEB AS A BOY WELL, ACTUALLY AS A THIRTY YEAR OLD MAN ATTEMPTING TO BEHAVE BOYISHLY

Sitting in the little boat that was floating in the little pond in front of his Mom’s house, Caleb carefully chopped his beloved bud on the top of his tackle box. It was from last year’s 116


crop, a skunky indica that tasted of flowers and candy and came from a sunny spot in the woody meadow behind his Mom’s land. It was bodacious. Around the pond were tall pines and briar so that Caleb was invisible to both the house, which was a few acres back, as well as the road, which was twenty feet from the pond. Caleb took a moment to set aside his tackle box and partially chopped weed to tend to the slow leak in the boat. With a few scoops of a little pail, Caleb scooped out the inch of water that had seeped into it. He then resumed his joint making activities. He had completed the task and was smoking the joint in the early morning sunlight. His Mom had just recently left for her job. She was past retirement age, but she continued to work. She was a junior vice president at the bank in town, and a well respected member of the community. Caleb, on the other hand, was much like he’d been at sixteen. Or at least he felt the same. A gentle breeze played at the ends of Caleb’s glorious, sun-streaked mullet and blew the long strands of his bangs over his eyes. He watched the red bobber dance on the glinting waves, muddy emerald shot with waspy strands of broken refracted light. The breeze carried the musky scent of deer, which helped dilute the pungency of the sweet burning herb. The bobber dragged across the surface for a moment before lazily fading below the waves to the murky depths. Caleb hastily but carefully put the joint in a tray from his tackle box and began reeling in the fish. It fought a bit, but for its weight, which felt like a pound or two, it didn’t put up much of a struggle. It was a young catfish, and it would be breakfast, but as soon as it was in the boat, Caleb sadly regarded the gentle expression on the fish’s face, as if it loved and trusted it’s predator. It looked like an armless baby, and Caleb released it back into the pond. He finished the joint and caught some bass, which did not so much resemble armless placid babies. There 117


were enough bass for both breakfast and lunch. His Mom always came home for lunch. When he’d caught enough, Caleb took the boat back to the shore, beneath the boughs of several pines. It wasn’t twenty minutes until he had the fish cleaned and the fillets were browning in the skillet. As they were cooking, Caleb prepared a marinade for the lunch fish. Into a bowl he placed the bass fillets with sliced onion and garlic, tarragon, fennel leaf, black pepper and a little over a bottle of beer. The rest of the near full second beer Caleb enjoyed with his breakfast. After breakfast, Caleb smoked several more bowls, then spent around fifteen minutes studying a stimulating publication entitled Club Internationale. After this episode, he got high and went running. The geography of much of Illinois is flat, but in deep southern Illinois, the terrain becomes hilly, and it was over these green hills that Caleb ran. As he ran, he listened to a mix tape of Lou Reed, Iggy, The Sex Pistols, Patty Smith, and The New York Dolls. Caleb sweated liberally during the seven mile jog. It took him from his Mom’s place outside the town of Chase behind the village of Greenbreeze and back home on Clark’s Trail, where the trees arched over the road so that there was a shady, mid morning light shafted effect for the last mile of Caleb’s run. Once home, Caleb hurriedly showered so that he could catch The Young and the Restless, the events of which he would relate to his Mom during her lunch hour. During this episode, Victor was at odds with Jack over Vickie, who was torn between two lovers as it were, and as Caleb watched the alpha males glower and bristle at each other, As the soap opera churned, Caleb’s young pals Jerry and Lightnin’ came driving up in Jerry’s GTO. They’d graduated from high school the previous year, and Caleb had become acquainted with them when Jerry had, unbidden by Caleb, recovered about two pounds of Caleb’s weed that had 118


been ripped off in the field during September. When the fool who had ripped Caleb off, his own cousin Skipper, had told Jerry about his larceny as they smoked a joint rolled from the stolen bud, Jerry had righteously slapped Skipper and promptly brought the weed back to Caleb, whom he didn’t even personally know. After that, Caleb loved Jerry and was delighted by his every word and deed. Jerry was a big blonde lad with long hair, and he was a cool boy. Lightnin’ was Jerry’s best friend, and they generally came by every day to hang out and get high and possibly buy some weed from Caleb until about the time when Caleb’s Mom came home at one. Lightnin’s name came from his talents on the basketball court. He had a girl friend, unlike Jerry, or Caleb for that matter. Lightnin’ also had a job, unlike Jerry and Caleb. Lightnin’ was bartender at the Perry’s Tavern, even though he was only nineteen. Caleb loved his young pal Lightnin’ as well and enjoyed their week day morning visits. The friends sat at the kitchen table next to the glass sliding doors. The summer sun cascaded into the yellow wallpapered kitchen. Caleb got up from the kitchen table to make them all cokes as Jerry brought out a joint. He lit it, took a draw and handed it to Caleb. Jerry said, “Where the fuck is Victor supposed to be from on this stupid fucking show? I mean listen to that accent.” At this point, Jerry imitated Victor’s rich rolling vaguely European accent, saying, “Jock, Eye, warun yeoou theees time ontly!” “That was really good,” Caleb observed. “Do it again,” Lightnin’ urged, and Jerry complied several times. Jerry imitated the rich fruity baritone of Victor. “Eye aim tailing yew fer ur owan gut! Eef yeeou dooon’t leeef Veeekie aloooon, Eye wooon’t bay reespooonseebile fer whoot eye dew!” Lightnin’ didn’t laugh but leaned back in the kitchen chair, threw back his head, closed his eyes and smiled in appreciation of Jerry’s efforts. 119


After the joint, the three friends aimlessly wandered around outside until they uncovered an old seatless bicycle in the barn. Lightnin’ found it on top of a pile of old lumber. Jerry then hatched the theory that it would be a wonderful thing to construct a ramp from the old boards and practice bmx style jumps. Jerry said, “I’ll bet if we make a ramp, I can jump from it to your roof.” “Splendid idea, Jerry. Honestly, where do you come up with them?” Caleb said. Lightnin’, standing atop the lumber, began picking up pieces and tossing them down to Jerry and Caleb. He said, “But there’s no fucking seat on the bicycle.” “No problem for me,” Jerry assured Lightnin’. He and Caleb began hauling out the boards that Lightnin’ was tossing down. Lightnin’ emerged from the barn with a much needed saw horse that would serve as the fulcrum which they’d lean the flat boards against to form a ridiculously crude and dangerous ramp. Jerry practiced riding the rickety bicycle up and down the driveway, barely able to keep it going straight. Caleb and Lightnin’ regarded their friend, and Lightnin’ said, “I think he’s going to bust his fucking ass. What do you think, Caleb?” Jerry began his earnest attempt, furiously peddling off the gravel and onto the grass, hurtling toward the steeply inclined boards leaning against the sawhorse and the ramp. Caleb said, “I think Jerry is BRAVE!” Two seconds later, Jerry and the bicycle hit the ramp, and they went part way up before the weight of the bicycle forced the ends of the boards that were on the ground to fly up as Jerry began his ascent toward, theoretically and overly optimistically to a stupid degree, the roof. As the boards went everywhere, the sawhorse itself collapsed. Still, for a microsecond there was, well, not hope but not catastrophe. 120


Catastrophe came when the handlebars become detached from the rest of the bicycle. They flew out of Jerry’s hands as physics and gravity dictated that he and the body of the bicycle slam hard into the side of Caleb’s Mom’s house. It would sound like the doomed heroic flight of Icarus to say that Jerry almost made it to the roof, but that would be a perfectly ridiculous lie because when Jerry and the bicycle came off the ramp, they were far closer to the ground than they were the roof. Nevertheless, Jerry hurt himself, which he announced by loud wailing and writhing on the ground. “Ow ow ow ow ow! Aw, fuck. Hell no. I broke my collar bone. Ow! Ouch! Fuck! Ow ow ow ow ow!” And things of that nature were Jerry’s exclamations. All that there was to be done was to take Jerry to the emergency room. Jerry was right about his collar bone. It was broken, and it was with much difficulty that Caleb and Lightnin’ helped their friend off the ground and into the back seat of his car. After leaving a note for his Mom, Caleb, riding shotgun, gave Jerry a joint to smoke on the way there, and Lightnin’ drove. Unfortunately for Jerry, Lightnin’ was unaccustomed to driving a stick shift, and every tentative, jerking lurch of Lightnin’s efforts to change gears caused Jerry terrible discomfort, which he expressed by piteous cries and filthy curses. “Ouch. Fucking ow God dammit, Lightnin’ can’t you fucking dri...ow ow ow...” There were about fifteen people waiting in the emergency room, and the only seats available were in the corner furthest from the windows. Jerry, Lightnin’ and Caleb were next to a large woman in her sixties or seventies who wanted to talk to Jerry, to whom she was closest. “Who do you think I look like?” she asked him grinning toothlessly. Jerry, his expression a mask of grief, looked at her without comprehension. So she said, “Who?” “Who do I think you look like? I don’t know, Mrs. Jack O’ Lantern?” “No, seriously, what movie star. No, I guess she was more of a singing star...What 121


singing star do I look like?” “Cher,” Jerry groaned. “Naw,” the woman said patting her garishly dyed red hair with her hands. “Everyone,” she informed him, “Everyone says I look just like Kate Smith. What do you think?” Caleb’s eyes rolled and he shook his head but not to say anything. It took over an hour for the doctor to see Jerry, and when he asked how it happened, Jerry said that he’d tripped playing basketball. That is the lie that Jerry also told his parents and which he made Lightnin’ and Caleb swear they’d say happened if ever asked by an insurance company. Jerry was given some powerful pain killers, which like a good chap he shared with Caleb and Lightnin, giving them two apiece. On the way out, they said goodbye to Kate Smith, and Jerry took his keys back from Lightnin’ Lightnin’ suggested that they get a six pack and repair to the park to get blitzed on Jerry’s meds and beers, but Caleb had them take him home instead. Occasionally, when he would make a turn, Jerry would wince. His upper arm and shoulder were now encased in a cast and were useless, so he would ask Lightnin’, now shotgun, to place the beer can or the burning joint to his lips as he drove. When they dropped Caleb off, Lightnin’ told him of a party happening that evening at Devil’s Kitchen, which was one of a series of lakes in the Shawnee National Park. “Bring a couple of quarters,” Jerry said. “I think Elliot will want one, and you know Gator will buy whatever you bring. You could hang if you wanted. It’ll be a cool party, dude.” “Yeah, you should bring three quarters,” Lightnin’ urged. “My pal Johnny is supposed to pick me up tonight and we’re supposed to see this blues band, but I’ll stop by before we go to the bar,” Caleb told his young pals, who had no interest in blues but instead liked Quiet Riot, Def Leopard and Dokken. 122


When Caleb left his friends and came home, he began preparing the fish that he was to have cooked for his and his Mom’s lunch. There wasn’t that much to do since he left the fish to marinate all day. First he preheated the oven to four hundred degrees and put a greased baking sheet inside it to get hot as he shook some seasoned flour, corn meal, garlic powder and black pepper in a bag. He rolled the fish in the mix, popped them in the oven and started a pot of broth boiling for wild rice. He heated some left over thick vegetable stew to put over the rice. Then he went into the bathroom, turned on the exhaust fan and did several hits of pot. When Caleb’s Mom got home, the fish, rice and super thickened vegetable soup were on the table, and Caleb was finishing pouring the mint tea over the cracked ice in the cookie jar sized glasses. “Howdy, Mom,” Caleb said. “Hi, Caleb. Is Jerry alright? What happened?” Caleb lied. “He and Lightnin’ were playing basketball, and Jerry fell...and they came by here because they were...uh, nervous about going to the emergency room by themselves.” Caleb’s Mom shook her head. “That Jerry is so accident prone,” she said. “Did he break anything?” Caleb’s Mom asked going into the other room to change from her work clothes into her sweat clothes. Caleb said, “Jerry broke his collar bone.” “His parents are such nice people. You know who his Dad is, don’t you?” Caleb said, “Nope, not really. I met his Mom once. Yes she was very nice.” Jerry’s parents were devout. . Not long ago Jerry had made an attempt to go back to the church of his youth. He’d gotten an unusually neat trim, had stopped pills and cocaine and weed and had all but quit 123


drinking. And he was struggling to get his name back in good standing in what he’d told Caleb was the Book of Life. They’d been driving up and down the main street, and Jerry had sheepishly tried to explain to his older, wiser friend, not so much the spiritual yearnings that had led him back to the long services that he’d avoided since his middle school years, but more that he couldn’t afford to follow his old path any longer. But Caleb hadn’t been listening anyway. Instead, Caleb lit a joint, told his friend whom he loved that there was no God and then he got Jerry high.

And now Caleb’s Mom was explaining that a T-bill that she had bought in Caleb’s name had come due and she had reinvested the money in a mutual fund. Caleb thought of Jerry and Lightnin’ being way too fucked up on pills, beers and herb to be in the public park, and he hoped that they wouldn’t get busted, but he didn’t pray, because there probably wasn’t a God. He guessed they’d be OK. They were. An hour later, Lightnin’ called. He said, “Caleb.” “Lightnin’?” “Yeah. You going to be able to come to the party for a minute later?” “Uh yeah.” Caleb’s Mom was sitting right there. She said, “Is that Lightnin’?” “Yeah it is Mom,” Caleb said. Lightnin’ said, “Tell your Ma, Lightnin’ says hey.” “Lightnin’ says hey, Mom,” Caleb related. “Ask him how Jerry is,” his Mom said. “Uh, how’s Jerry doing?” Caleb asked Lightnin’. 124


“He’s pretty fucked up. He’s at home. Ha! He’s gotta wipe his ass with his left hand now,” Lightnin’ told him. “I’ll be sure to tell Mom,” Caleb said. To his Mom he said, “Jerry will be OK. He’s resting now I think.” Then Lightnin’ said, “The reason I called is how much weed can you bring tonight?” “Uhhh.” Caleb’s Mom was looking at him. “Well...” “What you say?” Lightnin’ said. “Ah...” Caleb began. “So, what is it you say you lost? WHAT IS IT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR, LIGHTNIN’?” A pause. Then Lightnin’ said, “Oh, your Mom. I get it. We ran into Gator at the park and he wants five quarters. Can you bring that?” “Oh yeah. I mean, I’ll look there for that tape. See ya’ later.” “Later.” When Caleb hung up, his Mom looked at him and said, “Are you sure you’re not selling dope?” “Of course not,” Caleb lied.

After dinner, Johnny, picked him up in his brown and white VW van. He was going through a phase in which he wore sunglasses both day and night. Johnny had moved to Chicago the previous year, and he was down for a visit. In Chicago he was learning the ropes of computer programming while supplementing his income doing grunt work for a construction crew. The band they were to see, The Tom Tom Cats, was also based in Chicago although 125


they had originated and for years had made their home in Murphysburo and Carbondale. They were down for a show at a subterranean college age venue called Trixie’s Playhouse. On their way to the show, Caleb had Johnny pulled off Route 13, and they went down a side rode past the larger Crab Orchard Lake to the woody forest preserve where the smaller body of water, Devil’s Kitchen, lay nestled in the woods and cliffs of the forest’s heart. There were no sandy beaches at Devils Kitchen, but at the water’s edge was smooth granite. Caleb had Johnny turned off the side road onto a dirt road. It was dark, but they could hear the sounds of someone’s car stereo system blasting AC/DC. “Follow that home,” Caleb directed as Johnny maneuvered his big assed van around the deepening ruts in the road. After slowly driving for about five minutes, they came to where the partyer’s cars were parked on the side of the road. “I think I see the lights of a fire,” Johnny said. “We’re almost there,” Caleb assured him. They squeezed their car where they could in a small place. On one side of them were pines and on the other a parked truck. They got out and made their way toward the bon fire which was next to the lake. There they got cups and beer from one of several kegs, and even though they had both had supper, they loaded paper plates with barbeque chicken potato salad and regular salad. As they observed the younger boys and girls drinking, eating, dancing and, farther off, swimming in the moonlight, Jerry, Lightnin’ and another tall boy with neatly cut hair, Gator, came up. Jerry and Lightnin both looked quite fucked up, at least their glazed eyes did. And they both had the same wrecked smile, but when they spoke, they both sounded absolutely cognizant. Caleb introduced his young pals to his old pal, and all of them, except Jerry, shook Johnny’s hand. Johnny shook Jerry’s pinkie, which stuck out from the end of his cast. 126


“I brought five quarters, fellers,” Caleb said and lit a joint. He handed it to Gator, who as it turned out was paying for them all, and as doing such earned a discount of five dollars per quarter. In the open firelight, as they drank, smoked and ate, Gator paid Caleb, and Caleb produced five quarters from his sleeve. Gator took them, handed one to Lightnin’ with some papers and asked him to roll some joints for the party. The other four quarters he quickly tucked in his sleeve, and in seconds Lightnin’ had produced joints for them all. Of course, as soon as they lit their joints, they were joined by friends. The joints went out into the chain of revelers, the scent of the bud joining the scent of other partyer’s joints, and the smoke dispersing through the tops of the pine trees and toward the heavens. Caleb and Johnny finished their beers and plates of food, and they left, saying goodbye to Jerry, Lightnin’ and Gator and wending their way through the groove of partyers. When they were back at Johnny’s car, he said, “I felt old at that party.” “Don’t worry. I told them you were my funny uncle,” Caleb said getting in. “What the fuck does that mean?” Johnny said getting in the van. He fished under his seat and brought out a purple velvet draw bag, from which he broke out a lump of black opiated Afgani hash and a clean old waxstone bowl. He loaded it and handed it to Caleb, whose eyes were large with surprise and delight. Johnny said, “Don’t light that until we’re back on the regular road.” Again, he maneuvered his van around the ditches and potholes in the dense wood of Devil’s Kitchen. Branches hung low over the road like snakes dangling from the thatch of greenish black darkness. The strains of For Those About To Rock, We Salute You, faded in the summer night as the sound of forest critters predominated. As soon as they were back on the paved road, Caleb lit the bowl of hash. It tasted of iris and immediately enhanced his already mellow buzz to disorienting heights. They passed the 127


bowl back and forth until the cab of the van was thick with bluish smoke. When Johnny passed by Crab Orchard Lake, its glassy surface looked like a shimmering landing field for UFO’s. Caleb said, “How can you see at night wearing sunglasses? I mean, It’s a great look, and I’ve worn sunglasses at night myself, just never while driving, and I was wondering how you’re able to do it, or if maybe you’re just winging it like.” “It’s not easy, but I can drive if I just focus on the white lines,” Johnny replied, and his answer would not have really provided Caleb any comfort at all had Caleb not been preoccupied looking at the distant silhouette of tree tops and the farther, unbroken horizon of moonlit lake. He felt moved to sing, and he sang, “Blue moon, ya left me standing alone.” Johnny’s expression registered disbelief, then great discomfort, but Caleb was singing to the moon and didn’t notice. He sang on, braying, “Without a dream in my heart!” “Oh man would you please shut up,” Johnny said, handing Caleb back the bowl in hopes of diverting his pal’s attention. Caleb stopped singing, hit the black hash, streaked white with opium, and watched the reflection of the stars stretch out and become silent faces and bodies of light dancing on the water in the shadow of the pines along the shores.

When they got to Trixie’s Playhouse, The Tom Tom Cats were in the middle of their set. They were playing so hard that the Diamond’s Liquors above Trixie’s was shaking at the roots from the relentless explosions of the bass and drum concussion. They were both on the guest list courtesy of The Viking, who was drummer for The Tom Tom Cats. The Viking was little Charles Holmes who had gone to school with Caleb and Johnny. He had been quiet, and he and Johnny had played in the marching and jazz bands in 128


middle and high school. Back then little Charles had been that slight, white blonde Norwegian child of angelic countenance who had been on the bus with Caleb and Johnny on the fateful day of the funeral home field trip. Since those days, The Viking had made music and The Tom Tom Cats his life, as indeed had all the Tom Tom Cats. At twenty-nine, The Viking was the youngest. Palmetto Bug and Daddy Z, neither of whose age was known, were the oldest. The guitarist, Mikey, the trumpet player Zone, T.O. on sax and Bonzo the bass player, were all in their early to mid thirties. The Viking had replaced their previous drummer whose name was Frankie Mills. He’d had family in southern Illinois who could not relocate and who needed him, so when he’d left, The Viking took the spot. And now The Tom Tom Cats were back in Carbondale and were shaking the block. Johnny bought both of them drinks, and they made their way to a table near the stage so that The Viking could see that they were there, which he did and acknowledged by slightly nodding his head in their direction. Although he was still white blonde Norwegian, he was no longer of angelic countenance but had a fierce shock of hair and a full beard and was as large as his name would imply. And his vigorous thrashing of the drum set, not unlike what Thor’s hammer might sound like, propelled the rest of the band along. As the Viking and the Gumby resembling bass player Bonzo set the rhythm, Mikey the guitarist, he of the slight frame and big eighties hair, noodled complex filligrees throughout the beat. The horns boosted the sound. Gave it a sheen both warm and urban. The centerpiece of the band was the singer, Palmetto Bug. Before he’d been able to make The Tom Tom Cats his career, he’d sung the blues in various southern Illinois blues outfits and worked as a custodian at the veteran’s hospital in Marion. There were tales that as a young 129


man, Palmetto Bug had killed a guy with his bare hands for which he had served time. No one dared asked him whether this was true or not because of his mercurial artistic nature, which might cause him to react to a perceived insult, or really any remark that he might take the wrong way, with a raging tirade. His ‘quirky’ personality was offset by his abilities as an entertainer. He wore a cheap assed grey suit, white shirt and black tie combination at all times, and his hair was always a conservative short box fade. Still, he commanded the attention of his audience like a king through his practiced stage craft, each sweeping pose appearing somehow both rehearsed and spontaneous. At times he included the audience in his performance, smiled and sang to them, but at other times, he was singing to himself and would become possessed by the story he was singing, his eyes clouding and his expression becoming at turns wild with rage, horny, reverent, gleeful and sad. And while the band depended upon his and their huge cannon of traditional blues to make up their set list, the highest facet of Palmetto Bug’s gift was his ability to make up lyrics off the top of his head to whatever the band provided him with. It was then that his heart opened to the audience and the world and shared the healing gift of his sweetest expression. He could sing a song about what had happened to him that day, or about something he’d heard or read, or even about you if he felt like it, and while at times it sounded like the stringing together of rhymes or the gibberish of a drunk and possibly high psychopath, at other times, it rang of his personal vision honed by a consummate artesian’s craft, of joy and sorrow and of universal experience. Palmetto Bug was a savage and an eloquent king bestowing his spirit and knowledge of life, death and beyond to anyone with time to listen. Or something like that I guess. Palmetto was singing a song about a field of sorrel and a girl over whom he’d betrayed a 130


friend and how he was sorry but that he’d do it again. He acted the song, informing his performance with the shame of the story’s narrator as well as his feverish stupid infatuation with the girl who lived by the expanse of sorrel. Listening to him, you could see the field and the girl, smell spring wild flowers in the smokey bar and both condemn and empathize with Palmetto Bug until the tale was told and he began blowing his harp to the band’s thundering conclusion. As Zone dribbled out the last notes of retribution and The Viking sounded the last beat of redemption, Palmetto Bug shook off the personae, smiled at the audience, bowed in a stately manner and said, “Beautiful Ladies and Gentlemen, our band will take a short break after which we will endeavor to entertain you once again.” The crowd went wild and the rest of the band exchanged amused glances. Palmetto Bug was in a grand mood at the moment. The Viking came down to Caleb and Johnny’s table and took a long drink from Johnny’s mug of beer. “Aaarg!” he exclaimed. “Got any weed?” he asked. When Caleb and Johnny said that, yes, they did, The Viking suggested that they go out back, which is what they did. As they were smoking both a joint of Caleb’s herb and a bowl of Johnny’s hash, The Viking broke out a vial of honey colored hash oil, which he carefully smeared on the paper of another joint. About then it was that Palmetto Bug joined them. “You boys gettin’ high out here? “Charles,” he said to The Viking, “May I light that reefer you’re holding?” “Sure,” The Viking replied, handing Palmetto Bug the honey oil drenched joint. “Look out, Palmetto Bug, that’s a honey oil joint,” he warned the singer. Palmetto Bug lit the joint and sent it sizzling in the dimness of the alley in back of Diamond’s Liquors. He held in two big tokes and then he exhaled billows of weed and hash oil smoke. “That crazy assed oil?” Palmetto Bug said dazedly. “Why didn’t you say something, you 131


lily white motherfucker?” The Viking was one of the few people who would sometimes call Palmetto Bug on his choices, and he said, “I told you just before you hit it,” in a slightly exasperated tone. “That’s OK,” he said, pulling another gargantuan hit on the joint again. “Hey, Palmetto Bug, pass the love,” The Viking said, and Palmetto Bug passed the now oil greasy joint to Johnny, who hit it and passed it to Caleb, who drew and handed it to The Viking. The Viking took one toke and put it out, placing the substantial roach in a small plastic prescription bottle. “I am so thirsty,” Palmetto Bug said. “What we got to drink in the dressing room?” The Viking said, “The last time I checked, there was a pitcher of beer on the table and a pitcher of grape Fanta.” A puzzled look crossed Palmetto Bug’s face, and he murmured, “Grape Fonta?” They all went back down the stairs to Trixie’s Playhouse and made their way through the bar to the dressing room. Mikey and Zone were at the table which bore the two pitchers. They were both drinking beer. Palmetto Bug seemed strangely drawn to the grape pop. He poured a glass and held it to the light, just looking at it in a quizzical manner, marveling at the way it bubbled effervescently. He said, “This is some kind of exotic grape water from an enchanted spring.” The Viking, standing behind Palmetto Bug, mimicked the action of smoking a joint, then pointed to Palmetto Bug, who sniffed the soda. He said, “Why it smells just like the grape candy I remember as a boy!” Mikey said, “What are you talking about?” Palmetto bug ignored Mikey and took a big drink. His eyes widened in delight as he 132


rolled the mouthful of grape soda over his palate. Zone said, “It’s Fanta, Palmetto. Fanta, my man, that’s all.” Palmetto Bug raised his glass, his hand hitting the shade of the hanging lamp overhead and knocking a year and a half’s worth of dust into the air. He looked around himself and in a regal tone, he toasted. “TO FONTA!” He cried. When Mikey, Zone, Caleb, and Johnny failed to raise their glasses, Palmetto Bug glared at them. He said, “ALL HAIL FANTA!” They all weakly raised their glasses and murmured, “Hail Fanta.” Satisfied, Palmetto Bug quaffed deeply of the Fanta. Only then was he ready to resume his set, but before he went on, Mikey made Palmetto Bug look at him. He said, “Damn, your eyes are red as maps, and (sniff, sniff) you smell, you all smell like weed, but Palmetto, your eyes, man. You look high.” Palmetto took a moment to look at his eyes in the dressing room mirror, then he said to Johnny, “Lemme have your shades, white boy.”

“Foooontaaaahhhh my Foooontaaa!” Palmetto Bug Sang to the tune Blindsided Blues, “When may I kiss yo’ precious lips again? For I find you sweeter that that wiiiine, mo’ bubbly than the finest gin! “When I was out back with my friends, I didn’t know how soon you and I would meet. “And back in the dressing room, I was hoping for something wet and sweet. “But Fanta’s candy kisses have made a believer out of me. “And I say “All Hail Fanta! “All Hail Faaanta! 133


“All Hail Faaanta! “Sweet like a nectar of the gods! “And flowing like grapes from a tree!” Palmetto Bug went on in that vein for about a dozen more verses, and by the end he had the entire room singing the chorus with him. Caleb and Johnny sang along. They hung out for another song or two, then they left. Johnny had to leave early the next day to get back to Chicago. As they snaked through the rhythmically bouncing crowd, Johnny kept mournfully looking back at his sun glasses.

Caleb grew his own weed, but he didn’t sell from what he grew. What he grew was for his personal stash. He got pot to sell and supplement his stash from Bertie or Sir Dan. Bertie had moved to an apartment complex in Carbondale that was managed by his boyhood chum, Jake, who was married to his and Bertie’s childhood sweetheart, Eva. Jake allowed Bertie to use one of the rooms of his apartment to grow herb. Bertie had gotten in on the cusp of indoor growing early on in the Midwest. Two layers of weather stripping lined the front door and the doors to the grow rooms, which were both bedrooms. In the bedrooms were raised tables from which nutrient enriched waters constantly bathed the roots of the pot plants. It was an early hydroponic system, controlled by water pumps, the regular, flushing of waters from the long tables and the comforting burbling of constant water circulation. The walls were lined with flat white Mylar, which Bertie had chosen because the shinier type caused hot points of light that could burn the plants. The lights that Bertie used were two kinds and both types were thousand watt units. Bertie used Metal Halide and High Pressure Sodium lights. In both bedroom closets under long florescent tubes, he 134


kept the very young plants that would replace the mature plants when they were ready to be cut and dried, insuring steady and regular harvests. For a small compensation of weed, Jake turned a blind eye. Jake also turned a blind eye to Eva, who had a high libido. At least he tried to turn a blind eye. They both had high libidos and both had fucked outside their marriage as well as swung within their marriage, bringing in couples and singles. They also liked to drink and do coke, downers, even needle drugs. They weren’t junkies, didn’t run dope up daily, but once in awhile. Sex and drugs. Caleb wondered if Bertie shot up anything with them or if he ever still fucked Eva. The partial answer to that was answered one day when Caleb went to Bertie’s to pay him for some weed and pick up some more. When he got there and knocked on Bertie’s door, instead of opening it as he usually did, Bertie said, “Who is it?” He sounded scared. “It’s me, Caleb.” “Shhhh,” his cousin hissed. The door cracked open and Bertie pulled Caleb hurriedly in the room and then quickly shut and locked the door. Bertie stood listening at the door. “Bertie, what’s wrong?” Caleb was afraid that the police might be watching them or something, and his paranoia blossomed. From down the hall where Jake and Eva’s apartment was there came the sound of a big crashing noise, then some loud voices. Then there was the sound of a door opening and slamming and someone stumbling past Bertie’s apartment and out of the complex. Then there was the sound of Eva and Jake yelling at each other. Bertie limped away from the door, sat on his couch, clutched his ankle and moaned.. Alarmed, Caleb said, “Bertie, what the fuck is wrong?” “I had to jump out of Jake and Eva’s bedroom window, and I landed on my ankle.” 135


“Uh, who just came out of there then?” “This other dude named Wesley. He was over there, and I went by to see if Jake was around, and he wasn’t. Then she started fooling around in front of me and this Wesley guy, and she ended up fucking both of us.” Bertie took time to moan and clutch his ankle further before he continued. “Jake came home, and she told us to get the fuck out. I made it out the window, but Wesley was scared to jump. I guess Jake found him.” Jake looked at his cousin piteously. “Take me to the emergency room?” On their way to the hospital, Caleb looked at Bertie, quietly sweating and pale from the pain. When they got there, they saw this Wesley chap, who was suffering from a head injury where Jake had hit him with a lamp when he had discovered Wesley hiding under the bed. He and Bertie somberly nodded to each other, but beyond Wesley saying what he got hit with and Bertie telling how he hurt his ankle, neither of them had much to say. Caleb looked at them and thought, when will there be a little romantic excitement in my life?

CALEB’S POMPETUS OF LOVE

Caleb had spent several hours of the late summer afternoon in the college bar in Carbondale which was called Gatsby’s and which had a vague roaring twenties theme. There was only the implication of a roaring twenties theme because Gatsby’s was decorated like most second tier college bar and pool halls, lots of stuff that looked like wood. After drinking there all afternoon, Caleb pushed himself into the cool and breezy early September late afternoon. He walked to the campus and got sick near a bicycle rack under the gray concrete breeze way of 136


Faner Hall. He walked away from the mess and brushed the tears from his eyes. Tomorrow he would be starting classes to become a teacher. The first of summer’s fallen leaves migrated over the wide brick walkway and gathered in piles where the breezes converged and dissipated, building up the leaves and then scattering them. Once Caleb had walked far enough from the building, he looked back at the place he’d be going to attend classes. Faner Hall looked like a battle ship. He’d be taking education classes in that big old building, and he was not looking forward to it. Caleb, not thinking anything would come of it, had, at his Mom’s urging, applied for admission to Southern Illinois University to take the classes necessary to get a teaching degree, which he did not want. But the stupid school had accepted his application and sent him a schedule of classes to go to that would begin tomorrow. If he hadn’t had so much of his last years crop stolen, he probably would have held out and neglected or forgotten to send in the application in time, but he’d lost a bunch. His largest plant ever, hidden near the fence line, had gone missing two weeks before harvest. And Caleb’s Mom had for many years now told him that people had seen her at her job and told her that if he would only get his teaching certificate they could get him hired. He’d figured that she was lying or they were bullshitting her, as no one in their right mind would probably hire someone who either looked like Caleb or who constantly smoked pot as was his way. Also, she kept telling him that he couldn’t grow pot or sell it, if that was what he was either doing or thinking of doing. Think of the shame. He was too smart and had an education, etc. So he’d capitulated, and now here he was, drunk and sorry for what he’d allowed himself to be talked into. On the way back to his car, Caleb stopped into the 7-10 Bookstore on the main street in Carbondale. There he bought a toothbrush, small tube of toothpaste and a small plastic bottle of 137


mouthwash. In Gatsby’s parking lot next to his car, Caleb freshened up before driving to Burger King. It was twilight, and Caleb had a big greasy cheeseburger and milkshake. He felt right at home sitting in his booth. The table had a farmer and some happy cows, pigs and chickens amid a few happy corn stalks and a farmer’s shack printed in the formica. The wall was peach colored with lines of blue and red running through it. Caleb imagined living in a Burger King, or rather a house that was exactly like a Burger King, no workers or customers please, although a maid might be nice. The meal grounded Caleb, sobered him. So he drove back to Chase and went to Perry’s. Perry’s was a dark narrow area. The bar ran nearly the length of the room, but past it, in the back was one pool table, and the far wall held the restrooms where people got high. And that’s where Caleb went before he even ordered a beer. In the girl’s bathroom, Caleb saw his thieving cousin Skipper, who asked him if he had any weed. “I’m down to shake,” Caleb said forlornly, pulling out a fat joint of leaf. The bathroom was filthy, and both Caleb and Skipper knew better than to even lean against the sink or the wall, and everything in the bathroom was black, not the chic black of, say, anywhere decent, but the black matte of flat black paint slopped over many unclean surfaces. A young woman entered and greeted Skipper, who called her Sarah. Sarah looked at the state of the toilet, said, “What was I thinking?” Then she saw the joint and stood there expectantly. Caleb handed it to her, and she lit it. “Mmmmm, is this skunk?” Skipper said, “Hell yeah this is my cuz’s special blend. You got any of this to sell?” “Naw.” He hit the joint and passed it to Sarah. “It’s just shake.” “So you growing a bunch this year?” Skipper asked. Caleb rolled his eyes. Not only would he never tell Skipper anything about his plants, as 138


Skipper and another kid named Barry Banders had ripped him off three years back, but he was also pissed at his cousin’s indiscrete mention of his growing. “Naw, Skippy. People like you and Barry Banders taught me the folly of my ways.” Sarah said, “What’s that mean Skipper?” Skipper accepted the joint and took a hit. He turned red, blushed like a boy. Skipper hid behind the smoke he exhaled and did not answer Sarah’s question. Instead he said, “Man, Caleb, you want some liquid thorazine?” “Fuck no. I mean fuck no thank you, I suppose.” Just then a wizened harridan entered the now crowded Women’s room, unceremoniously dropped her ragged drawers and plopped her ass on the toilet. When she looked up at Caleb, Skipper and Sarah, she grinned, revealing many missing teeth, and the Sybil like Medusa cackled at them. Skipper said, “Uh, well, cuz, if ya don’t want that...thing, at least let me buy you a beer.” “That’ll do,” Caleb said edging toward the door. “Just don’t dump any of that liquid...uh, detergent you were telling me about in it.” In a voice ravaged by smoking industrial strength chemicals, the prophetess crowed, “Lemme hit ‘at joint befo’ ya go and leave me here ALL ALONE.” She batted her black painted crow’s feet at them as beneath her came the sound of her pooping. Caleb handed her the joint and said, “It’s all yours,” as he and the others fairly leaped out of the women’s rest room. Skipper bought Caleb a beer, and he and Sarah started playing pool. As that was going on, a couple entered the bar, but Caleb didn’t even look up at them. Then behind him, someone said, “Is that you, Caleb?” 139


Caleb looked over his shoulder and saw an old high school mate, a nice guy named Billy Sheppard. He was about two inches taller than Caleb, and a bit stockier. He had a wonderful mullet too, and he was with a young woman of around twenty-three. She had a pretty, pleasant face and had big black hair. Her eyes looked mischievous. They were holding hands. Billy said, “Caleb, how’ve ya been.” “Fine, Billy. Ain’t seen you in awhile. How’ve you been doing?” Billy and the girl were smiling. “Man, I’ve been great. I became a dad a couple of weeks ago. Oh, and this is my wife Serena. We just had a baby girl named Jessi.” Billy went on to tell Caleb that he was working at Pyllo’s Fiber Glass Works in Hurst and that he and his new family were living outside Marion. Caleb bought them a couple of beers. Serena sipped from her mug and said, “This is the first alcohol I’ve had since before I knew I was expecting.” She was wearing a white cashmere sweater. “Gosh, you don’t look like you just had a baby,” Caleb said, and Serena beamed. “I exercise. I’m a runner,” she said. “I am too,” Caleb enthused. Have you started back already?” “Just half a mile right now. I mean I just started back up, so I’m taking it slow. How far do you run?” “I’m pretty slow, but I run about five to seven miles usually.” The three of them moved to a booth. Billy said, “Man it’s great to see you. So what are you doing these days?” “Aw, I’m going back to school. I’ll be starting classes tomorrow in fact. Gonna’ be a teacher,” he droned sheepishly, but when he’d said this, Serena perked up. 140


Billy said, “You gotta be kiddin’. Serena’s taking classes at SIU to become a teacher too. Maybe you guys could car pool sometime.” And when they compared schedules, Serena and Caleb discovered that not only did they have classes on the same days in Faner Hall, but they had a class together, Introduction to Teaching Philosophies. Caleb asked Serena if she needed a ride. She said she had some things to do, but that whoever got to the class first should save the other a seat. They could share notes.

Faner Hall was a maze of concrete passages, some of which led nowhere. Caleb’s classes were all on the second floor within close proximity to each other. They were education courses. The class he had with Serena was in the afternoon. After his two morning classes, he went to the Student Union, next door to Faner Hall, and had lunch there at the cafeteria. With an hour remaining before his class, he then went to the first floor of the Union where there was an expansive lounge area, and he took a nap, stretching out on a long dark green sofa. When he went to the class that he had with Serena, he was the first to arrive. He took a seat two rows back. The chairs and desks were different waxy plastic colors, red, blue and orange. The rows of desks were steeply tiered and bleacher like, making the front of the room look like a stage. Soon others began coming in, all of them younger by at least a couple of years than Caleb. The teacher arrived. He was probably seven or eight years older than Caleb, and then Serena came in. She saw Caleb. He waved to her and she sat next to him. The teacher passed out syllabus for that semester and talked about his expectations and the important assignments and projects they would be expected to complete for credit. Caleb noticed that Serena smelled really good. And today her big hair was tied back in a French braid. The teacher was talking, and Serena caught Caleb looking at her. 141


She smiled, and he turned red and smiled. She had a nice smile, he thought, as the teacher went over his grading criteria. She was as tall as Caleb was he reckoned. When she smiled her eyes smiled so that the shapes of the eyes became crescent moons, and each crescent held an orb of hazel. Caleb looked away and took a note or two. When he glanced up, he caught Serena looking at him. He smiled, and she turned red and looked away. When she blushed, her pale skin went red through her face and as far down her neck as Caleb could see. When class ended, they didn’t go their separate ways but talked beneath the shady breeze way outside of Faner hall for nearly an hour. Serena told Caleb that she had grown up in Peoria. She’d met Billy through a friend who was married to a friend of Billy’s. Serena had been visiting her friend, and her friend’s husband had brought Billy by one night. They’d hit it off and she had invited him to visit her in Peoria. Billy had taken her up on the invitation and had brought her a rose on his first visit. Soon they were making weekend trips to be together. And she got pregnant, so they’d gotten married, and she’d given up her adorable little apartment and had moved down here. She really loved Jessi and of course she loved Billy, but she also felt uprooted from her old life. She’d been in the highest honor’s program in her college and was looking forward to resuming her studies, and of course she missed her family, which was large, and her church. Serena was a Catholic. Caleb said, “Me too. Or I used to be. I don’t believe in God now.” She asked him why, and he said that he really didn’t know. He just didn’t. It seemed stupid. Serena asked him about what he wanted from life. He told her, “Uh, I’d like to be able to get my crop in without it being stolen and of course without being busted.” Caleb then explained that he grew a bit of marijuana, not much, although growing good marijuana would probably be the closest thing he could think of that resembled a goal. 142


He changed the subject, asking her about her running regimen. She’d been on the track team in high school. Before her pregnancy she’d run between twenty and thirty miles a week, about like Caleb. Before they took leave of each other, they’d decided to car pool and go running together after class. Soon not only were they car pooling and jogging several miles around the campus pond three times a week, they also met before class on those days and had lunch together. Also, they started meeting at the campus library after class to study together. Occasionally on a Friday or a Saturday night he would meet her and Billy at some bar and they would all have a few beers together. One Wednesday after class they went to the student recreation center as they usually did. They changed into running gear as per usual and drove to the parking lot nearest the campus lake. They took off jogging on the asphalt path. The early October day was both brisk and warm, and the autumn colors were at the predominantly red gold stage as Caleb and Serena circled the lake, which reflected the clear depthless sky. Early in the run, they exchanged innocuous remarks, but as the run continued they both stopped talking. Caleb looked at Serena, her cheeks were flushed. Her long dark hair flounced in the sunlight, and he could see shades of purple and red highlights. Her sweats were form hugging, and when she looked at him, she smiled. After the run, as they were walking back to the recreation center, Serena said, “It’s crazy, but I just have to tell you, and I hope you won’t think badly of me.” She hesitated, and Caleb told her that she could tell him anything; he wouldn’t hold it against her. Serena didn’t look at him as she spoke, but Caleb could see that she was smiling. “I was thinking of you the other night.” “Oh really?” “Yeah, it was when...um, it was when me and Billy were, you know, together. I was 143


wishing that it was you.” With this revelation Serena gave out a shivery sigh. Caleb’s chest felt as if it were expanding. “Wow,” he fairly gushed. “Uh, I’ve thought of you like that too,” he admitted, his voice cracking, not adding that he fantasized about nearly every sexy woman he saw. Granted, he’d been thinking of her inordinately often because he had a crush on her. Now it seemed that she had one on him too. They were standing by an old fallen tree that was partially in the lake. Serena and Caleb looked at each other, and she said, “Would it be okay if I kissed you?” Although there was nothing okay about it, the wrongness didn’t register, and Caleb kissed Serena on the mouth, and then they hugged. It was then that the very hues of the autumn leaves, the sky mirrored lake, the flecks of copper, jade and turquoise in Serena’s hazel eyes opening after the kiss, the faint scent of her cologne and sweat dampened skin, the tones of these things took on a radiance that although it seemed holy was actually rather the opposite if anything. Because it was then that Caleb fell in love with a married woman. Then they drove back to the recreation center, holding hands in the car.

Things went much as they had for the previous month or so with the inclusion of make out sessions in either one of the campus parking lots or the spot where they first kissed. That fall, most of Caleb’s crop was stolen, but he didn’t really care. In a couple of weeks it was Halloween weekend, and Caleb, Serena and Billy were to go to Carbondale and have fun at the blocked off street party. Caleb met them at Gatsby’s, where they bought beers in plastic cups and went outside to the Halloween parade. There were many students dressed in wonderful costumes. Caleb had bought a cat mask and worn it for the evening. Serena was dressed like a cowgirl, and Billy was a pirate. 144


They walked up and down the avenue with the throng of costumed drunken revelers. Bands were playing at different spots along the way. There were food vendors and the smells of their wares filled the crisp night air with smoke and spice. Caleb had brought several joints from what he had salvaged, and the three of them smoked a joint as they strolled down the middle of the street. Most everyone was drinking. Billy and Serena had a disagreement. Billy wanted to go fishing next weekend, but he and Serena had already made plans to go to dinner. She’d made reservations and had bought a dress for the occasion, but Billy didn’t see what the big deal was. “Be reasonable. We can go week after that or something,” he said. “Go the week after that or something?” she spat. She looked searchingly at Caleb, who was glad that he was wearing a mask. “Billy, I made that reservation for that night, and I want to go that night. It’s special to me.” “Aw,” Billy chuffed, “I don’t want to argue. I’m going to go fishing next weekend. Look if you got your heart set on going to Vitorio’s that night, I’m sure that Caleb would be glad to go. And you and me will go anywhere you want. In fact, we’ll go to a better place when I get back. We’ll go to Verdash’s!” Verdash’s was Marions best restaurant. Serena seemed to calm down. “Fine. Caleb, would you be free that evening to go with me to Vitorrio’s?” “Why sure.” That seemed to settle the disagreement, although it seemed to cast a pall on Serena and Billy’s evening, and they didn’t stay very much longer. It seemed that they needed to be home by ten thirty or the baby sitter would be angry. Caleb stayed. 145


With a fat joint sticking through the mouth hole of his cat mask, Caleb made the promenade again, walking by the downtown bars, the bookstores and printing shops, the bistros and the coffee shops. And there were so many costumed people getting increasingly fucked up. Here was Darth Vader passed out in the street, people stepping and often stumbling over him. And up ahead Caleb could see someone dressed like a wedge of Swiss cheese sitting atop a street light he had somehow climbed. And just over there between the Falafel Shack and XYZ Liquors, a sexy witch fought a sexy clown. It was there that Caleb spotted Jerry observing the fight. Caleb made his way toward his pal. When he was directly behind Jerry, Caleb said “Hey, buddy! Happy Halloween!” Jerry, although not wearing a mask, was nevertheless in a makeshift costume. Zombie goth white face and racoon eye mascara were his mask. He had fangs and a fake blood trickle at the side of his mouth, and his lipstick was blood red and smeared. Jerry also wore a yellow and orange comforter tied around his neck as a cape. Other than that, he was in his regular attire, jeans, sneakers and a hooded Iron Maiden sweat shirt with the scarey Eddie-monster beckoning to whomever looked at Jerry to come closer. When Caleb first spoke, Jerry looked surprised, and for a second, not knowing who was behind the cat mask, scowled, but when Caleb pulled up his mask and handed Jerry the lit joint, his expression registered relief. Jerry hit the joint while not ten feet away the sexy witch ripped the sexy clown’s shirt. Jerry hit the joint again. Aside from the Halloween make up and cape, Jerry still looked as if he were anxious. “Care for some blow?” he asked. “Sure,” Caleb said. Jerry and Caleb went around the fight, which the sexy clown was winning, having wrestled the sexy witch to the concrete and clawed her face repeatedly. Once in back of the Falafel Shack, Jerry took out his white bindle of cocaine and took several sniffs, using 146


his car key as a crude coke spoon. Then he offered Caleb the same, and in the darkness of the spot they’d chosen, Caleb did four bumps. When they emerged from the shadows, Jerry and Caleb wore the same self satisfied expression of one who has just gotten high on cocaine. Caleb felt like Peck’s Bad Boy, whoever that was, and the previous anxiety drawn in Jerry’s face was now gone. They felt happy and reckless. “I’ll get you a beer, Jerry,” Caleb said, and they moved up the street, leaving the battling sexy girls to their appalling spectacle. On their way past an Italian bar, its windowed front reflecting the red light of a fire that had been started in a trash can, Caleb said, “Man, Jerry, I met this girl.” “It’s about time. I kinda wondered where the fuck you been.” “Yeah, but there’s a problem. She’s married, and she and her husband, who I know, they’ve just had a kid.” They came to the outdoor beer vendor, and ordered two. Jerry’s orange and yellow checked cape fluttered in the breeze and he took a drink. He looked at Caleb, and smiled, his vampire fangs dripping beer. “That’s fucked up. I don’t think you should do that,” he admonished Caleb. “Well, I love her,” Caleb whined. Jerry rolled his heavily darkened eyes and took another drink. “Man, how would you feel if you had a girl and someone you knew fucked her.” Two other frat boys came up to the keg and ordered beers. Jerry took another drink. “If it were my girl, and you did that...I’d be hurt, man.” “Well I haven’t fucked her.” “Well don’t.” It was then that one of the frat boys tugged on Jerry’s cape. The words hippie faggots 147


were bandied by the drunken, aggressive frat boy, a solidly built athlete who was a little taller than Caleb, and the frat boy’s pal, also solidly built and nearer to Jerry’s size. Jerry’s cocaine flooded reflexes firing quickly, he reacted by tossing his beer in the face of the fellow who had done the tugging and calling of names. He then deftly punched both of them, first the one he’d temporarily blinded with beer and then his non-involved and surprised frat brother. As has been mentioned before, Jerry was a strapping lad and his punches had the effect of knocking both the frat boys to the pavement. Turning to the beer vendor, Jerry said “May I have another beer please.” Caleb, who was also over stimulated from the cocaine, giggled and said, “Whoa, Jerry! Man!” The two frat boys were struggling to get to their feet. Holding his beer, pinkie extended, Jerry gave the bigger boy a kick to the ribs, sending him back down and sloshing a bit of beer. “You should choose your friends more carefully,” he said. Then Jerry turned to the boy who had initially started everything. This one held out his hand to Jerry, as if to shake it. Jerry leaned down and slapped away the hand extended in...surrender? And with his own free hand, Jerry grabbed the frat boy by his rather short hair. His face in the other’s face, Jerry sneered, revealing his fangs, and he crooned, “Faggot? You’ll think I’m a faggot with my foot up your motherfucking ass,” and with that, Jerry violently pushed the drunken boy’s face away and kicked him as hard as he could in the behind, sending him sprawling in the gutter. Caleb was shaking with the kind of demonic glee common to cocaine induced euphoria, but Jerry was calm as he regarded the crowd of ghosts, zombies, gypsies, presidents and other assorted monsters, all of whom were now looking at him, and throwing back his cape with a Bella Lugosi flourish, he said, “Man, Caleb, let’s book.” 148


They did the last bit of cocaine in Caleb’s car, around half a dozen bumps for Jerry and four for Caleb. They drove away from the massive street party to the quieter residential streets on the outskirts of Carbondale where they drank their big beers and smoked another joint. Caleb said, “Gee that was so cool. Don’t tug on Superman’s cape, huh?” Jerry was looking out of the car window at the well kept lawns and bare trees of the nice ranch style homes. He looked sad and distracted but managed to smile momentarily at Caleb. “So what’s up?” “I don’t know. It’s pretty late.” “Late? It’s only one thirty.” Jerry sighed and lost himself in the shifting pattern of shadows as they cruised the really nice two story Victorian style houses on a semi country road. Caleb said, “I don’t know how we could top that last bit of excitement.” “We could find a couple of girlfriends,” Jerry plaintively cried. Caleb, who had dropped his cat mask while leaving the scene of the fight, looked at his pal, who wasn’t really dressed for courting and who was noticeably starting to come down from the coke. Jerry added, “I mean girls who AREN’T somebody else’s wife. Man, don’t fuck that guy’s wife. Being in love...that doesn’t mean shit. You say this gal and her husband have a new baby? You’re fucking up a family if you fuck this girl. That’s not love. Man you just love your own dick.” “Alright, I won’t fuck her.” “Aw you’re going to fuck her. That’s fucked up’,” Jerry said. “Well I haven’t.” A pause. “Do you need a ride back to Chase?” Jerry ground his teeth. “Naw, I want to find some girls. Aren’t you going to hang?” Caleb was also coming down from the cocaine, but not having been doing it all evening as 149


Jerry had obviously done, he was only getting tired, not wired. “I’m tired,” Caleb admitted. “And here I shared my cocaine with you,” Jerry said ruefully, now grinning uncomfortably and clacking his teeth together. “And I thank you. So stimulating.” They drove by the miles of white fence enclosing some horse farmer’s pasture. In the moonlight, the moving shapes of the horses made them appear ghostly, and their eyes shone. Jerry said, “Well, if you’re not going to hang, then let me off at...Steve Steinberg’s house. There’s a party there. Lightnin’ and Molly are supposed to be there. Molly’s got this friend I’d like to get to know.” Caleb drove Jerry to Steve Steinbergs house, which was way out in the country. When he dropped Jerry off, his pal said, “Remember, it’s wrong to fuck someone else’s girl.”

Two weeks passed. Caleb and Serena’s make out sessions escalated to heavy petting. They regularly steamed the car windows. Serena was torn with guilt, which also served as an aphrodisiac. In typical love triangle fashion, Caleb became a part of Serena and Billy’s dynamic. Billy, sensing his wife and friend’s betrayal but clinging to denial, was driven away from Serena. When Billy wanted to hang out at a bar, which he seemed to do a great deal, he told himself that he didn’t mind Caleb being around his wife. Serena resented being foisted off on Caleb and her anger fueled the sexual aspect of her and Caleb’s inappropriate friendship. At the same time, intimacy with Caleb caused her to feel guilt, which made her act in a more loving manner toward Billy, for awhile at least. Until she’d get mad at him for neglecting her again. Much of this was playing out with baby Jessi either crawling tentatively with her first baby crawls or lying in her crib or car seat cooing or crying. 150


Also, it had gotten too cold to go running, so after their class together, Serena and Caleb had more time to grapple with each other obnoxious teenage love style in his or her car. But what would happen?

It was that time of month for Caleb to visit his old pal Sir Dan, also known as The Old Dan in the Mountain because of his living at the top of a bluff. His house overlooked a wooded valley, a canal and the outskirts of Murphysburo. Caleb took a side road off the main drag before he entered the quaint town, and the side street went from being a hilly tree lined lane to being a narrow country road flanked on both sides by trees branching across and meeting over the asphalt. The hills became steeper, and though it was a sunny day, it was like the dim primeval floor of the forest as Caleb’s car struggled to make it up and down the increasingly steep inclines. As many times as he had been to Sir Dan’s, the drive there still gave him the fantods. At the very top of the highest peak was the clearing where Sir Dan’s house, shed and garden lay. Caleb maneuvered off the skinny road and parked the car next to Sir Dan’s old pick up. His wife Susan’s Nova wasn’t there because she and daughter Molly were visiting Susan’s parents who lived in Carbondale. The sun played over the cars and the white house. There was a lovely screened in front porch, and the old house had green and white awnings. Sir Dan’s shed was also white but it had red trim. Outside of the shed were lawn chairs looking out over the canal and the town. Inside was where Sir Dan grew weed and brewed wine and beer. He was sitting on his porch when Caleb came up to the house. Sir Dan, who was picking at an acoustic guitar, got up and let in his friend. “Well howdy,” Sir Dan said smiling broadly at Caleb. “Glad to see you.” “Good to be here!” They shook hands. Caleb gave Sir Dan some money and Sir Dan gave 151


Caleb a pound of weed broken into mostly quarter ounces with some ounces. The weed Caleb locked in his trunk. As this was going on, Sir Dan said, “May I get you a beer?” “Of course. Thank you. Where’s Susan and Molly?” Sir Dan explained his wife and daughter’s visit to her parents in Carbondale. He said, “Susan left us some burritos for when we get hungry. Hey, you got any experience with powdery mildew?” “Some.” “Come look at this,” Sir Dan said as he opened them two bottles of beer. As they approached the shed, from inside came the sound of two large dogs barking. Sir Dan unlocked three deadbolt locks, and as the door swung open, two massive gray barking and smiling dog heads poked through the opening, prompting Sir Dan to cry, “Get back Royalton! Back Anastasia!” Before going in the shed, Caleb sniffed deeply of the overpowering bouquet of marijuana that immediately infused the air with the sweet smell of bud. They hurried through the door and shut it behind them. Ananstasia jumped up to greet Caleb, and with her paws on his shoulders, she looked down at him tenderly and gave his upper forehead a lick. Royalton sniffed At Calebs balls. Inside the shed were two grow rooms, one for marijuana seedlings and young ones in the vegetative stage of growth. The other, larger room housed the ripening buds. All of the plants were on high water tables. In the room with the budding plants, Sir Dan directed Caleb to a large violet tinged plant with thick calyxes that were nearly white with resin. The plant had a high calyx to leaf ratio and was Christmas tree shaped. Sir Dan pointed to a small area on three of the 152


older fan leaves that looked as if they had been splashed with white bird crap, and Caleb carefully inspected the rest of the plant and those around it. Sir Dan said, “I just saw it this morning. I thought that a bird had gotten in here and crapped for a minute, but then I just knew it was powdery mildew. Fuck.” “You got a dehumidifier?” Sir Dan nodded. “It’s in Molly’s room. Helps her sinus.” Caleb said, “Let’s prune these and daub the places we cut with your plant seal. What kind of fungicide do you use? A copper bordeaux solution?” “Yeah, but I thought I’d try baking soda solution first. I hate to resort to fungicide.” “You can try that. I never had any luck using baking soda on powdery mildew, but it’s a start. Be sure to rinse the leaves off tomorrow. If that doesn’t work, try Neem Oil. You know, it’s not that good, but try it anyway. Powdery mildew. How fucked up.” “The indica expression and the bud density make them so susceptible to powdery mildew,” Sir Dan muttered. “Botrytis too,” Caleb added. They strolled among the other plants. Caleb mused, “If it reappears I’d move it away from the other plants. In fact, I think I’d move it anyway. Is there any way you can set something up just for it in your house? All these diseases are airborne and they spread quickly, but if you can reduce the humidity and, heck, I know everything is clean in here, but maybe we can just give the walls and floor and the tables a cleaning with bleach and water.” Sir Dan had a thousand watt high pressure sodium light that he wasn’t using. “Hmmmm, maybe I can set it up in Molly’s room. That’s where the dehumidifier is anyway. The plant will be ready in a little under three weeks. Could probably keep the light on during the day when 153


Molly isn’t even in there except for her little naps, and Molly could have her naps somewhere else for a month.” “Great idea,” Caleb enthused. “But do you think Susan will be cool with that plant in the baby’s room?” Sir Dan’s eyebrows raised. “Uh, no, but I’ll say it was your idea.” “Don’t do that!” “But it was your idea, and a good idea it is too.” “It was YOUR idea. I said to set something up in your house, not in your baby’s room, crazy.” “Your idea.” “Don’t say that shit. I don’t want Susan pissed at me.” “Better her to be angry with you than with me, my friend.” “Oh man.” Caleb and Sir Dan implemented the changes. It didn’t take very long. They briefly considered setting up in the baby’s room a tank of carbon dioxide like the ones in the grow rooms, but both of them knew that while Susan would disapprove of a marijuana plant coming to fruition in her Molly’s room, she would really never allow them to have a carbon dioxide tank in there, despite the fact that they would only disperse the gas when the baby was safely in the other room during the daytime when the grow light was on. When they were done with the maneuver, Caleb said that he was not at all comfortable with the prospect of Susan being mad at him. Sir Dan said, “Don’t fret, Susan won’t mind the plant. Why, she might even like it there so much....She might just...” his voice trailed off. “Let’s smoke one,” he suggested. “Ready for another beer? Hungry yet. We got the home made burritos ” 154


Sir Dan rolled a large joint, heated the burritos, opened them two more beers and set up an electric guitar and amp for himself as well as a microphone and amp for Caleb to play his harmonica through. When all was ready, they sat overlooking the flowing green waters of the canal, the tops of the trees going all the way to the main drag of Murphysburo. Before smoking, they ate their burritos and drank the beers. By then it was late afternoon. Near the canal were ant sized people strolling, sitting on the far away benches and looking at the flowing waters. By then it was starting to get dark, but as the day had been mild, Caleb and Sir Dan were able to stay outside and watch the clouds darken, the moon and stars come out above them and the lights come on far below them. Before they started to play, they passed the joint. And as they began to play, the dogs, who were still out of the shed, joined them. Caleb and Sir Dan played simple blues that were inspired by thoughts of lonesome running trains, the light in the window and night travelers everywhere. Sir Dan and Caleb broadcast the song down into the valley, and after two more beers, the volume was increased for the benefit of the people entering or leaving Murphysburo. Royalton and Anastasia, looking far more like stone lions than dogs, sat on either side of Caleb and Sir Dan’s lawn chairs and howled along with the noise. The dogs horse sized heads were pointed to the moon and stars overhead, as they accompanied Caleb and Sir Dan. Another joint and some more beer, and the volume went to up as high as possible, so that neither Caleb nor Sir Dan heard Susan drive up, home from her visit. She discovered the pot plant and high pressure sodium light in Molly’s room, and went outside to ask Sir Dan what he thought he was doing. So loud were Caleb and Sir Dan that not only they but also neither of the dogs heard Susan approach them, yelling at the top of her lungs for them to stop playing. They only noticed her when she unplugged the amps. Susan’s face was red from yelling 155


“Howdy-do, hon!” Sir Dan said in his most courtly manner. “Dan, what have you done to the baby’s room?” “See, hon, that plant had to be quarantined from the other plants cause it’s got a disease,” Sir Dan patiently explained. “And it needs the de-humidifier too, and Caleb thought we’d just set up the light for a mo-“ ”The plant needs a dehumidifier? You’re putting a sick pot plant in Molly’s room?” “Well, hon, Caleb said-“ ”I could hear you playing from highway 13.” “Aw, great. How’d we sound?” Susan rolled her eyes. Then she looked at her husband. “You’re going to have to move that plant and the light out of Molly’s bedroom.” “Just leave it in there a couple of weeks, three weeks is all. It ain’t got nothing that would hurt Molly. It’s just got a tiny spot of powdery dew.” “Powdery dew? You mean powdery mildew? No, get the plant into another room. You never know how it’ll affect the baby’s breathing. Anyway, how the hell does that look, a pot plant in Molly’s room by her crib. Caleb, this was your idea?” She fixed Caleb with a gimlet eye. “Oh no. Not me, Susan..” He discreetly pointed to Sir Dan and mouthed the words, “HIM. IT WAS HIM.” Susan was not amused, did not smile or let her husband or her guest off the hook “Well, Sir Dan, ready to move it to another room?” Caleb said to Sir Dan. “I told you it was a bad idea. I told him, hon. Where shall I move it?” “Back in the shed how about?” “Well, it needs to be away and isolated from the others, and it needs a dry environment, 156


so’s how’s about maybe...” “You can put it in the tack room,” Susan suggested. Sir Dan and Caleb exchanged concerned looks. “There’s just too much traffic through there. It needs a sterile environment, hon.” “Oh hell, put it in the upstairs bedroom then.” “Well sure, hon. That’s a good idea.” “Why didn’t we think of that,” Caleb said. “I thought of it. You were just so set on putting it in Molly’s room.” Caleb and Sir Dan locked the dogs in the shed and went into the house and set to moving the plant upstairs. “It’s naturally drier up here,” Sir Dan said. “Still...Hey hon, can I borrow Molly’s de-humi-“ “No you can’t.” “How fucked!” he huffed. Sir Dan quickly set up the ballast and the light. He adjusted the shade and fixed the timer. “We could bring a CO2 tank up here surely,” he said fixing the height of the high pressure sodium lamp. “Surely,” Caleb echoed, trying to memorize what Sir Dan was doing. Caleb had never used a powerful lamp like that. He and a friend of his and Bertie’s whose name was Terror had used florescent tubes once in the past, but a mis-communication between Terror and his brother Perv had caused them both to fertilize those four plants on the same day, causing them to turn golden brown from chemical burn in twenty-four hours. Caleb had been pissed at both of them at the time. Now, although he helped Sir Dan as often as possible, he still had difficulty understanding exactly how to set up a hydroponic garden. While Sir Dan was fine tuning the timer on the light upstairs, Caleb got the plant from out 157


of the baby’s room. Passing through the living room to get there, he nearly tripped over Molly, who was quietly sprawled in the pathway between the stairs and her baby room. “Oops, pardon me, Molly,” Caleb said, and the baby laughed. Susan was on the couch reading a book. “Dan said that you were visiting your parents. How are they, Susan?” Caleb asked. “Why they’re fine. Thanks for asking,” Susan told him. Caleb began stammering an apology for having a hand in setting the plant and light in Molly’s room. “It really wasn’t my fault. All Dan’s idea. I tried to talk him out of it once he told me that you were against it.” “Oh don’t worry about it. I’m not mad. So have a seat. What’s been going on?” she asked innocently. So Caleb took five minutes to tell Susan about his married crush. ‘She’s great, pretty and smart. I sure like her, dare I say I love her. She’s from Peoria. Hope she likes me, and isn’t it awful,’ are the gist of what he told Susan, who listened impassively. When she could get a word in, she said, “Where do you see this going, Caleb?” In the pause where Caleb didn’t know what to say, Susan pursued her train of thought. She said, “Nothing good can come from this. This isn’t right and look...there’s a child in the equation. Caleb, these people are married. Why are you doing this?” “I think of her all the time,” Caleb mewled. Susan shook her head, pursed her lips in disgust and sighed. “You’re infatuated, you dumb ass, not in love. You’re not in love. You’re just like any other man having an affair with a married woman, and she’s just like any married woman having an affair behind her husband’s back. This isn’t romantic. It isn’t. You’re thinking with your dick, and she’s looking for a knight in shining armor to save her from whatever she feels is 158


missing in her marriage. It isn’t sexy. It’s ugly. You’re going to be a party in destroying a family before it has a chance, don’t you understand?” “Yeah, I understand.” Susan put her hand on Caleb’s shoulder and said, “Just think about the consequences of your actions. Don’t just think about how you feel.” “Whenever she sees me she smiles.” Susan smirked. “It isn’t real,” she asserted. Molly began crying, wanting Susan’s attention, and Caleb said that she was making sense to him and he’d better be getting back upstairs. Susan said, “Just remember what I told you,” and Caleb said that he would. But though he’d heard, none of it had registered. He carried the plant upstairs. Sir Dan was setting the timer for the light cycle. He said, “Where you been?” “I was talking to Susan about this woman I’ve met...” and Caleb told Sir Dan what he had told Susan. Dan set the light to come on at eight a.m. and to go off at six thirty p.m. Sir Dan waited until Caleb had related the situation, and then he asked him what Susan’s advice had been. Caleb said, “She was really dead set against the whole thing. And I can kind of see what she means. I don’t know.” “Well I think you should go right ahead and fuck that gal,” Sir Dan declared. “See, she’s going to end up fucking someone, and she’s got her mind set on you from what you say.” They left the now dark room and started down the stairs. “So I say fuck her!” Sir Dan advised. This advice was more in accordance with Caleb’s way of thinking, but when Susan heard Sir Dan say this, as well as use the f...word where Molly might hear, she yelled up the stairs, “What did you say, Dan? Did you say the f word where our daughter can pick it up?” 159


“I told him not to f-...not to uh, not to play this dangerous yet deliciously romantic game. That’s what I said, hon.” Susan yelled, “It’s not romantic. It’s bad, just bad, Dan. I hope you told him how bad it was.” “I did, I did. But I can see it’s going in one ear and out the other.” They were all the way down the stairs by then and were standing in front of Molly and Susan, who were on the couch. Sir Dan impulsively leaned over and picked up Molly, who squealed with delight. Susan said, “I heard what you told Caleb up there, Dan. How would you feel if someone came along and I started having an affair with him?” “And messed up my family?” “Yeah, Dan. Say I had an affair and you found out about it and couldn’t forgive me, or I fell in love with the guy or whatever. How would that make you feel.” “Um, bad.” Molly cooed and babbled, seemingly delighted with her Dad’s discomfort at the question. But Susan pressed on, directing her attention to Caleb. “And you, say that you got you dream come true and this woman was yours. Then say she found someone else. Not unheard of. How would you feel, Caleb? How would you feel toward the guy and how would you feel about her?” There was only the sound of Molly’s happy laughter, as both Caleb and Sir Dan had no glib bon mots with which to answer her. Susan concluded. “That’s why the one thing that most cultures and most religions agree on is that adultery isn’t good. It’s not ‘deliciously romantic’. It’s totally selfish and sickening. It’s bad.” Susan got up, took Molly from her Dad and danced her in the kitchen, cooing, “What you say Molly-Mae? A goo goo goo goo goo goo goo!” 160


When she was out of sight, Sir Dan crossed his eyes, blew out his cheeks and spun his finger around his ear in the universal CUCKOO sign. Then just to make sure that Caleb understood, he pointed at Susan, in the other room and made the CUCKOO sign again, this time rolling his eyes and sticking his tongue out the side of his mouth as if he were an idiot. And though Caleb knew that Susan was right, he was still set on the beautiful garden path that would leave him as alone and lost as if he were in a pathless jungle forest, no matter where he might take himself.

CALEB SURFS UPON THE SKIDMARK OF ENTROPY ITSELF

Caleb and his lady love consummated their passionate friendship soon thereafter. They had gone to a park on an overcast afternoon, and in the cab of Caleb’s pick up, they had done it. It had not been easy, as Caleb’s penis went soft at the crucial moment and he’d had to take matters into his own hands. And during the act itself, which once started went on longer than it suited Serena, she began crying. It was a quiet drive back to her and Billy’s apartment on a cloudy afternoon. Despite the inauspicious beginning of their first fuck, they kept at it. Serena controlled when and if they would progress from kissing to having sex. After each time, she would declare that they would never again transgress, and Caleb would agree with her, but they always did. When they would be around Billy, they would behave normally, but when by themselves they were usually making out. When Serena would have Jessi around, they would control themselves until Serena would put the baby up for her nap. The sex was sometimes awkward. But more awkward than that was the evolution of the 161


personal dynamic among Caleb, Serena and Billy.

In the living room, Caleb played with little Jessi, who was dressed adorably in a pink jumpsuit, while in the adjoining room of Serena and Billy’s apartment, they were yelling at each other. Serena was angry because Billy was trying to get out of going to a classical music concert scheduled for the next week. He was yelling and she was yelling. Perhaps he was angry about Caleb and his wife’s friendship. He didn’t know that they were having sex. Perhaps subconsciously, or subliminally he did; maybe he suspected, but he didn’t know. Not knowing was enough to help him continue in the marriage, but his suspicions caused him to resent his wife and Caleb. Back and forth they yelled, her claiming that he had promised and that she had already bought tickets and him remonstrating that he simply didn’t want to go to any fucking fancy schmancy classical music concert. Then she accused him of never wanting to do anything with her and Jessi, and he yelled that after work he was tired. She hollared that they were going because he’d promised. He screamed that she couldn’t tell him what to do. Both of them were standing toe to toe. It was then that Serena chose to bring up Billy’s several previous marriages, saying that she should have known better and that all those women couldn’t have been wrong about Billy. And Billy yelled that she was pushing him too far and hinting that he was not above punching her. And Serena asked him if that’s what had driven his other wives away from him. And Billy angrily screamed that he had never laid a hand on any of the previous women, but then, he added, he hadn’t needed to hit them. While all of this was happening, Caleb was shaking a rattle in Jessi’s face and handing it to her when she would reach for it. She would hand it back to him or drop it, and he would pick it 162


up and start over. This was not the first fight between Serena and Billy that he had witnessed, and he sincerely hoped that it would not escalate to physical violence. Then he would have to get between them, and Billy would probably kick his ass. That had never happened but the way they were going, it was quite possible. Jessi crawled up to Caleb and put her baby face in his face and gurgled happily. How great it would all be if Serena were his wife and Jessi were his daughter. All this, the messy apartment...the love, if only he were that lucky. As Caleb thought his idiotic thoughts, in the other room Serena loudly speculated on the many reasons she felt that Billy’s ex-wives were right in ditching him. Caleb mused how awful it was about Serena and Billy’s incompatibility. They didn’t like the same things. Not like Caleb and Serena. Why if Serena and Caleb were together, surely life would be love’s dream. In the next room, Serena broke one of Billy’s ashtrays by throwing it against the wall. Billy stormed out of the room, past Caleb and Jessi and out of the door. In half a minute there was the sound of Billy’s car. Hopefully, soon Serena would put Jessi in her crib, and then Caleb and Serena would start kissing. Serena entered the room, and Caleb diverted his attention from the baby and got off the floor. He put his arms around her, and she put her head on his shoulder. He rubbed her shoulders and then moved his hands down her back, resting them on her haunches as the two of them heavily pressed their bodies against each other. Then they started kissing, stopping long enough for Serena to take Jessi in the other room and put her in her crib. Serena came back, and she and Caleb sat together on the couch. He unbuttoned her shirt and pinched her nipples as they kissed. His kisses trailed down her neck and settled on her breasts as she reached down and undid his pants. Taking a cue from her, he undid her jeans and pushed them down her hips. She accommodated his efforts by shifting her weight so that her jeans came off more easily. Then he 163


removed her shirt and panties and resumed kissing her neck and mouth while pinching her nipples. Soon he was licking her pussy and she was crying and moaning. He stood up, and she tugged his jeans and underwear down to his ankles so he could kick them off. Once he was standing in front of her, she started sucking. She began using her lips and teeth right under his naval and then worked her way down to his dick, which she slavered over and sucked until he pulled away. He pushed her on her back and settled on top of her. Caleb pulled her hips forward and eased into her tight wet pussy. She wrapped her legs around his back and they fucked like that for awhile. Then she got on top of him, and they kissed as they pumped together and he snaked two fingers up her ass. After fucking for awhile, Caleb took his dick out of Serena and flicked the head against her clit. Then they started all over again and worked until she was in his lap. He did not hear Billy’s car pull up, but Serena did, and Caleb felt her entire body tense. He didn’t have the opportunity to ask what was wrong before she jumped out of his lap and hissed, “Billy’s home!” While sprinting to the bathroom, she grabbed her clothes, and Caleb, for his part, started hastily dressing. He had his pants on when he heard Billy’s step. Caleb made it to the door it two leaps and managed to lock it seconds before Billy reached it. As he tried to open the door, Caleb hastily pulled on his sweater. The door rattled, and on the other side of it, Billy said, “Hey, open up guys.” Caleb pulled his socks on. In the bathroom Serena was running the faucet full blast. The door now shook again, but this time Billy didn’t say anything. Caleb opened it. “Hey, Billy, sorry the door was locked. Serena said to lock it while she was getting...uh, cleaned up.” “Oh.” 164


Billy went into his and Serena’s bedroom, and it was while he was in there that Caleb saw his underwear on the floor in the far corner of the room. In a flash he’d gotten over there and pushed them under a pile of old magazines in which he then pretended to be interested. Billy left without either saying anything to Serena or Caleb. Caleb got his underwear and stuffed it in his pocket. When Serena came back out, she said that there was no way that Billy couldn’t have figured out what was happening. The room smelled like sex. The locked door. There was no way he could be in denial after this. And she told Caleb that she now realized how much she loved Billy, despite their problems. Furthermore, it was wrong what she and Caleb were doing, wrong in the eyes of God, and a betrayal of her vows of marriage and of Caleb and Billy’s friendship. They simply couldn’t continue like that anymore. Caleb was in still in shock from nearly being caught flagrante delicto, so he mutely sat and listened. Serena said that she wasn’t angry with him, but that she wanted to be alone. He left. He didn’t kiss her goodbye. The last snow drifts left from late February were melting and dirty. It was nearly dark. Caleb drove the lonely country roads that went through miles of reclaimed strip pit mines and headed home. She was right, but what was right didn’t matter. Nor did Jessi or Billy or even Serena’s happiness matter. Going home through the sere landscape, Caleb savored the afterglow of his ladylove’s touch despite the shame of what they had done. He told himself that she was right and that he would honor her wishes, but he didn’t believe he’d really abide by what was best nor would she. And that unarticulated truth made him happy. It was a rough hewn road that wound through the reclaimed strip pit mines. Originally, the land left behind after strip mining was made of steep hills, gullies and deep lakes which 165


eventually became overgrown. The reclamation had rounded or flattened most of the strip pits, leaving gently rolling hills and valleys that were now in the overgrown meadowy stage of growth. The lakes remained, and it was next to a deep roadside lake that Caleb saw Billy’s car parked.. Although he was kind of afraid that if he stopped Billy might beat him up, Caleb pulled up behind Billy’s white truck. Maybe he was hurt, or maybe he’d gone out to this desolate spot to kill himself! He was nowhere around his truck. The wind was blustery. Caleb called Billy’s name, and from down the hill, near the water, he heard Billy yell back, “Is that you, Caleb? I’m down here.” “Uh, you okay, buddy?” There was a pause, then Billy said, “Yeah. Down here fishing. There’s another rod and reel in the bed of my truck. Get it and come on down. See the path?” The path through the tall reeds and weeds was down a steep slope, difficult to navigate so that Caleb slipped and fell on his ass twice before he reached the strip pit lake. There on the shore, sitting on a big rock was Billy, fishing in the dark and drinking beer. He had a boom box next to his cooler, and it softly played Led Zepplin. Caleb’s eyes were adjusting to the darkness, and he could make out the dim fuzzy continence of Billy. He gestured for Caleb to have a seat on the big rock next to him. He pointed to the cooler. “Help yourself.” He then pointed to a small box next to his tackle box and said, “There’s the bait, Caleb. I’m using nightcrawlers. Fishing for bluegill. Bluegill and that fucked up hybrid that’s out here, bluegill and crappie or something.” “Yeah, I’ve heard of them. They’re real huh?” “Sure, what the fuck you think?” Billy scratched his mullet and a philosophical expression fell over his face. “They fight like a blue gill, but they’re big as fuck!” 166


Caleb baited up and cast. Then he pulled out a joint, lit it and passed it to Billy, who hit it several times and passed it back. It glowed orange in the dark. Caleb sat next to his old friend whom he was betraying. He opened the cooler and pushed aside the three regular bluegill lying on the beers and ice, and he got a can of Bud out of the cooler and popped it open. He didn’t know what to say about what Billy had almost seen or what he had guessed. He didn’t know what to say about what he and Serena were doing. He wanted to say something, but out here it was kind of scary, and Caleb was afraid that Billy might snap anyway and hurt him. He didn’t want to further incite Billy to either beat him up or...out here it would be easy enough to do and get away with, God forbid, to kill him. Just as he was thinking this, Billy scowled at him and said, “Hey!” Here it comes, thought Caleb. “Hey, Caleb, you’ve got a bite.” Sure enough as soon as Billy had said it, Caleb felt his line jerk The fish felt like it was big and it dragged the line toward the heavy moss and submerged branches next to the shore. Automatically, Caleb pulled the line and reeled it in, carefully maneuvering the fish’s jerky attempts to free itself. He saw its silver body pop the surface of the dark waters. Caleb was excited, and so was Billy, who yelped, “It’s one of them hybrids. It’s big as hell. Bring it in! Bring it in! Don’t lose it now.” His voice alternated between anxiety and joy, and any trace of what was really between the two of them was forgotten in the minutes spent during Caleb’s catching that big assed fish. He brought it to them and Billy swooped it in a net. It was a big hybrid, silver sided and orange at the belly and around the gills. It was difficult for Caleb to get his hand around that whopper, and when he did, its mouth gaped open. It was only hooked at the lip, so getting the hook out was easy. Caleb wanted to throw it back in 167


the lake. It was magnificent, but Billy would have been crushed. “Oh, man! Oh man!” Billy kept saying, and he opened the chest for Caleb to put the fish on ice. The fish looked at him. Caleb wanted to let it go, but he put it in the chest with the other smaller blue gill, and Billy shut the lid. He then raised his beer in a toast, and they clinked their cans together as Billy said, “Fucking well done!” They both drank deeply as they stood next to the dark lake, surrounded by the steep incline of ten foot tall flora. “Man what a catch. That my friend makes life all worth while don’t you agree!” “Yeah, Billy. That’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught.” “Catching a fish like that is better than fucking.” In the darkness, Caleb and Billy’s eyes met, and Billy started laughing. Then, because Caleb was nervous (it had only been about twenty minutes since Billy had nearly caught Caleb and Serena), because he was drunk and high and wildly thrilled at having caught a big old fish, Caleb laughed with his broken hearted friend.

About a week passed. It was a day that Caleb didn’t have any scheduled classes, and he’d resisted the temptation to drive to Carbondale and see Serena. He passed the day in much the way he always had before he’d gone back to school and started having an affair, and after a supper of squash soup he’d prepared, he was now sitting in the living room with his Mom. The a.m. radio was playing an oldies program called Jukebox Saturday Night. The song playing was Rum and Coconuts, written by Morey Amsterdam, one of the sidekicks on the old Dick Van Dyke show, and performed by the Andrews Sisters. Caleb was quite keyed up, telling his Mom about what had happened during The Young and the Restless that day. “So Jack and Victor were both at the hospital, and they were about to 168


come to blows when Nikki stopped them, and she just told them, ‘How are you two going to come in here like this and start a fight when you don’t even know how serious Terra’s condition is!’” Caleb explained, becoming increasingly agitated. His Mom said, “What’s Terra’s condition?” Even though Caleb’s Mom was worried about Caleb and Serena’s relationship and disapproved, she wisely held her tongue and kept things light. Caleb triumphantly announced, “Nikki said that Terra is in a coma and probably won’t come out of it BECAUSE SHE HAS NOTHING TO LIVE FOR Have you ever heard of a diagnosis like that, Mom?” Caleb was standing now and waving his hands in the air. Overstimulated. “Oh my gosh, because she has nothing to live for. Well I never heard of that,” she said. The phone rang. It was his Mom’s friend Nadine. Nadine was calling to tell her Mom that some unknown admirer had left a little teddy bear in her mail box.. The teddy bear in question was pink and purple It seemed that something like that was always happening to Nadine, anonymous calls asking her to meet for coffee or cocktails. Guys knocking on her door leaving presents. She also liked to talk about the men they’d grown up with who were now supposedly constantly cruising slowly by Nadine’s house in town. She’d tell Caleb’s Mom these things and ask her what it all meant, to which his Mom would reply that she didn’t know, but that she wished that something like that would happen to her sometime. Since he was so antsy, Caleb decided to go running. This would be his second run that day. He told his Mom, and she took time from her call to remark on the likelihood of his getting hit by a car on their dark country road. She said that he should go to town and run on the main 169


street if he wanted to run. Caleb changed into his work out gear at home and drove to town where he parked on the bank parking lot where his Mom worked. Spring was declaring itself in the raw March night wind as Caleb started his run. He listened to Shriekback’s stately glacial songs of broken machines and living statues as he ran past the old retail buildings. They had been built in the 1920's when the town had seen a spell of prosperity. The old buildings were of Italian design and displayed ornately detailed masonry, particularly around the windows, ledges and the tops of the buildings. The color of most of the brick was a deep chocolate tone, deepening to eggplant on some of the buildings. Most of them were two to four stories tall. Heading north on Park Avenue past the heart of Chase’s downtown, he ran to where the two and three storied old retail buildings ended. Here there were houses, a Laundromat, a diner called B&J’s and a small family run grocery store called Walter’s. Caleb ran north until the street lights were spaced much farther apart and the shadows grew more predominant, overlapping each other as cars would go past, and he ran until he crossed the railroad tracks. Past this point there were brick houses with large porches. Among these nice homes was a head shop that had once been a feed store. It was here that Caleb stopped. The walls were covered in oriental tapestries, and with the exception of Jeff Frante, who worked there, the store, called The Razzberry Pony, was deserted. The shop consisted of one room with a counter running along the back wall. Jeff was behind it and was frantically cleaning the assortment of pipes in the display case when Caleb came in. He looked up and did a double take at the sweaty runner standing before him. “Man, want a line of blow?” Jeff asked. Although Caleb had come into the store to buy screens for his waxstone pipe, he gladly accepted the fat line offered on the glass counter by his pal. When he snarfed it up his nose, he 170


did so much, or it was of such purity, that his entire throat was numb and he was momentarily afraid that he wasn’t breathing. He was though, and the rush was a religious kind of vision wherein he fantasized an image of Serena standing in a field of gladiolas. She was wearing white shorts and a white tee shirt through which her nipples were visible, and she was smiling and beckoning Caleb to join her in the meadow. Her hair glittered in the sunshine of the fantasy. Serena’s smiling eyes were like crescents turned on their sides. Her lips were red as blood, and they parted and mouthed Caleb’s name. “Caleb. Man, you okay?” Jeff asked cutting himself a line from the bindle he’d unfolded. “I’m great. Thanks for the line. I’ve gotta run. Oh, screens.” Jeff hoovered the line and handed Caleb the pipe screens. “On the house, Daddy-O,” Jeff muttered smiling. Caleb was smiling too, and he thanked Jeff and hurried out of The Raspberry Pony. He could hardly wait to get back to his run. His heart was beating like a jackhammer as Caleb fairly jumped out of the store and resumed, but his old pace was too slow, and his body took on the aspect of feeling like a finely tuned race car which could run forever. It was as if he were on automatic, or cruise control, which race cars don’t have, but that was the sensation. And Shriekback sounded like it never had before, and it had sounded great before. The ringing quality of the songs deepened into hollow, beautifully personal siren expressions of transcendence cascading through his headphones. Now he was heading back toward the downtown area of Park Avenue. Before too long, the railroad was past him, as were Walter’s and B&J’s. Never it seemed had the old timey white wooden buildings and the houses of rust colored brick looked so graceful, pulsing with warmth and good will, inanimate though they were. So good did he feel that instead of going back to his car, he turned at Monroe street and headed east. He stopped at Perry’s Tavern and went inside. 171


Lightnin’ and a pretty girl named Greta were bartending that night, and there were too many people in the bar, none of whom Caleb knew well enough to speak to. He sat on a stool in the dim, smokey light. The walls were a queasy gray and closed in on the patrons. The old walls almost palpably breathed in the smoke, stale air and beer smell. The people were ugly or thuggish or whorish or a combination of these qualities, in addition to most of them being on something besides booze, and Caleb’s poor young friend came up to him with a beer. “Geez. You’re crazy,” he said handing his pal the bottle of Bud, which Caleb gratefully guzzled. “Just taking a break from my run.” “Man, are you buzzed or something?” “Well as a matter of fact, that darned Jeff at The Raspberry Pony offered me a line.” “Want another?” “Uh, sure,” Caleb said. Caleb went behind the hundred year old oaken bar and into the back room with Lightnin’, who brought out his bindle, which he unfolded. He cut lines on a cassette case, and again Caleb honked up a fat line, this time not as fat, not to the point that Caleb thought that he couldn’t breathe, but quite a blast. His eyes watered, and Lightnin’ took a line also. Greta joined them. “Cut me a line, Lightnin’” she asked, and he did as she had requested. Pretty blonde Greta, probably in her early thirties, daintily sniffed the proffered line. “Hey, Greta, who’s tending the bar?” Lightnin’ asked. “No one. Those people drink too much. I believe they have alcohol problems,” Greta observed. “What about the cash register?” Lightnin’ querried. “Ummmmm. I don’t know.” 172


The three of them went back to the crowded bar room. Caleb, unable to sit back on his stool, stood next to it and bounced from one foot to the other as Lightnin’ poured him and about half the patrons seated at the bar free beers. Greta ignored the other half of the bar to look at herself in the long mirror that ran all the way down the wall. As people called her name, she pursed her lips and arched her eyebrows at herself. For his part, Caleb swallowed his beers in about five minutes. During that time, he and Lightnin’ babbled incoherently about nothing. Lightnin’ brought his pal a third beer and motioned for him to come back to the room they’d been in just a short short time ago. They went back there, and Lightnin’ brought out the bindle. This time before he could get it unfolded, Greta had joined them. Grinning hard, Lightnin’ said, “What about the customers?” “Oh fuck those stupid motherfuckers! Gimme a line please” Greta spat, and Lightnin’ obliged. Then there was another line for himself, and finally a big one for Caleb. “Man thanks I gotta’ go finish my run.” Greta licked her lips and snarled, “It’s really great that you take care of your body like you do running and all personally I like to do yoga do you know much about that it’s really a wonderful discipline my favorite pose is The Dawn Crane it goes like this,” and at this point, Greta grabbed her ankle and yanked her leg behind her almost to her neck, which gave Caleb and Lightnin’ a clear view of Greta’s legs and quite a bit of her coochie. But Caleb just wanted to get out of there. He was feeling too good to stand still. If only he could see Serena. Maybe if he called her after he got home and took a shower she could meet him somewhere and what would really be great would be if he could get some cocaine and give it to her but for now he wanted to get out of there, so he said see ya to Lightnin’ who was too busy making out with Greta to say goodbye. 173


Before he left, Caleb said, “Seen Jerry?” This question caused Lightnin’ to stop sucking face with Greta, who was not his girl friend. He said, “Man, Jerry has been getting too wasted. I’m a bit worried. Oh well, he’ll sort it out. I’m sure it’s nothing to lose sleep over. See you tomorrow maybe.” And then Lightnin’ was back busy getting it on with Greta, who had turned around and was grinding her ass against his crotch. She looked at Caleb in a crazed way and said, “See you later it was so nice to see you this evening be careful on your run and look both ways don’t forget.” She was still going on when Caleb left the back room. In the main bar, one of the patrons had taken over bartending duties until Lightnin’ and Greta were finished. He looked at Caleb and said, “How much for Jack and Coke?” “Two-fifty,” Caleb guessed bouncing down the dirty concrete floor of Perry’s Tavern and out of the door.

The months passed, and Caleb and Serena’s affair waxed and waned in a kind of cyclic fashion, with each cycle drifting toward gentle dissolution. Semesters ended and began anew, and no longer did Caleb and Serena share classes every day; in fact, Serena decided that she couldn’t abide being a teacher and changed her major to marketing. Nor was it convenient to continue to jog together when their schedules changed. And then a summer passed without Caleb planting any pot and then a year went by. Bertie had stopped growing entirely, and Caleb’s friend Sir Dan discontinued his commercial venture, just growing enough for himself and a few friends, Caleb among those friends. So Caleb saw Bertie, Sir Dan, Jerry and Lightnin’ less. Also, as time passed, Serena and Billy’s baby grew. Jessi was saying words and toddling all over the floors, 174


climbing, and laughing all the time. During the second year, Serena and Billy went to a marriage councilor. They also moved out of their basement apartment and into their own house when Billy got a promotion. The family started going to church, and Billy became a Catholic. They stopped going to Perry’s Tavern or any bars. He started going to cultural events with her, and she started going camping and fishing with him. Serena became busier, getting a part time job on campus and making several good woman friends. One spring afternoon Caleb and Serena agreed to meet for lunch. Caleb drove to the large dome shaped building where she worked now, and he parked in student parking and waited under a shady tree for her to get off work. When she walked out of the white building, she didn’t see him. There was the old smile that he so prized, and he realized that she was smiling, not because of him but because she was happy. He had waved to her, and when she saw him and waved back, it was like his cocaine vision of her. She was so beautiful against the white building, her hair catching purple and red highlights, her crescent shaped eyes and her red mouth, her pale skin. And she wore a pastel yellow sun dress. Her walk was purposeful and strong. It was better than when he’d envisioned her while he was nearly od’ing on cocaine. And Caleb savored the sight of the beautiful young woman whom he loved. They’d ended up skipping lunch and walking around the campus lake instead, but now they didn’t kiss or hug. They just walked and talked. Caleb knew that he could never be with Serena. She told him that she was making her marriage work. And even if she gave up on Billy, got divorced and tried to make a go of things with Caleb, she’d hold it against him that he had played a part in the demise of her marriage. Therefore...And Caleb told her that he understood. He also voiced an idea that he’d been thinking about off and on as he neared completion of his 175


teaching program, that he’d go live in a city somewhere. Serena thought it was a good idea. They sat on the old tree trunk where they’d first kissed, and Serena said, “Where would you go?” “Who knows? Probably Chicago. It’s the nearest big city.” Serena looked at the blue water on that sunny day. “I think you’d like it. I mean, Chicago is beautiful. I can picture you living there.” Near them on the runners’ path a couple went by, their arms around each others’ shoulders. “You’re lucky,” Serena told him. “It will be like you’ll be starting an entirely new life,” she said. Across the lake, some people launched a canoe from the shore, and Caleb watched them slowly paddle their way across the smooth, glassy surfaced waters. He wanted to take her hand and hold it, but he didn’t. Caleb and Serena stopped the physical part of their friendship. Sometimes they would still talk on the phone, and other times, when Caleb would be at home, he would hear a car turn up the drive way and would look out and hope that it would be her. And Caleb’s heart would still race a bit with remembrance. But it was her fewer and fewer times. Now when she would visit, they would spend a pleasant couple of hours chatting, watching Jessi play and walking around outside. Now they would sit in the parlor, but not together on the love seat. Caleb would open the green guaze curtains so they could look out on the green grass, the trees and the pond. Iced tea was the drink, and they didn’t talk about their history. One day, Serena helped Caleb put together his resume, and he began sending copies to Chicago high schools. Another day she mentioned that he should start believing in God. “It would be nice if we could all be in heaven,” she told him. Once in awhile, Caleb would visit Billy and Serena at their new house, whenever they would invite him. Billy would barbecue when weather permitted, and after supper they would all 176


play trivial pursuit on the back patio. Serena grew a vegetable garden and roses in the back yard. Their neighbors were an elderly couple on one side and another young couple with children on the other. Finally, Billy and Serena had a nice life, and Caleb was happy for them. He missed having sex with her, but he didn’t miss the drama and duplicity, nor the feeling that if he didn’t perform well sexually he’d lose her (not that he’d ever ‘had’ her). He wasn’t nostalgic about the rationalization of his guilt, the worrying about pregnancy and the deep down knowledge that he was doing wrong despite his previous unwillingness to make a proper choice. And even now, he knew that if she made herself available, he would probably make the wrong choices again, and probably turn a blind eye to the consequences.

It was during this time that the unthinkable, the inevitable happened. And it had nothing to do with Serena and her family. One evening Caleb was relaxing at home. His Mom was watching Dynasty in the front room, and Caleb was in the small parlor practicing his harmonica. He was playing old songs, his feet propped on the marble topped coffee table, a beer by his side and his hitter under the cushion of the love seat upon which he was sitting. The light from the faux Tiffany lamp threw ruby, emerald, aquamarine and gold shadows on the eggshell walls and filmy curtains. Caleb was playing My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean when the phone rang in the other room. His Mom answered. Caleb waited a second to see if the call was for him, and when he saw that it wasn’t he resumed honking out the tune. But he wasn’t a dozen notes into it when his Mom called him. When he entered the front room, his Mom was starting to cry. “That was Nadine. She heard that Jerry was just killed.” 177


It didn’t register. “What? What happened?” “I don’t know everything, but Nadine said that she was listening to the police scanner and she heard that a car was hit by a semi at the Marion crossroads. Not too far from here, Caleb. Nadine heard that Jerry was on his way to some bar. Nadine said that it’s awful. Awful!” True. Awful. Jerry had been turning and had seen the semi too late. There were skid marks a hundred feet before the crossing. It was closed casket. Torn to pieces. NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN. Caleb wasn’t called upon to be a pall bearer. Jerry had many friends, and his family chose Lightnin’, Jerry’s younger brother, Bobby, Gator, and three elders from his parents’ church. In truth, Caleb hadn’t seen Jerry in months. The last time Caleb saw Jerry was in Perry’s Tavern. It had been Jerry’s birthday. He and Lightnin’ had been buying their pal birthday shots, which he dutifully if not enthusiastically had downed. Caleb sat by himself in the balcony of the church at the funeral and cried throughout the service, as did everybody. The crowd to see Jerry was split between his wild friends and his parents’ church friends. The preacher spoke and assured the crowd of crying mourners that Jerry’s name was in the Book of Life, that though Jerry had been wild, his heart had always been with Jesus, and with Jesus and God was where Jerry was to be from there on forever and ever. From the private room in the back came the aroma of weed. Caleb remembered discouraging Jerry from straightening himself out. Jerry had perhaps wanted something else besides being constantly fucked up. They buried Jerry. Then everyone left the cemetery.

Caleb missed Serena, and he missed Jerry and couldn’t process his death very easily, so he 178


coped with his losses by drinking more, drinking in the early afternoon if he’d a mind to. It was fun to be drunk, so much more anesthetizing than pot. One Sunday summer day while drinking mescal and driving on the country roads, he decided to visit his cousin Bertie. Though he was no longer growing, Bertie was still living in the rurally located apartment complex between Chase and Carbondale that was managed by Jake and Eva. When Bertie answered the door and saw how drunk his cousin Caleb was, he was nonplused, but he helped Caleb in the door. “What are you up to today?” Caleb said in a grand manner. Although it bothered Bertie that Caleb never called before dropping in, he dismissed it and said, “I was going to the Laundromat down the road. It’s usually deserted on Sunday afternoons around this time.” “Can I go with you?” “Well of course you can.” “Wanna get high?” “Not right now, Caleb, but go right ahead if you feel like it. I’m going to get my dirty laundry ready.” Bertie left Caleb to roll a joint, which he did on Bertie’s glass top coffee table, and once the joint was rolled, Caleb lit it and wandered outside to the balcony. Bertie came with his bag of separated laundry and his detergent, his softener and dryer sheets. He was ready to go and was determined to drive them to the laundrymat, but he didn’t see his cousin anywhere. “Where you at?” he asked, and Caleb answered from the balcony. Bertie went to join him and have a pre-laundrymat toke. He was unprepared to find Caleb standing precariously on the railing. Bertie dropped everything. “Fucky fuck!” Caleb, who was holding 179


on to the guttering, looked over his shoulder, smiled and with his free hand waved to his beloved cousin, his first hero. Bertie said, “I’m not telling you what to do, Caleb, but if you fall off of there you’re gonna break your neck. And I’ll be hard pressed to explain it all to your Mom. So if you don’t mind.” Caleb deftly leapt from the railing to the balcony deck. Or that’s how he perceived it. “You know, when I haven’t been drinking, I’m afraid of heights, but right now on your balcony I can’t get enough of this broad expanse.” Bertie looked at his cousin and said, “You ready to go? I think I could use that hit now.”

It was a short drive to the country laundrymat at the top of a wooded hill. Caleb helped by staggering in with the detergent and hangers. The laundrymat was in a tin building that had been painted maroon. The inside was cheerful. There were hanging plants and posters on the wall, one of a kitty hanging from a clothes line with the caption, HANG IN THERE BABY!. As Bertie tended to his laundry chores, Caleb stared at the poster until he could take it no more. He ripped it off the wall and savagely tore it up. Bertie looked up at his drunken, crazy and now destructive cousin. “I didn’t like that poster either,” he confided to Caleb. Caleb threw the pieces in the air. Then in search of more such fun, he started a more through vandalization of the deserted laundrymat. He tore down all the posters and threw the hanging plants in the washers. He pissed in one of the driers and kicked over all of the chairs. Not content with doing that, Caleb then danced across the tops of the washing machines, tearing off all his clothes while doing so. He capped his performance by trying to masturbate into one of the open washers, but as he had been drinking excessively and as his act was more a gesture of...something...than a natural expression of horniness, he wasn’t able to get a hard on and 180


gave up after a furtive minute during which time Bertie strolled to the far corner of the laundrymat. Well away from his crazy cousin, Bertie discreetly looked out the window pretending interest in a robin red breast that was merrily chirping and perched on a branch outside. When Caleb’s stupidity was sated, and he was standing naked in the middle of the laundrymat, Bertie said, “I hope nobody comes in here now.” “I didn’t think of that. If they do, we’ll just say that the place was like this when we got here!” “Good idea.” Bertie rolled his eyes. “So how do you feel?” “Hungry.” “Well put your fucking clothes on for heaven’s sake,” Bertie said, dead panning, “I thought you were going to go over the line there for a minute.” “Oh, no chance of that, Bertie.” Picking his shorts from the floor and slipping them back on, Caleb walked to where his pants were and began dressing in that manner, his shirt by the window, one sock by the detergent machine, a bit here and a piece there. Then Caleb righted the chairs he’d turned over. The place still looked like a wreck. Thankfully no one came to the laundrymat while Bertie finished washing his clothes. By the time they got back to his apartment, Caleb said he figured that he better be heading on, and his cousin didn’t try to stop him. “Drive carefully,” he bade Caleb and walked him to his truck. Caleb said, “Hungry, Bertie? I’ve a taste for some of that delicious Taco Bell. If we hurry they might still have some steak frajita burritos for us.” “Naw. I’m kind of tired. Think I’ll take a bit of a nap. Come back soon though won’t you?” 181


Caleb watched his cousin go back to his complex. He sighed and started the car. He didn’t want to drink anymore that evening. Just eat something and go home. The burritos were so good. They settled his brain and stomach wonderfully, and he thought, gosh, is Bertie upset about something?

LEAVING HOME AT THE TENDER AGE OF THIRTY TWO

Weeks passed. The schools to which he’d sent resumes wrote him back telling him how to enter the Chicago Public School system and find schools that needed to fill positions, and Caleb took the proper steps. He called Johnny and told him that he thought he would be moving up there to teach. He didn’t get so drunk as to be inspired to mayhem anymore. The Chicago Board of Education wrote him back and scheduled an interview for the summer. He cut the mullet, getting a fashionably short doo. His Mom was in her glory when she saw him with short hair. The time for the interview came, and Caleb drove to Chicago, staying in Johnny’s basement apartment in a cool area of town on the north side called Lakeview. The interview went well. He’d be working in a high school on the south side, sixty- seventh street. He found an apartment that he could move into at the first of August. He’d be three blocks from Johnny. His Mom and Nadine were going to drive to Chicago with him and help him haul what little stuff he was bringing. He’d have his clothing, a t.v. and a night stand for his basement apartment. Once there he’d buy a bed and a chair in the days before the fall semester began. The night before he was to leave, Caleb and his Mom had loaded her car. When they’d 182


finished tucking the suitcases and t.v. in the trunk and back seat, they’d sat in the kitchen and watched Entertainment Tonight. Caleb’s Mom had prepared hamburgers and french fries. It was a sad evening, but they focused on the show. Caleb’s Mom specifically focused on Mary Hart, for whom she harbored an intense dislike. His Mom said, “Just look at her. She thinks that she’s so great. What a phoney. What a phoney smile.” “How do you want her to be, Mom.” On the show, Mary was talking about some celebrity. Caleb’s Mom imitated Mary, smiling insincerely then saying, “Ooh! Look at me! I’m on t.v.” Then she dropped the imitation and said, “She tries too hard. Oh, she really thinks she’s cute alright.” “Well she is pretty, and they hired her to have a big brash personality. How would it be if they had some mousely little slip of a thing out there mumbling and blushing. Why no one would watch.” “Oh but she just wants all the attention, always trying to show off her tits and her legs, and that phoney smile.” “Maybe she’s smiling through the tears,” Caleb offered. “I read that her child has some terrible disease.” “She doesn’t have any kids. I don’t even think that she’s married. That Mary Hart!” At this point, Caleb dropped the subject since he knew that he’s never sway his Mom regarding Mary Hart.

The next morning, Nadine and her Chihuahua Matlock came by at the scheduled time, 183


seven. On his last morning at home, it was sunny. Caleb loaded Nadine’s suitcase in the trunk and locked up the house. He drove. His Mom, in a navy blue sweat suit, rode shot gun and Nadine, in her sunflower print on black muu-muu, rode in the back seat next to Caleb’s grey suitcase. To Matlock, who was wearing a knitted pink car coat, the entire interior of the car was his domain, and like a bald shivering blonde rat with a startling thyroid condition, he scurried from Nadine’s lap over the seat and onto the dash. There he might gaze out the window onto the hood for a moment, and then he would be under the front seat and then back in the back with Nadine. They drove north on highway 57. The scenery became flat farmland as soon as they were out of deep southern Illinois. Soon Matlock tired of his mad scrambling and settled on helping Caleb drive by standing in his lap with his tiny front paws on the steering wheel and barking ferociously at all passing cars and trucks. Caleb’s Mom commented that she wished that she’d thought to bring a camera. “That is so cute,” she said. Nadine concurred, “Why that’s priceless. Matlock loves you so much, Caleb.” “I love Matlock,” Caleb said leaning down to plant a kiss on the top of Matlock’s hairless pate. But Matlock wouldn’t be kissed on the dome, and he reacted to Caleb’s attempt to bond by wheeling his head around and biting Caleb’s upper lip, which caused him to slightly swerve, grab his mouth with his hand and say the f word. “Don’t kiss Matlock,” his Mom admonished. “Matlock doesn’t like to kiss,” Nadine rather unnecessarily added. “I see.” For his part, Matlock immediately resumed helping Caleb steer, this time unhindered by 184


any displays of mawkish sentiment. Caleb’s Mom turned in her seat to speak to Nadine, who was knitting a wee bonnie tam for Matlock. Nadine was talking about the mysterious admiring men who shyly wooed her in unusual ways. Nadine said, “Nearly the same time every day, right around dinner, the phone rings, and I pick it up.” She paused, stopped knitting and leaned forward, continuing in a lower register, “and he doesn’t say anything.” The tam was kelly green. “Who do you think it is?” his Mom said. “I don’t know, but last time I was in Walter’s grocery, there was this fellow just staring at me, and he followed me to the parking lot.” Caleb’s Mom said, “Did he say anything to you?” “No,” Nadine said darkly. “He just kept looking at me. So it might have been him.” She resumed her knitting. “Well what did he look like?” “He was tall and kind of swarthy. He had a thin moustache.” “He sounds rakishly handsome. How old?” “Oh I don’t know. In his early sixties I guess.” “Distinguished.” “Or dangerous!” Nadine simpered. Caleb put his two bits in. “The person making the calls could be a telemarketer. They call several lines at once and all the lines ring but they only talk to the person who picks up the phone first.” “I don’t think it’s a telemarketer because when I answer the phone I can hear him breathing on the other end!” 185


Caleb slowed the car to a crawl as they came to a highway construction crew repairing several lanes of the interstate. He drove between the orange cones, and at a certain point a flagman had Caleb stop. Nadine said, “Do you think we should lock the doors?” Caleb said, “No.” “Maybe we should,” Caleb’s Mom said. She and Nadine went ahead and locked their doors, and Caleb’s Mom said, “You should lock your door too.” From the back seat, Nadine chimed in saying that, well, you can’t be too careful. From the increased speed of his yapping, Matlock sounded as if he were voting with Nadine and Caleb’s Mom on the lock your door issue, so outnumbered three to one, Caleb locked his door. He chose not to argue that they were among highway workers and not savagely handsome swashbuckling brigands who would slash his and Matlock’s throats and spirit his Mom and Nadine to their highwaymen hideaway. The flag-man turned his sign around and motioned for Caleb to slowly advance. The worker waved as they passed, and Caleb and his Mom returned his wave, but Nadine pretended that she didn’t even see the fellow, who was quite dark from the sun and also rather stocky and strong looking. When they were past him, Nadine hissed, “Did you see him leering in at the back seat where I am. I wonder what he thought he’d see!” Caleb shuddered, imagining Nadine’s pale skin and generally thick aspect: thick ankles supporting white dimpled cellulite and swollen wrists, elbows hidden by under arm fat. On they drove, past the small towns and through flat green horizons to the north, and when they got to Champaign, they took the exit and stopped at a Cracker Barrel Restaurant and gas station. As they pulled under the red and white metal port where the gas tanks were, Matlock jumped out of Caleb’s lap and hopped in the back seat, where Nadine popped him into a little 186


tartan knitted dog carrying bun so that only his bulbous head stuck out of the wool. Matlock swung his head back and forth frantically and viciously barked as if he grievously resented being stuck in his little papoose. But he didn’t bite Nadine. She tucked him in her oversize purse, admonished him in baby talk to be quiet in the restaurant. “OOO bees a quieee baby boo-zee. Baby Boo-zee bees a quiet bee-bees!” Matlock answered her insulting imprecations with more snarling savagery, now muffled from inside the purse. Caleb’s Mom and Nadine got out of the car and went on ahead, while Caleb gassed up. All the while, Matlock was making growling noises from inside the purse. On the way, Caleb’s Mom told Nadine that she didn’t think she’d get away with smuggling her dog into the restaurant. His Mom said, “Don’t you know they have laws against having dogs or cats being anywhere where they serve food, Nadine?” “Matlock would have a stoke if we left him in here while we ate. We’d come out and find that he’d have positively have had a cerebral hemorrhage! Oh the people in the restaurant won’t even know that I’ve got him as long as he’s...” Nadine stuck her face in the purse and angrily shouted, “QUIET!” and with that gave her purse, and the doubtlessly now quaking Matlock, an angry shake. He shut up at once. Nadine continued, saying to Caleb’s Mom, “...as long as he’s a good boy and is quiet.” Caleb watched them enter the Cracker Barrel as he filled the tank. When done, he paid at the cashier’s bulletproof island in the middle of the four rows of pumps. As Caleb waited for his change, he speculated on how long they would last in The Cracker Barrel with Matlock being hair trigger set to start yapping at the least imagined provocation. He found his Mom and Nadine seated at a deep maroon vinyl booth, Nadine’s bag tucked 187


under her enormous bosom. Caleb’s seating himself on the far end of the booth caused Matlock to growl, which caused Nadine to squeeze her bag and shoosh the little doggie, who again shut up. When the waitress arrived with water, crackers, cheese and butter, Nadine instinctively tightened her grip on her purse, and Matlock evidently understood because he kept quiet as the waitress asked if they’d need extra time to order. Caleb was simply going to order a hamburger, and his Mom looked as if she were ready. She had put down her menu and smiled. Nadine, on the other hand, was not ready, and she said, “Of course we’re not ready. I haven’t even had a chance to read this menu, and Caleb just got here as you can plainly see!” Caleb turned red. The waitress, who had Nadine’s number, smiled, or smirked, depending on your point of view, and said, “I’m awfully sorry, ma’am.” She left them. Nadine said, “Did you see her smirk at me? I’ve got her number!” Matlock voiced his solidarity with his mistress, letting loose with a growl and causing Nadine to give her bag a shake. “Hush or I won’t give you any treats!” she hissed to her purse. Caleb’s Mom said, “I think I’ll just have a salad.” Nadine read the menu as she absently opened a cracker and a plastic container of cheese and started sneaky feeding Matlock, whose little jowls could be heard masticating a tiny cheese cracker sandwich Nadine had prepared for him. She said, “I hope this doesn’t constipate him.” Caleb’s Mom, who had never even allowed any pet inside the house, turned pale at the sight of Nadine sticking her hand in her purse and feeding Matlock. Caleb said, “I know what I want. What about you, Nadine?” “Hmmmmm.” Nadine fed Matlock and studied the menu for ten minutes before the 188


waitress came back. “Have you all decided or do you need some more time?” she asked. Fixing the waitress with an impertinent gaze, Nadine’s said, “Ma’am, my glass is dirty. It’s got prints all over it.” The waitress sighed and took away the offending glass of water, which was clean. When the waitress came back, she said, “So sorry about that dirty glass. Now are you ready?” Caleb, like a prophet of old, had a vision of the young woman spitting in all of their orders. Nadine told Caleb and his Mom to go ahead and order, and they did so as politely as they possibly could, imbuing each word with the implied message that, yes, you are taking our orders but we are equals. We are equals! That message and also the message, sorry about our friend behaving like a twat. Caleb ordered a hamburger and an apple juice. His Mom ordered a salad with ranch dressing and a coke. “Very good. And you, ma’am?” “I would like this special here,” Nadine said pointing to something on the menu. In a barely restrained, I can’t believe you’re asking me for this voice, the waitress monotoned, “You want Friday’s Special on Thursday?” “Yes, Friday’s special, lemon bass, baked potato, green beans, corn. Yes, you do understand don’t you?” Nadine said in a most unpleasant manner. Instead of pointing out to Nadine that she would be charged full price for what she was ordering since the idea of a daily special was that it is special ONLY on the day of that particular special, instead of doing that, the waitress simply wrote the order down. 189


“And a hamburger patty,” Nadine snarled. “Do you mean a hamburger ma’am?” “No, I don’t want the whole hamburger, just the patty! Can you at least manage that?” The waitress could have pointed out the obvious, that she could bring Nadine a hamburger patty, but she would still be charged the full price for a hamburger. She could have done that, said, “No problem, ma’am, but just so you’re not surprised by your bill, I’ll have to charge you for a hamburger since we don’t just sell cooked patties.” But she simply wrote the order down. Then she said, “What would you like to drink, ma’am?” Nadine pursed her lips and took her time deciding on iced tea, “And I want my lemon slice ON the side.” “Yes, ma’am, can I get any of you anything else right now?” Looking at Caleb’s Mom for appreciation of her coming bon mot, Nadine smirked like a plantation owner and imperiously said, “You can get along and get us our food toot sweet!” Caleb’s Mom managed the same queasy horrified grimace that Caleb remembered seeing whenever the barn cats would bring dead rats to her for her approval or fornicate with each other in plain sight at the back door. As they’d fuck they’d cat gaze in the kitchen as the family would be sitting down to supper, and his Mom would look like she was looking now. The waitress, professional that she was, answered Nadine with a smile and went to another table. When the waitress was gone, Nadine chuckled and said, “That’ll show her!” Then she leaned forward and drawled to Caleb’s Mom, “I think that man over there keeps looking at me.” Nadine slipped a piece of cheese in her purse and continued. “Don’t look! Look like you’re just looking around.” Caleb and his Mom transparently pretended to be looking around and saw to whom Nadine was referring, a casually dressed man in his early forties with his family, who appeared to be oblivious to Caleb, his Mom and Nadine. “Oh he’s quite the masterful actor isn’t 190


he? Now he’s acting like he wasn’t looking over here a minute ago.” It was about then that Caleb’s Mom, then Caleb, smelled something decidedly unpleasant. And then Nadine did too. Sniffing at her purse, she muttered, “Oh oh. Let me out!” Caleb quickly accommodated her, and she hurried out of the booth and fairly flew to the ladies room. Caleb, incredulous, said, “Did Matlock shit in her purse?” With an aggrieved expression, the way she used to look when asked by acquaintances about how her son was getting on, she explained, “Nadine told me that Matlock, well, Chihuahuas in general, they can’t really be house broken.” “Can’t be house broken? Why?” “Nadine says that it’s their maverick spirit, but I know the real reason. Read about it. It’s cause of their tiny brains. It’s called the Pea Brain Syndrome I believe.” “Well that’s horrible. So he shits all over Nadine’s house?” “Not really. Nadine has him on a schedule, and he’s pretty good about pooping when she takes him outside.” It’s probably not being on his routine.” Caleb let it all sink in for a moment, then he said, “But what’s she going to do? He shit in her purse. There’ll be…” “Oh, no, Matlock’s little turds are no bigger than cherries. And hard like little pebbles. That poor dog is always getting constipated. Nadine has had to administer little enemas before.” Before Caleb could get out of his mind’s eye the image of Nadine geezing a few spoonfuls of water up Matlock’s butt, Nadine rejoined them, purse mashed under her bosom. Caleb got out of the booth and she squeezed back in. “He’s just not used to all this excitement,” she explained. Matlock was perhaps chagrined about his purse accident, or it was also possible that he simply did not want to be squeezed again, but whatever the reason was, he was silent, even as the waitress 191


arrived with their food. The waitress served Caleb’s Mom first, then Caleb and finally Nadine, who sniffed at her lemon bass. “Has anyone ever been poisoned here?” she asked. “Not to my knowledge. Not yet anyway.” Her smile tightened. “Is there anything else I can get you nice folks right now?” Nadine stared needles at the waitress. “This potato isn’t cooked enough.” The waitress took the potato and said, “I’ll have the cook heat it up real hot for you.” “You bring me a new one since you’ve touched that one,” Nadine commanded. As soon as the waitress was out of sight, she broke off a piece of hamburger. “This will never do,” she sighed, then yelled, “Waitress! Waitress!” Their waitress hurried back to their table. “Yes, is something wrong?” “Just this underdone hamburger patty is all!” The waitress took it back. Said she’d bring her another one. When she was gone, Caleb’s Mom said, “Nadine, don’t you like that waitress?” “She’s awful! I’m going to mention it to the cashier or the manager on our way out.” When the waitress came back, Nadine fiendishly glared at her. Placing the potato and hamburger patty on the table, the young waitress met her nemesis eye to eye. She said, “Can I get you anything else right now?” “Well I don’t know,” Nadine whined. The young woman’s patience in the face of Nadine’s transformation into the anti-Jack Nickelson from the restaurant scene in Five Easy Pieces, it was a model of forbearance, but even she had her limits. Her final straw was burned when, roused by his mistress’ antagonistic vibe, Matlock broke loose the bondage of his woolen papoose and with super-canine effort managed to poke his little barking head out of the purse. 192


With his ears pinned back and his pink collared neck straining out of the papoose and the purse,, he resembled a diseased snake wearing Nadine’s gigantic left bosom as a genteel sombrero. Now the waitress had Nadine. The young woman drawled, “You know you can’t have animals wherever there’s food being served. It’s a health code violation.” Matlock seemed to understand the waitress’s censure regarding his presence, and it infuriated him all the more, causing the veins in his little throat and temples to bulge as his lips curled to show teeth no bigger than the white tips of candy corn pieces. The waitress regarded Matlock and Nadine with the true disdain that she usually reserved for her ex-husbands. She looked down at Nadine and felt freedom. She no longer had to mind her manners; in fact, she was obligated to kick Nadine out. Of course, the nastiness to come was entirely her own incentive, and she was relishing the opportunity to get even. Nadine was gawping. Matlock was barking. Caleb and his Mom were open mouthed, and both of them terribly embarrassed. The waitress leaned down toward Nadine and Matlock, and quick as a flash, with her thumb and middle finger she thumped Matlock between the eyes, and he promptly disappeared back into the handbag and his woolen carrying case and was quiet as a mouse. The waitress was nose to nose with Nadine, and in a voice that only Nadine and Matlock could hear, cooed, “You don’t think I know you been fucking with me, bitch. Just want you to know that if you came at me with that attitude outside of here, I’d kick your Goddamn fucking ass to kingdom come, or maybe I wouldn’t because you’re so old, but then if we weren’t here, I don’t think you’d have the nerve to show what a stupid fucking bitch you. As it is, you get that fuckin’ little shit barking dildo out of here and don’t bother to come back or I’ll call the Goddamn police on your flaky, old, dry ass.” 193


Although Caleb and his Mom couldn’t exactly hear what was said to Nadine, the color draining from her face as the waitress spoke to her communicated all they needed to know. Nadine didn’t have anything smart to answer the waitress but instead looked helplessly at Caleb and his Mom. Through her facial expression and shrinking body language, Caleb and his Mom got the message and got out of the booth so they could leave. Now, rather than the imagined attentions of the family man, everyone in the restaurant was looking. Nadine hurriedly slid out of the booth to escape the waitress’s righteous anger as quickly as possible. The waitress loudly said, “And you all better pay on the way out.” “Of course,” Caleb’s Mom murmured, remembering to tip, pressing a quarter in the waitress’s hand. The waitress, her attention diverted from Nadine, looked at the quarter and then looked at Caleb’s Mom. The young woman tossed back the coin and snarled, “I DON’T WANT THIS GODDAMN QUARTER!” Then the trio went to the counter, and, with red-faces, paid and left as if they were refugees stealing away into in the night. Back in the car, Matlock once again standing in Caleb’s lap and ‘helping’ him steer, it was curiously quiet until, probably fifteen minutes later and perhaps twenty miles from the Cracker Barrel, Nadine chirped, “I really should have complained to the manager about that girl!”

BLOWING IN THE WIND(OW)

As they got closer to Chicago, Nadine’s occasional comments reinvented the Cracker 194


Barrel incident so that the ‘Matlock pops out, causes a scene and that they get kicked out’ was forgotten, and only the memory of a bad, mean waitress remained. When Caleb and his Mom would answer her remarks with rich silence, Nadine would leave the unpleasant subject for awhile and regale them with tales of the strange, shy suitors who wooed her in remarkably unorthodox ways. They shot toward the great city, the distant buildings emerging from the aether, looming in blue grey silhouette from the yellow and green prairie horizon; nevertheless, Caleb’s Mom was again half turned in the passenger seat so that she could better take in one of Nadine’s current sagas. In a low, syrupy voice, Nadine intoned, “Now there I was last Saturday night about nine, and I was watching The Laurence Welk show in my chair next to the window, and Matlock had been lying on the rug by my feet. I was knitting him some little bitty go go boots to go with his black sweater and motorcycle hat.” Caleb looked at the trembling little dog who was still helping him steer, and he tried to imagine him in that particular ensemble. As if reading Caleb’s mind, tiny Matlock looked over his shoulder into Caleb’s eyes as if to say, ‘she made me wear that degrading thing, pal’. His eyes were so big and mournful that they looked as if they might pop out of his tight, little skull. The skyline was now cut in varying deep blues against a sunny light blue sky, and Caleb looked at it in wonder. He would be living there, among the millions of lives, busy and engaged. Caleb was excited at the prospect. Maybe now he would find an unmarried woman. Hopefully, somehow he would find a better job than teaching, which scared him. The thought of being a teacher…horrible and frightening when he thought about it for very long, teaching in a ghetto school, yuck! But the day was so beautiful and the skyline so invigorating that as important as it was, he couldn’t dwell on that particular aspect of his future. 195


Instead, he gazed at the downtown building as they grew larger and slowly came into definition, and he listened to Nadine. “So there I was, like always, all alone in my house, the only light on was the lamp that I was knitting by.” “Anybody could have been looking in at you Nadine. That’s why I keep the curtains closed at night,” Caleb’s Mom said. Nadine stopped knitting. “Well just wait. Cause then all of the sudden, Matlock perked his head up and started barking like I don’t know what! Then it happened!” “What?” Caleb’s Mom asked. Nadine said, “I heard the awfullest sound, like someone slamming their hand on the side of the house right next to where I was sitting by the window.” She put her hand on her chest and rolled her eyes. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack!” “Well what did you do?” Caleb asked. “I was so scared that I just sat there for I don’t know how long. Then I looked out the window and said, ‘Whoever you are, get the hell out of here. I don’t want nothing to do with you!’” Caleb’s Mom said, “I would have had a heart attack!” “I thought I was gonna! But then I finally let Matlock out the door to get ‘em, but he didn’t see anything. You should have seen him in his bathrobe. You’d have thought he was the police scouting around my yard! So I waited five minutes, then I went out there myself; well by then whoever the man was, he was gone.” “Who do you think hit the side of your house?” Caleb’s Mom breathlessly asked. “I just don’t know, but that Charley Reynolds has been passing by two or three times a day, and sometimes late at night.” 196


“Charley Reynolds!” Caleb’s Mom fairly squeaked. “Yes, and I just think to myself, ‘Why are you coming by here, Charley Reynolds?’, but don’t tell anyone that it’s him, because I really don’t know that it was him. But it’s all very fishy, I think.” Caleb thought it was all very fishy too. Still, he didn’t voice his opinion that it was probably some kids playing a prank on her and neither Charley Reynolds nor any other late middle aged beau crazy enough to peep at her in her window at night and then demonstrate his intent by banging on the side of the house. Caleb turned off Lakeshore drive when he came to the Diversey exit, and he made his way to his new apartment on George Street, right off of Clark. When Caleb turned on the side street and drove past the beautiful old grey stone where he would be living, his Mom said, “That’s the house where you’ll be living? It’s fantastic.” Nadine concurred. “It’s like a dream house. Look at the ivy climbing the wall and the detail of the concrete. Hey, there’s a parking space right in front of the house.” Instead of following his Nadine’s directions, Caleb said, “We need to park in the alley because that’s the only way into my apartment.” The reddish brick of the alley gave it a quaintly colonial appearance as Caleb stopped his car next to a tall, wooden fence, also red but of a duller tone. All of the properties were enclosed with high fences or tightly secured garages, but it was well kept and attractive. The alley was nearly as wide as many residential streets. “Here we are,” he cheerfully announced. “Oh this is nice,” Nadine said. “Why do you have to go in through the alley?” his Mom asked him. Caleb opened the back door fence with the new key that he’d acquired when he’d rented 197


the place. He explained, “You can only get to my apartment through the back way.” They walked through a narrow passage flanked on one side by a redwood fence and the other side by a white garage. Then they walked through a small yard shaded by one large healthy Dogwood tree. There were screened-in back porches for the two over-ground floors, but to get to Caleb’s garden apartment, they had to descend eight steps to a kind of small, screened, concrete cellar. In the far corner was a heavy wooden door of chipped and faded green. Caleb opened this door and found himself in a laundry room of bare unpainted cement. Caleb wasn’t allowed laundry privileges. In one corner of the laundry room was an immense boiler, and in the back was a rather roughshod wall of unpainted plywood over studs that held a flimsy wooden door with a loose door knob and lock. Nadine and Caleb’s Mom were very silent at this point as he unlocked the third door, this one to his ‘garden studio’. It was a large basement room with a low ceiling. The floors were faded tile, and the walls were covered in cheap white paneling. There was only one entrance. There were several windows. In one corner was a stove and refrigerator; while in the other was his tiny bathroom. Enthusiastically, Caleb looked at his Mom and Nadine. “Well what do you think?” Nadine smiled. “You sure do live in a beautiful house. And golly, what an exciting, upscale neighborhood…I’m impressed.” Evidently Matlock was impressed too, or he was happy to be out of the car because he was frolicking and gamboling around the room fit to beat the band. Caleb’s Mom was more forthright in her opinion than Nadine. Standing in the doorway of the minuscule bathroom, she said, “This is damn near little enough for Matlock. I know that I could fit about one cheek on that commode! To wipe your butt, you’ll have to lean three-quarters of the way into your damn kitchen!” She walked from one side of the main room to the other and asked, “Where’s the front entrance? There has to be a front entrance doesn’t there?” 198


“I don’t have a front entrance?” “What the heck are you going to do if there’s a fire?” She looked at the flimsily wired baseboard heating and said, “I doubt that these things even work? Oh Lord, what will you do when it gets cold.” Caleb shrugged his shoulders. “If it gets too cold, I can get a space heater,” he offered, immediately seeing the wheels turning in his Mom’s mind as she envisioned a fire generated from the space heater and her only child being trapped inside a burning basement in the freezing Chicago winter. Either over-stimulated by the long adventurous trip, or making a dramatic gesture expressing his true and final opinion of Caleb’s new digs, Matlock barfed in the middle of the floor.

It didn’t take long to unload Caleb’s clothing and his meager belongings. Despite Nadine not wanting to leave her dog behind as well as Caleb and his Mom’s misgivings concerning the leaving of Matlock unsupervised in the apartment, Matlock was left there as Nadine, Caleb and his Mom got back in the car and started trolling along Clark street looking for a restaurant. Since it was an important day, Caleb wanted them to go to a nice restaurant, and there were many to choose from along Clark Street. “What about sushi?” he asked slowing by a brightly lit sushi bar, the interior showing much blonde wood and bamboo. “Raw fish? Do you want to die?” his Mom opined. Nadine chuckled indulgently. “What about there?” he asked, indicating a trendy Frontier Grill with a street visage of shiny chrome where there were tables for outdoor dining. Nadine gasped. “Look…Those two men ARE HOLDING HANDS OH MY GAWD!” “Oh, yes, how sophisticated, by all means, Caleb, let’s eat at The Sodom and Gomorrah 199


Café!” was his Mom’s two-cents. They ended up going to a tapas bar called Bobby Ree Bob’s, mostly because Caleb convinced his Mom and Nadine that it was a Mexican place where they could get tacos, which for all he knew was the truth. Also, there was an immediately available parking spot open right in front of the restaurant. Inside Bobby Ree Bob’s, the walls were a stucco of meringue peaks the color of light butter. The music was lively flamenco, and the lighting was soft. The captain who escorted them to their table was a young Hispanic man who wore an impressive uniform consisting of black slacks, white shirt and a royal blue coat with bright yellow admiral braids and epaulets. He pulled out the chairs for the three of them and languidly snapped his fingers for their bus girl, an olive complexioned young woman of great beauty, who poured them fruit flavored water from a grape colored pitcher that had slices of lemon, lime and orange floating in the aqua. She also brought them a basket of chips with green and red salsa. The chips were of different colors, some orange, some red, some blue and some green. The bus girl was silent during her service and avoided eye contact with Caleb, his Mom and Nadine. When she had finished setting their table, she quietly slipped away. The people at the surrounding tables were a mix of young professionals from the neighborhood, and everyone at Bobby Ree Bob’s seemed to be immensely enjoying themselves, talking, drinking and, oddly, sharing food from each other’s plates. Ordinarily, the sight of a family member sharing a morsel of his entree wouldn’t have been out of place, but in the tapas restaurant everyone at every table was sharing whatever they had with everyone else at the table. “What in the world are they doing?” Caleb’s Mom asked. “They’re sharing…they’re sharing all of their food with each other,” Nadine replied sotto 200


voiced. “Is that sanitary?” Caleb spoke up in defense of Bobby Ree Bob’s, which he knew nothing about but which he felt compelled to defend for some reason. “Sure it’s sanitary, Mom. Don’t you know that all these fancy Chicago restaurants are clean as whistles?” “Oh, I know that,” she said, which caused Caleb to feel he’d really won some sort of victory for the Chicago restaurants. Then his Mom added, “I just mean that all these people touching each others food. Eating each other’s food...” “Ooh, I have to agree. Look at them, Caleb,” Nadine said. This, thought Caleb, from the woman whom only earlier this very day had fed her dog from her own plate and had endured it shitting in her purse. “Well, I’ll trust the both of you not to have any cooties if you’ll trust me not to have any,” Caleb said in a jocular manner. That was more than fair considering that less than an hour ago he’d witnessed Nadine clean Matlock’s tiny puddle of puke from the floor of his new apartment. In fact, when he thought of it, maybe they should break the restaurant’s obvious tradition and not share from each other’s plates. “Well of course I trust the both of you,” said Nadine to Caleb. She added, “Still, this place is more germy than when we have to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer at Mass!” “Why it’s more germy than everyone drinking from the same communion cup!” Caleb’s Mom declared, adding, “And if drinking after everybody else doesn’t put you off God then having to hold hands with someone you’ve just seen picking their nose surely will.” “I’ll say,” Nadine agreed, then she observed, “Look at those little bitty plates that they’re passing back and forth. They’re tiny. Have you noticed them?” Caleb’s Mom huffed, “I sure did, and I think Matlock ought to be the one renting Caleb’s 201


apartment and living in Chicago. He could come to this restaurant and be a perfect fit with these little bitty doll plates, and then he could go back to that tiny little studio apartment and he’d be a perfect fit there too, especially in that bathroom. He’d fit on that toilet better than Caleb!” Another lithe young person of Latin heritage glided to their table. Her manner was both reserved and engaging at once, and her smile was dazzling as she handed them menus that were the same elegant tone of the walls. “Have you ever been to Bobby Ree Bob’s before?” she asked, and her voice sounded like dark honey sprung from the rock. “No, this is our first time here,” Caleb’s Mom told their waitress, a creature of such effortless grace that she seemed more like an enchanted spirit than a real young woman. They raptly listened to her as she explained that tapas were small servings of different appetizer types of Spanish food, and that most people order several and everyone, as they had observed, shared. “May I tell you what our specials are today?” she asked them. “Oh please do, and thank you so much,” Nadine said. The spirit of beauty made flesh smiled as she described caramelized onions adorning baby scallops, tiny as pearls. “We also have venison grilled in a pomegranate salsa, and my favorite, flowers of walnut braised pork.” There were four other specials, and Caleb, his Mom and Nadine sat transfixed as she concluded describing the dainty dishes before gliding off to another table or to Mount Olympus or something. The trance like veil of hypnotic enchantment with their rare and wonderful waitress fell when they opened the wine lists and Caleb’s Mom and Nadine saw the prices. “Six dollars for a glass of wine?” “Look here, FIFTY SIX DOLLARS FOR A BOTTLE OF WINE?!” Both women’s faces were flushed, and they were not comforted when they saw the prices 202


listed for the tapas plates. Indignant exclamations of twelve dollars this and fourteen dollars that were announced with the incredulity and anger a member of PETA might feel while witnessing a bloody cock fight. “I think I’ll have the pumpkin risotto on a bed of mung beans for starters,” Caleb said. “We should really just go,” his Mom said. “I’ll pay,” Caleb offered, his offer seeming to make things worse. “You don’t have to pay. I was going to pay,” Caleb’s Mom said. “Well neither of you have to pay for mine,” Nadine said. “I insist because it was so good of you to come with us, and it’s the very least I can do,” Caleb’s Mom muttered angrily, snarling, “We can stay here I guess, but all I’m having is one of these things.” “Me too. I’m not having you pay thirty dollars for my meal,” Nadine told him. So each of them ordered one tapas apiece. Without saying anything, the divine waitress’s vibe made them feel that their inadequate orders were in actuality the right decisions, which was in line with Caleb’s Mom and Nadine’s way of thinking but not Caleb’s. In twenty minutes, the waitress appeared before them with their orders. On a plate the size of a tea cup, Caleb had a four parsnip fritters, each of which was the size of a cracker and which he described as super incredible, damn that’s it? Nadine had a sausage made of fennel, truffles and fetal pig, served on radiccio, to which her reaction was, “I wish I had about fifteen more of these. They’d be good with spicy mustard on a hot dog bun I’ll bet!” Caleb’s Mom popped her five Maderia soaked grapes, the cheapest thing on the menu at seven dollars, into her mouth at once and chewed them in quiet, self righteous fury. Once served, it took them about a minute to eat. When the elegant waitress brought them their check, she thanked them for coming 203


and hesitantly asked how they’d liked it. “I loved it,” Caleb piped. “Muy bueno!” Nadine hazarded. Caleb’s Mom managed to smile. “Never had anything like this,” was all she said. On the way back to the apartment, they got hamburgers at a drive-through and brought them back to Caleb’s new apartment. After Caleb parked, from the trunk he removed three inflatable mattresses that would serve as beds that night. Now it was dusk, and the fanciful colonial ambience of the alley at noon had changed to a kind of coach-light, traveler’s inn mysterious type atmosphere. The soft light at the top of Caleb’s alley entrance was bright enough to read by. The backyard in the evening was mottled with light from the halogen rays filtering through the leafy branches. The shadows deepened as Caleb, his Mom and Nadine descended to the cellar like space. The bare bulb in the corner over the door threw out a dim fuzzy light with a pink patina under the glow. Though no one was in the laundry room, the washer and dryer were running, making comforting mechanical noise in the starkly lit part of the basement. Both Nadine and his Mom thought it was awful that the landlord, who lived on the second floor of the house, wouldn’t allow Caleb laundry privileges. As Caleb fumbled with the lock, his Mom said, “Why don’t you wait until everyone has gone to bed, then you could come out here and do your laundry!” “No one would know,” Nadine assured him. Caleb let them in. Caleb made short work of inflating the mattresses as his Mom situated three lamps at various points in the room, one by them near the front window, another on the cardboard table next to the sink, and the other one in the bathroom. Then when the air-mattresses were filled, each person took his or her bed and found the right spot. Caleb was on the outer periphery of the 204


brightness from both lamps where their perimeters overlapped Venn diagram style. Caleb’s Mom was about twelve feet over, next to a cardboard dining table with its bright yellow Carribean flavored lamp of molded plastic. Nadine was next to the front light, directly below the drapeless, blindless window. Her lamp was an old teardrop shaped ceramic body with an Elizabethan scene of two dandies and a lady in courtly garb. The shade was tasseled. Streetlight from the corner slanted down upon Nadine like a creamy spotlight. Matlock would go from person to person and then explore the darker regions of the apartment where the lamp light was weakest. On the dining table was Caleb’s boom box, and it had on an a.m. radio show that played big band music, exotica, polka and other old time melodies. As a set consisting of Goodnight Irene, Splish Splash, and Me and My Shadow played, they ate their Mac Donalds. Of course, Nadine had brought Matlock his own Big Mac. After wrestling the patty out of the other things in the sandwich, he dragged it across the floor and into the bathroom to enjoy his happy meal inside the shower stall. The washer and dryer in the other room made a steady rolling, gently rocking rhythmical noise that was audible through the flimsy walls separating Caleb’s ‘garden apartment’ from the rest of the basement. Caleb, having been straight all day, said that he was going to go to the bar on the corner, The Gaslight, and bring back a six pack. “I hope you’re not going to get drunk,” his Mom cautioned him. “Oh, no. I’ll be back in about five minutes.” Once he was in the celler area, he lit a bowl of some special sweet herb that Sir Dan had bequeathed upon him as a going away gift. Then Caleb left the premises, walked the short distance through the alley to an opening near the end of George and then across to where the Gaslight was on the corner of George and Clark. 205


The Gaslight was of a design not unlike Perry’s in Chase. On the western side of the space was a bar running the length of the room. In the center was the walkway, and on the eastern side were booths. Although the lay out was quite similar to Perry’s, the furnishings were nicer. Instead of dirty bare plaster walls there was expensive dark paneling, and rather than long pulsing fluorescent bulbs hanging from the ceiling from dirty white fixtures, there were hanging cut glass lanterns with brass fittings. The booths were lighted with kitschy, retro table lamps from the fifties. The patrons were different. The people who came to The Gaslight were a mix of young professionals from the neighborhood and artistic types from the Steppenwolf Theater that was across the street, and if they were as fucked up as the patrons at Perry’s, this crowd at least looked better. Caleb bought a six pack of Corona and a lime from the bartender. Back in the alley he smoked another bowl before rejoining his Mom and Nadine. When Caleb re-entered his new home, he saw his Mom resting, lying down with her eyes closed on her air mattress and Nadine sitting in Caleb’s one chair and busily working on Matlock’s wee tamoshanter. Moonlight Serenade was playing. Matlock barked and danced around Caleb’s feet, feistily challenging him and wagging his tail. “Would either of you care for a beer?” he asked as he put the six-pack in his refrigerator. Nadine looked up from her knitting. “I might have one if your Mom does,” she cautiously suggested. “I don’t want any beer,” Caleb’s Mom asserted. “Aw c’mon,” Nadine said. “After the day we’ve had we deserve a beer. How about if we split a cold one?” “I never much liked the taste of beer, especially the dark stuff. At its best I can take it or 206


leave it. Now a nice sweet wine cooler, that might be a different story! Cheryl at the bank tells me that she thinks I’d like this Bartle & James…Bartle & James…some funny name…a grape strawberry flavor I think she said.” “I could go back and get you some wine coolers if you like,” Caleb offered. “No, no. No need for that. I’ll just split a beer with you, Nadine.” “They’re Coronas. That’s a light beer, Mom. You’ll like it.” He got two glasses and poured half the bottle in each of them. She arched an eyebrow and looked at the proffered glass as if its contents were gasoline as she sniffed, “I won’t like it, but what the hell. Now that I’ve had tapas I might as well go all the way and get drunk!” Nadine giggled. “It’s only half a glass. I don’t think even we can get drunk on half a glass of beer. In fact, I might just have to have another!” After serving them, Caleb settled on his own mattress and sipped his beer. Route 66 was playing. Matlock was now sitting at Nadine’s heels, watching her take a sip of beer and licking his lips, trembling and making sad begging eyes at her. Nadine sipped and knitted, the window casting her in dramatic streetlight, as if Nadine were on set center stage. Caleb’s Mom took a sip. “Yuck,” she said. She made a face and took another sip. “Not as bad as some.” Another tentative sip. An hour and a half later, Caleb had gotten another six-pack of Corona and a four-pack of Bartles & James Strawberry Grape Watermelon. Caleb’s Mom, after half a beer and an almost untouched wine cooler, drifted off to dreamland while Nadine and Caleb continued to drink. When Caleb’s Mom had fallen asleep, Nadine had finished off her friend’s wine cooler and continued with the beer. Caleb had by then drunk four beers. Nadine had drunk three and a half 207


and an almost full wine cooler. Matlock was now wearing his merry tam, the loose strands of wool yarn trailing into his eyes and onto the floor. She was singing along to the radio, making up her own lyrics to ‘Begin the Beguine’. “When you begin the Beguine. You might meet on a train. Strangers, passing by in airplanes! Waving-when, you begin the Beguine!” As she started in on the second verse, Matlock, who had been looking up at her adoringly as she sung, now looked away, was diverted by something. Something on the wall or near the window. Maybe something in the window was getting his attention. Nadine took no notice, nor did Caleb, as he was getting used to Matlock yipping about and making a little tornado of fuss wherever he went, and now Matlock wasn’t running around and barking. He wasn’t even trembling, just looking. Looking and looking. Caleb paid little attention to Matlock or what he was entranced by. Caleb continued to watch Nadine sing her song and wondered if he loaded a bowl if she would want a hit. The shadow moving now in the streetlight outside didn’t draw his eyes to the window, not immediately. He didn’t think of the shadow in Nadine’s spotlight, figured it was shade thrown by a branch, blown by the wind against the window. But his eyes did, at some point, go past Nadine, who was singing, “When you begin the Beguine. You can say you have now made the scene. Here in Chicago, or in gay Pareeeeeee! When you begin the Beguine!” Caleb’s eyes went past her. His vision made a lazy trail past her, focused momentarily on Matlock, who was still intently gazing upward, his one ear sticking out of the ridiculous tamoshanter, the ear cocked in studious concentration. And Caleb absently kept looking up the wall. Till he looked in the window, at what Matlock was looking at. That’s when he partially saw what the little dog was scoping. What Caleb could see framed in the window was someone standing sideways, not all of 208


the person, only his shoes, his bunched up trousers right over his shoes, and his bare calves and knees. Directly facing this person was another, this one was clothed but was kneeling so Caleb could see him to the waist, where the window cut the two dandies off. The lower extremities of both parties were engaged in the slow give and take of the blowjob dance, in rhythm to Nadine’s singing. “Oh yes when you begin the beguine. Now I think you know exactly what I mean. Glamour, in your pajamas. When you begin the beguine!” Nadine, her eyes closed and her arms spread in performer’s ecstasy, ended the tune with a warbly blast of off pitch tone not unlike the chanteuse harmonics of Yoko Ono. When the song finished, Nadine opened her eyes and looked at Caleb, whose own eyes were quite big, and even though she had finished singing, the gentlemen right above her hadn’t finished what they were up to at all. She then looked down at Matlock, to see if he was as awed by her performance as Caleb was, but he still wasn’t looking at her. Even when she picked him up, he continued to stare at the window. “Whasss me bee-beees lookin’ at, huh?” she cooed to Matlock, for whom she might as well not have been there, so intently was he regarding the blowjob taking place right overhead and behind them in the window. “Him’s a-lookin’ and just a-looking’ at somzinz. Wha’ ees it bee-beees? Wha’s a bee-beees lookin’ so hard at?” She babytalked as she slowly turned around.

Her yell awakened Caleb’s Mom, who sat up with a start, and because of her proximity to the table, she, like Nadine, could see much more than Caleb. She could see exactly what Matlock was looking at in an anthropological way and what Nadine had screamed at. “OH LORD! OH LORD!” She exclaimed. Their pandemonium disturbed the blowjob in progress, and the one on his knees poked his 209


head far enough down so that he could see through the window into the basement. “Ooh, Giles, put your cock away. Two old fish are watching us,” he meowed. Nadine was, for the second time that day, speechless as she gawped at the legs, balls and erect cock right above the distantly sneering face. But Caleb’s Mom spoke out, saying, “You boys ain’t got anything that I want, and furthermore you ought to be ashamed of yourselves! What the hell are you thinking? You’re sick. SICK!” The fellow receiving the blowjob bent down to look into the window also, and he hissed, “Poisson!” Then he abruptly pulled his pants up. The fashionable dandies laughed with childishly decadent sophistication. “Eeee hee hee hee hee!” they trilled as they dashed away from the window and into the night. “I cannot believe those young men. SICK! SICK! SICK!” declared Caleb’s Mom repeatedly. Nadine was hyperventilating and between gasps was drinking to dull the horror, or whatever she might have been feeling after seeing what she had. Caleb figured they would have to hang his shirts and drawers over the windows until tomorrow when he could buy curtains. At his feet was Matlock, faintly wagging his tail and gazing upward, as if he was suddenly, strangely interested in Caleb. He tilted his head quizzically, as if seeing Caleb with new eyes and imagining all sorts of possibilities.

CHICAGO, WHERE THE WEAK ARE KILLED AND EATEN

Caleb’s Mom and Nadine had planned on staying several more days to help him settle in 210


and to see the sights, but after the previous night’s events, they felt they’d perhaps had enough of Chicago for one trip. The next day, after going with Caleb to Linens & Things and buying curtains, which they helped him hang, they quit the city, his Mom promising to call when they reached Chase, which she did. His Mom told him that the trip home was uneventful, and asked him if he’d eaten any more tapas or seen anymore perverts openly committing acts of sodomy. When Caleb assured her that he hadn’t, they chatted for a minute or so before his Mom said, “Sure is quiet around here.” Caleb felt a pang of love and sorrow for his old Mom. He missed her, and when they hung up, he said, “Love ya Ma,” something that he seldom said to her. “Why I love you too, honey.” It made him feel sad.

Caleb’s Mom and Nadine had chosen two sets of curtains for him, heavy forest green for privacy, and sheer salmon gauze for sunny days and afternoons. Caleb would have left his shirts, shorts and towels tacked over the windows, but admittedly, it made the nearly bare basement apartment look somewhat better. After they had left, Caleb closed the forest green curtain and lay down for a nap. That afternoon, Caleb went out and bought a single bed and a television, which he had arranged to have delivered to his home the next day. He also signed up for cable service, and finally, he went shopping for clothes at the biggest head shop he had ever seen, The Alley. There he bought baggy down filled plus-fours type pantaloons and an oversize shirt bearing an illustration of a skull. Above the skull was a halo of arcane occult symbols and buzzing flies. Caleb also bought a fat black leather belt festooned with large squares of chrome, some dangling silver hoop earrings and Doc Martins. Standing in front of the mirror in The Ally, he regarded 211


himself with admiration. Objectively the look might have said many things: satanic gay pirate; drug addict golf-pro; the psychotic homeless perhaps. To Caleb though, it was pure haute couture. Too bad I still don’t have my mullet, he thought. He bought one more thing at The Alley that day, a leather motorcycle jacket. On his way home, he stopped at a Sportsmart, where he bought new workout gear. All of it was spandex in electric colors, some of it festooned with designs like lightning bolts or stars. It looked like what comic book super heroes might wear. All he needed were some capes. The next day he had to wait until the television and bed were dropped off and the cable guy came by and hooked up the system. After that, Caleb went for the first run in his new neighborhood. In his mind, Caleb looked not at all like a skinny weirdo but like some sort of space age work out guy in his matching grey and yellow spandex top and shorts combo. The amused looks and sardonic remarks from the gutterpunk contingency in front of the Duncan Donuts went unnoticed. His walkman played a mix of Lou Reed, The Ramones, Book of Love and Iggy. Though his walkman was on nearly full volume, when he went under the L tracks and the train was going over, the noise from it drowned out the music. He ran a little ways past Wrigley Field to Cabaret Metro and The Smart Bar, where he turned back. He ran up and down the patch of Clark Street between The Metro and The Gaslight until he had gone about five miles. By the second pass, the gutterpunks no longer noticed him. When Caleb got home, he took a shower. The water pressure was minuscule, about the pressure of Matlock taking a piss.

Caleb decorated his drab walls with thousands of plastic glowing stars that he bought at a 212


little hippie store on Clark Street called Rocket sixty-nine. Caleb spent hours sticking the differently colored plastic stars on his walls and ceiling. The effect was marvelous. The third day that he was there, Caleb saw an ad for a trial workout at a gym. He went there in his orange and purple striped ensemble. The demographic of the weight room was mostly alarmingly muscular gay men with some straight men and women working their weight routines. Here, at this place and time in the eighties, spandex was understood. Caleb decided to try an aerobics work out. Because of his running and the physical activities involved in the growing of marijuana, Caleb was in exemplary condition. Still, different exercise routines work different muscle groups, so despite being in good shape, Caleb was still challenged. Aerobics also required being able to keep in step with the coordinated routine. Half a dozen times, Caleb bumped into his neighbors when going in the opposite direction that the teacher called. By the end of the hour, Caleb’s muscles were raw and sore. Also, during the workout, they played some sort of high energy dance music. It was heavy on bass and had a kind of skittering percussion. The music incorporated samples of women singing bits or phrases in counterpoint to warm piano parts. The music was structured on anthemic hooks. It was good to exercise by. Another thing that they did in the class that he liked but which he had never bothered about doing was warming up and warming down. They used new age music during these periods and involved relaxation techniques as well as a bit of creative visualization. It was fun to work out with a group of pretty girls. Maybe I’ll meet one, Caleb thought after the work out. At the desk, he signed up for a year’s membership.

213


On Thursday night of that week, decked out in his goose down plus four pantaloons, his satanic skull shirt and his big shiny belt and earrings, Caleb was walking along his running route when from the open doors of the Caberet Metro and Smart Bar, he heard the same kind of music that he’d heard during his aerobic workouts. Caleb went in. He’d read about d.j. culture in The Village Voice at the Southern Illinois University library one day while waiting for Serena to finish her classes, but he’d read nothing about this kind of music in 1985 or 86. Maybe he’d read the wrong articles. He asked the bartender for a Bud, and he asked what kind of music they were listening to. The bartender smiled and said, “That’s house music.” Not wanting to betray his ignorance, Caleb didn’t ask the follow-up question, ‘what is house music?’ but thanked the bartender and tipped him a dollar for the beer. Although he had never been a fan of disco, Caleb really liked it here. He had never been a dancer, with the exception of the occasional drunken pogo experience at a wedding reception. To him, the music and the sight of the people dancing was liberating. He started to move at the periphery of the dance floor, tiny mechanical robotic movements in his fingers and hands, and soon he was amid the throng of people and in the throes of a full scale robot dance. Caleb simply concentrated on moving like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz to the huge music, which because of its dynamics and volume vibrated through Caleb and the other dancers. The d.j. would routinely work the crowd to a peak, then level off the energy for a while. Footage of things like open heart surgery, old movies, cartoons, S&M and bondage scenes was continuously projected on the walls and ceiling. Mickey and Minnie Mouse cut to a scene from 10,000 Maniacs. Even though Caleb’s robot dance had short circuited into the dance of stupid gyrations and limb flailings accompanied with constipated facial expressions, no one noticed, and 214


even if no one else besides Caleb was dressed like, say, Aleister Crowley’s adult paper boy, plenty of people were decked in their own skewed visions of couture, and nobody stared. It was a strange mixture of being shoulder to shoulder with a huge crowd of people and maintaining a delicious sense of solitude.

Everyday, Caleb would stop by Johnny’s nearby garden apartment on Briar Street. Johnny kept his rooms dark, but he no longer wore sunglasses at night, and he’d just gotten several lines of extraordinarily lucrative freelance work where he not only worked when he felt like it but also made several times what he would have as a regular employee. Still, his basement apartment was furnished the same way it had been when he had been nearly broke and struggling to make the rent. The difference was that now he had better clothes, better computers, and once a week a cleaner came in. Whenever Caleb came over, they’d generally smoke bongs, watch t.v., and occasionally order food from the nearby sandwich place called Eat a Pita. Johnny’s street, Briar Street, was made of cobblestone and was flanked with old oaks and maples. The houses were stately grey and brownstones that had been made into apartments and condos. On this day, the Thursday before the first day of classes, Caleb had just come over to Johnny’s. On the television was a Discovery Channel program on the deep Amazon. As they watched the antics of the explorers mingling with the Indian tribes, Caleb and Johnny ordered two chicken doner dinners with extra sauce from Zabim’s. The chicken doner consisted of sliced chicken breast on a bed of dill rice with the doner sauce, which was tomato based. Johnny was always cross with Zabim. He told Caleb that Zabim needed to invest in another spit for the chicken breast used in the doner. “It’s their main dish. Everyone loves the 215


doner. That’s what you go there for. So what does he do? He buys a bunch of cheap assed trinkets that he puts everywhere. It like the shelves are lined with shit he got out of middle eastern cracker jack boxes. And half the time you go there, guess what? Out of doner! But fucking Zabim will be only too glad to take the time and show you another fucking little statue of some shit! Or try to get you to either drink or splash that crazy assed rosewater on your hands. God knows why!” It was taking forever for their order to be delivered, and Johnny’s resentment was fermenting. On the show, the explorers were camping with a tribe of people whose culture was thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. The people carried themselves with nude dignity. They were a beautiful people, the planes of their faces making high cheek boned equations, their slightly Asiatic eyes and white teeth and soft tawny skin bewitching the cameras as they generously shared what they had with the white explorers on the river in the tropical jungle. “We should go there,” Caleb opined, thinking of finding a beautiful young girlfriend who could not speak English. As he smoked the bong proffered by his increasingly exasperated friend, Caleb said, “I bet it would be easy to find a sweet girl over there.” Johnny rolled his eyes. He checked his watch. “Where is that fucking Zabim?” he muttered. The documentary showed the Indians holding a ceremony honoring their guests, unwitting ambassadors of imperialism. On cookware fashioned of bamboo skin and bark, young maidens grilled custard colored pupae the size of mice over smoky coals as other young women in costumes of metallic crimson and blue feathers did a welcome dance. The men and the explorers sat around the campfire and smoked powerful hallucinogenic plants. “Wow,” Caleb said enviously. “Imagine a life like that? Having one of those beauties dancing for you, getting high 216


on those natural high grade drugs that because they’re organic are probably GOOD FOR YOU and eating the gourmet snacks everyday.” The camera did a close up on one of the tripping explorers biting into a grilled larvae, its membranous casing bursting and the custardy innerds squirting out the side of the explorer’s mouth. “ Those pupae look exactly like a tapas I saw some people eating at Bobby Ree Bob’s,” he observed. Caleb sighed. “I gotta’ go to the Amazon.” Johnny looked at Caleb in much the same way he had when they’d been in middle school showing cartoons and old movies on Saturday afternoons and Caleb had suggested, “Hey, after we’re done here, why don’t we bike down to the library and read!” Remember that? A car honked outside. They ignored it, but it honked again and again, which caused them to ignore it more and more until the honker came to the door and buzzed. Johnny sat upright then. He said, “I hope to fuck that’s Zabim’s delivery guy.” “Yeah.” Caleb was entranced by the native womens’ butts jiggling and sometimes slightly parting at the cleft as they danced, cooked and generally moved about. “Man, even if we didn’t go there, I’ll bet we could have them sent to us by mail.” “Isn’t that how your Grandpa met your Noni?” Johnny asked. “Not only could we order mail order brides,” Caleb thought out loud, “We could...order a bunch. Why stop with one? We could have mail order brides all over the place.” Caleb envisioned an exotic beauty for every day of the week. “Yeah, that doesn’t smack of white slavery. Good idea, order a bunch, Caleb. And Hide the bong and herb for right now,” Johnny cautioned, as he always did when someone knocked. He opened the door expecting to see Jalib, Zabim’s delivery guy. Instead, there was Zabim himself, looking very pleased. He was holding the sacks containing their chicken doners, and he stepped to the side of the doorway so that Johnny could 217


see the long black car parked at the curb, a limousine. Despite Johnny’s regularly taking him to task, Zabim seemed to like Johnny and want to please him. “What do you think?” he asked Johnny. “I made the order nearly two hours ago Zabim. My stomach is hurting from hunger is what I think? Geeez.” Zabim seemed to not understand Johnny’s reaction. To clarify, he explained, “I delivered the order myself in the limo. What do you think?” “Oh thanks. I was kind of pissed off what with my stomach growling and my acid reflux acting up cause I’m so hungry, but now that I see you’ve delivered our doner YOURSELF in a limousine, why heck. I’m speechless. I guess. How much, Zabim?” “Twelve dollars and Sixty eight cents, my friend,” Johnny handed Zabim a twenty, and Zabim, who had been in business less than two months, took on a melancholy aspect. “Hey, buddy,” he said nervously, embarrassedly, “You wouldn’t have change would you?” Now it was Johnny’s turn to look as if he didn’t comprehend at Zabim. Then Johnny’s face turned red, indicating that perhaps he was understanding, which he proved when he said, “WHAT THE FUCK! YOU RUN A BUSINESS AND YOU DON’T HAVE CHANGE?” Hurt by one of his first customer’s apparent misunderstanding of the special service he had provided, he held his hands out in a supplicating gesture. “I brought the order myself. In the limou-“ ”I KNOW I KNOW IN THE FUCKING LIMOUSINE. JESUS, ZABIM, YOU DON’T GET IT! THE ORDER IS VERY LATE AND NOW YOU DON’T HAVE ANY CHANGE! HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO RUN A BUSINESS IF YOU DON’T...IF YOU DON’T HAVE 218


CHANGE? AND HOW MANY TIMES HAS THIS HAPPENED AT THE RESTAURANT? I’M SUPPOSED TO GIVE A SHIT BECAUSE YOU BROUGHT OUR COLD LATE ORDER IN AN OSTENTATIOUS PIECE OF SHIT LIMOUSINE? FUCK!” Then for about half a minute, Zabim looked at Johnny imploringly, until finally he again asked, “Do you have change?” Johnny looked at Caleb and said, “Do you fucking believe this shit?” To Zabim he said, “No, I don’t have the fucking change, Zabim. And I don’t want the order now. It’s cold as shit despite being transported over here in the height of luxury. I guess it didn’t know that you, Zabim were bringing it over in your wonderful fancy, limousine. I don’t know. All I know is that you’re late as shit, and you don’t have change. Maybe next time you’ll either come over on time yourself or send Jileb over here in a timely fashion and either you or him will bring some...some change for Christ’s sake. Fuck!” Caleb said, “Man, I might have change.”

After re-heating and eating the doner, Johnny took Caleb to meet the guy who sold him weed, the guy who would hopefully allow Caleb into his circle of clients. Sandy lived nearby, we won’t say where. He was about the same age as Johnny and Caleb. Sandy had never been busted, and had been selling weed and coke to an exclusive clientele of pals, all of whom he’d either grown up with or had come to know, all of whom were successful now. He’d been selling them drugs since they’d all been in fifth grade when during a walk in the park, his dog Trina had found some unfortunate hippies quarter pound of four finger lids either stashed, lost or hastily abandoned. Sandy had to try three times before he was able to roll his first joint, breaking one paper 219


from rolling too tightly, rolling another too loose so that it looked wrinkly, and finally, somehow instinctively managing a serviceable reefer. After smoking it in his backyard, he went inside and listened to his Dad’s jazz records, which he’d never before enjoyed. They sounded great when he was high though. He heard what his Dad heard when he listened. Sandy then learned to roll those lids into joints, and slowly one by one he initiated and then sold weed to his closest pals. Later he introduced them to acid, ludes and cocaine. The market for acid and ludes fell away, but Sandy continued to sell his pals weed and cocaine. From his profits he came to own seven properties in good north side neighborhoods as well as his own antique business, successful on its own account, but successful tenfold because of his drug dealing profits being laundered through it. He was at his store about three days a week. On other days he had a friend or two he’d pay under the table to stay and cater to the customers. On this day, he was home and entertaining some of his pals. There was a pay per view boxing match on that afternoon, and Sandy had invited Johnny, and Johnny had asked if Caleb could come, to which Sandy gave his assent. Sandy’s home took up the top two floors of his building. He’d sold the second and first floor condo units to friends. The building looked like a fortress, new among the older brown and grey stones in the area. He buzzed Johnny and Caleb in. They walked up to the third floor entrance on a spiraling staircase. On the way they could hear several voices as well as a dog barking. “That’s Sandy’s crazy mutt, Sari,” Johnny informed him. The walls of the stairwell were bright blue white, and the floors were blonde hardwood. The door to Sandy’s home was very heavy and old. It swung open, and a large German Shepard tried to jump on Johnny, who brushed the loud, thankfully friendly Sari away. Caleb’s first impression of Sandy was that he was an athletic, colligate type of fellow, about six one or two and in shape. Like a basketball player. He wore a 220


University of Iowa sweatshirt and frayed jeans, and his hair was in a longish businessman’s ponytail. He smiled and invited them in. Sari jumped on Caleb, her paws on his shoulders as she looked up at him, and he scratched the big dog behind her ears so that she licked his face and looked into his eyes. Then she jumped down and sniffed at Johnny, who pushed her away. In Sandy’s main living area, also shocking white of wall and ceiling, there was a bar stool along the black marble counter separating the kitchen area from the rest of the space. The floors were also of black marble. Along the north wall was a fireplace, or rather a seven foot by seven foot black opening where Sandy could have had a fire, which he never did. It looked as if it had never been used. Nor were there any chairs or couches around it. In the corner of the northern wall, the spiral staircase continued to wind up to Sandy’s second floor, the penthouse space of his building where the bedrooms, the game-room and the deck looking over the whole city as well as the lake. Back on the first floor of his condo, the east and west wall were made of some sort of super-glass which somehow insulated against the weather. Sun streamed into the huge loft sized room. On the south wall were a stereo system, his extensive jazz cd collection and seven televisions. All of them were on the same pay per view station with the sound off. In front of the television, also of minimalist design, were two chairs. On the floor were newspapers, magazines and dog toys. The refrigerator and stove in the kitchen area were of burnished black gunmetal. There were two other guys in the room. They were standing. Sandy introduced them to Caleb. They warmly greeted Johnny and told Caleb that they were glad to meet him, which they genuinely seemed to be. They took turns asking questions: which neighborhood did he live in and where he was teaching and what were his first impressions of Chicago, things like that. Both of them told Caleb that they admired what he was doing and 221


wished him good luck. They talked like people on cocaine, which is what they were. One was a guy who wore a Cubs baseball cap and a dark blue sweat suit with red detailing. His name was Joey, and he had a moustache and a voice like Wolf Man Jack. The other was a thin guy with black horn rimmed glasses and bushy grey streaked hair. His name was Stevie and he too had a moustache. He wore black slacks, loafers and a Bulls jersey. Neither of them were sitting when Johnny and Caleb arrived but were animatedly bouncing around the room on the balls of their feet. They were talking about the upcoming fight, both of them yammering a mile a minute but Stevie talking much, much faster than not only Joey but also everybody else that Caleb had ever heard speak. Stevie spoke so rapidly that Caleb couldn’t keep up with what he was saying, something about Rodreguez, heart and body blows. And Joey, clacking his teeth together between words, argued in Wolfman Jack patois that Brown would finesse the heart away from Rodreguez. Sandy and Johnny sat in the rooms only proper chairs and Caleb sat on a bar stool at the counter. Sandy produced a joint, which he lit and handed to Johnny. Johnny hit it twice and passed to Caleb, who took a few puffs and passed it. It was nice weed, kind of a woody hash taste. When it was Stevie’s turn, instead of hitting it and passing it to the next person, he waved the joint around while he continued his talk of Rodreguez being able to deliver body blows. Joey loudly disdained Stevie’s strategy for Rodreguez, dismissing Rodreguez’s efforts against the, according to him, stronger Brown. Sari bounded between the two of them, adding to their debate with her own incessantly hyperactive barking. Sandy looked on as if bemused. During the pre-fight show, between joints and talk of footwork, punching and heart, Joey and Stevie would go to the black marble bathroom where, Caleb reckoned, they would do lines. He figured they didn’t know him well enough to offer him any. It didn’t matter, as Caleb didn’t 222


really like cocaine all that much. It was okay once in a while if he were drinking. It made him feel demented. When they would come back, they would still be talking about the fight, analyzing the reach of Brown against the youthful stamina of the slightly younger Rodreguez against the slight weight advantage of Brown compared to the greater impact of Rodreguez against the experience of Brown. And it would boil down to them yelling about HEART! Heart and body blows. Pacing in front of the televisions, Joey clacking his teeth and Stevie talking faster than I can write about boxing and the world of the before mentioned heart but then going on to the world of will and spirit, sympathetic magic dovetailing with the artisan’s craft, and it would have made perfect sense to Caleb if he’d been able to process the Sherlock Holmesian computer speed clarity of Stevie’s cocaine inspired insights. From boxing to the bigger picture. Joey was now playing with Sari. He raced around the room with her rubber ball as he smoked a cigarette and clacked his teeth together. Sari nipped at his heels then bit his ankles which made Joey cackle and say, “Call ‘er off, dammit, Sandy!” Then the bell rang and it was the pizza delivery boy. Joey ran down to pay the kid at the entrance door. “Waitaminutepally!” he yelled in his growlly voice as he bounded down the steps in a remarkably agile fashion for a short legged man with the beginnings of a young middle age paunch. As Caleb hadn’t partaken of any cocaine, he enjoyed three slices of pizza. Caleb wondered if Johnny and Sandy were getting high. Both were talkative, but they didn’t appear to be wired. Johnny, normally a big eater, was holding with one slice, as was Sandy, who was as tall as Johnny and looked as if he could put away half a pizza himself. Both of them had been to the bathroom once or twice, but that was normal; so had Caleb. But that’s how it was when cocaine was around. Caleb always wondered who was doing it. Anyone who was too happy or had too 223


much to say was suspect. Of course Stevie and Joey only used their pizza slices for floppy props, slinging bits of sausage, pepperoni, mushroom and bits of vegetable on the floor as they gestured, much to Sari’s delight, her cleaning up after them and leaving her slobber on the black marble. Stevie and Joey were too busy talking to take a bite. They were nice guys, but Caleb found it hard to be around anyone on cocaine if he weren’t doing it too. If he weren’t, they tended to wear him out. Still, he liked these guys. Joey was a private investor of such astute financial instincts and acutely attuned market sensibilities that his clients either didn’t know or didn’t mind that he was addicted to cocaine. He lived with his mother at their gated estate in Kenilworth. She was in denial about her son’s addiction, as are most Moms. Besides sports, Joey’s biggest passion was Grecian history, particularly that of Alexander the Great and the Spartans. During one of the several conversational asides he made to Caleb during his big conversation with Stevie and Sandy about the upcoming fight, Joey expressed admiration for the uncomplicated lifestyle of his ancestors. Stevie used to do what Joey did, but he’d made enough money to live off the annual interest of his various investments. Now for shits and giggles, Stevie created strait jackets of leather and latex that he sold online to customers around the world as well as to regional places like The Pleasure Chest and The Ramrod. “All of the sudden everybody wants their own designer strait jacket,” he’d told Caleb at some point. He also loved all sports, and while he was a spectator in most categories, he was in a bowling league, which met every Thursday evening; in fact, Joey was on his team. Stevie was currently living with his Mom in a house a few blocks away from Sandy. Then the match came on. It was being fought in Las Vegas, and the crowd was yelling for 224


some blood. The announcer delivered his spiel and introduced Rodreguez, who was representing Mexico by wearing a red white and green trunks and a poncho. His entrance music was Los Tigres de la Norte. Brown was from Detroit, and his entrance music was something by Big Daddy Kane. The crowd, as well as Stevie and Joey, were pumped and jumping around. The sexy girl in the thong walked around with her placard announcing it to be round one, and the fighters went in their corners. This was a light heavy weight fight. The bell rang, and the fighters started pummeling each other, much to the excitement of Joey and Stevie. It was the invocations for body blows from Stevie and much nervous leaping about from Joey that overstimulated Sari so that she was jumping from person to person. The sight of his frolicking dog and the excitement of the opening round got Sandy out of his chair and playing with Sari. Standing in front of her, he crouched and said in a loud voice, “Squirrels, Sari! Where are the squirrels?” Sari barked at Sandy and crouched. And Sandy repeated, “Squirrels!” Sari’s response to her master’s show of frivolity was to sink her teeth into his forearm. “Yeeeoww!” Sandy yelled, incongruously laughing at the sight of his own dog biting him. “Let go, Sari,” Sandy commanded, and Sari wagged her tail and gripped his arm tighter. Meanwhile, Stevie was inches away from about three of the television screens. “Body blows. Find your heart, Rodreguez! FIND YOUR HEART! FIND YOUR HEART! Body blows, Rodreguez, body blows. BRING YOUR SPIRIT TO THE DESERT RODREGUEZ AND OPEN YOUR HEART! BODY BLOWS BODY BLOWS BODY BLOWS!” Sandy, the suave, rich Cary Grant type cat who had answered the door, yelled in childish delight, “Look at her. She’s got my arm. Let go, Sari. Oh God, she won’t let go,” and he them broke into peals of laughter. “Hee hee hee hee hee hee hee!” 225


At this, Johnny looked at Caleb. Then, as the big dog chewed her master’s arm, Johnny said to Sandy, “Is this part of her training?” From his temporary perch high on the staircase, nearly on the top floor, Joey croaked, “Stevie, yer right in front of the fucking view, man.” In a spry manner, Stevie hopped back. “Sorry, Joey. SPRING TO THE SPIRIT RODREGUEZ! SPRING BABY SPRING! YOU CAN BEAT TIME NOW RODREGUEZ! SPRING TO THE ...BODY BLOWS BABY BODY BLOWS!!” Stevie, his glasses having slipped almost off his nose, was feinting and punching, counter punching and perhaps delivering body blows, opening his heart, bringing his spirit to the desert and springing to the spirit with the images on the television screen. “What the fuck are you talking about pally? I’m a little concerned about you, my friend,” came gravel voiced Joey, now breathlessly standing behind the counter in the kitchen area. “Your man is gonna get pummeled and you can’t even see it. Your money is already mine, Stevie. Anybody need a beer?” There was a sheen of sweat over his forehead. “Goddamn it let go of my fucking arm, Sari. Quit being such a bitch. STOP IT NOW GODDAMN IT!” Sari let go of Sandy’s forearm and promptly bit him in the ankle, causing him to topple.”Aw fuck! Hee hee hee hee hee. She’s tickling me! Ouch! God damn it stop it, Sari!” To his guests, Sandy said, “Excuse me, fellows. I think I need to put her in my room. She’s a little over excited from the fight I’m afraid. Ouch!” “Yes, the FIGHT got her overexcited. I think it was the body blows,” quipped Johnny dryly. “Yeah, I’m afraid so. I’ll be right back. Come Sari,” Sandy commanded, and Sari growled in answer. Sandy staggered up the stairs with the dog attached to his ankle. “Ow! Come 226


on,” came his muffled voice from some distant place above them. Caleb could tell when Sandy locked her in his bedroom because she started yowling as if being tortured. It was between rounds and another gorgeous woman in a thong paraded around the ring holding a placard announcing the fourth round. Joey was standing next to the seated Johnny, and when Joey saw the lovely young woman, his hand went down the front of his sweat suit and he did a prolonged crotch grab in an unfortunately close proximity to Johnny’s face. Johnny veered in his seat away from Joey. “Whoa, Joey! What the fuck?” “Sorry Johnny. Just thought I’d seen my future wife.” “Well keep it to yourself, if you know what I mean. And wash that hand in the kitchen sink. Passing joints with your tallywacker hand? I know you weren’t brought up by wolves. For shame,” Johnny admonished. “Man, sorry.” And Joey nearly ran back around the counter to the kitchen area and commenced to not only clean his hands but to then continue in the cleaning vein and, finding disinfectant under the sink, disinfecting every inch of surface area in the kitchen as he kept an eye and a running commentary on the fight and about seven or eight conversations on varying topics with everyone, including the absent Sari, to whom he lovingly squawked, “If there’s one thing I can recognize, it’s Star Power, and I think you’ve got it in spades, Sari, baby.” When he was through in the kitchen, he picked up all the papers and magazines scattered about and arranged the dog toys in an orderly fashion next to Sari’s water dish. As Sandy came back down the stairs he was slightly limping. Sari was still howling bloody murder, and Sandy yelled, “SHUT THE FUCK UP GODDAMN IT!” Apparently Sari didn’t understand human language, for she not only didn’t obey her master’s command but increased the volume of her din. Sandy slightly grinned, said, “Fuck,” then he saw Joey 227


frantically straightening and wiping down everything with disinfectant. “Hey, thanks, Joey. Way to go,” Sandy said taking his seat once again. It was then that Brown connected with Rodreguez jaw and sent him to the canvas. Stevie threw himself backwards across the room, sprawling flat on the floor with a rare dramatic flair that impressed and alarmed everyone present. Everyone in the room yelled oh or whoa really loudly when it happened. Joey stopped cleaning to dance around the room until he was next to his destroyed pal who was still lying on the floor, murmuring, “He didn’t have the body blows. Where was the heart, Rodreguez?” “He didn’t have it in him was all. What did I tell ya, Stevie? You owe me dinner at Charlie Trotter’s!” Steve leaped off the floor. “If he’d had the body blows, the heart. Shit. Rodreguez, you fucking wuss!” He then retired to the bathroom, closely followed by his friend, Joey, and then Sandy and finally when Joey returned, Johnny went in the bathroom too. While the others were in the bathroom, Joey regaled Caleb with a history of the Spartan people, as well as the possible sight of his new friend having a full blown cocaine induced grand mal seizure, and Caleb thought, gosh, Johnny has turned me on to a whole new level of sophistication.

OUT OF THE INTO

Before he started teaching, Caleb didn’t especially object to the odd inner-city teacher 228


movie, found it nobly bracing in its against all odds, teacher as bearer of fire thingy, but once he’d started teaching at Brandywine High School on the other side of the city at 77th and Yedzie Street, the thought of watching a movie about what he did for a living filled him with revulsion. Perhaps there were teachers who were like the iconoclasts depicted in the movies. Maybe there were some at his school, firebrands with unswerving principles who strictly but lovingly held their students accountable to the highest standards. And for their part, maybe there were students here who were inspired by their teachers to really challenge themselves to discover their potential. Caleb was certain that there were teachers who were able to inspire and help students pull themselves up from poverty and transcend these dreary urban environs. Surely there must have been teachers like those cinematic heros and heroines, Sidney Poitiet and Ann Bancroft and Michelle Pheiffer and, well, you know, teachers who actually knew what to do with disruptive students. Teachers with clever comebacks to withering insults, comebacks which earned them respect from the hard bitten but good hearted kids. Caleb wasn’t as smart or as principled or as brave as these characters. Threats of violence to himself or others and withering insults frightened and confused him rather than caused him to act like some sort of everyman superhero, and the helplessness he felt from the very beginning at Brandywine made him hate not only teaching movies but also some teachers he would see on the news. Golden Apple Award types who would express their love of the classroom. Were they from another fucking planet? To him it was like hearing someone blathering about the great life they were having living in a minutely detailed Heironyous Borch painting of hell. Caleb early decided that anyone who espoused a love of teaching was either lying or stupid. Or possibly a saint. There were those. The student population of Brandywine was predominantly African American, from the 229


neighborhood and poor. Many of his students came from large extended families, and they were beautiful and intelligent young men and women who lived under the complex handicap of poverty. To communicate, Caleb had to practice laying his southern Illinois twang to rest, as the sound of his nasal hillbilly way of talking, exacerbated by his harelip, made him unintelligible to his students, whose responses to him during the early weeks ranged from hysterical laughter and bemused indifference to open hostility. The school itself was contained in a series of old buildings in the Bauhaus style. Caleb’s classroom was off the corridor between the main building box and the gymnasium and auditorium box. There wasn’t very much light, and the room had an insulated feel. Most of the day Caleb was in that room. One period in the afternoon, he had to oversee a vast study hall in the corner of the main box.

Unlike his classroom, the study hall was huge and filled with sunlight and open; really open as several of the corner windows were broken and periodically people from the corner slipped in and students slipped out. One day, Caleb learned that he could not sit complacently at the front of this study hall and, say, grade papers or read a magazine or make lesson plans. He was reading a tabloid, The News of the World, when suddenly he was dazed. He was woozy and stunned and now on the page he’d just been reading an article about aliens infiltrating the White House was a big, dirty Reebok sneaker lying there. As the birdies twittered around his head, he regarded the big shoe. For a second, it didn’t register. Big shoe. Why there? It looked like a fish there in front of him. Then it occurred, the epiphany: Dazed feeling + big shoe = I’ve been hit in the head with a big shoe. 230


The ringing in his ears was interrupted by the indignant lad whose shoe it was. He was demanding it back in a tone that suggested that he partially held Caleb accountable for having his smelly assed size thirteen grimy left Reebok. Before he gave it back, Caleb called the kid up to his desk and made him tell who had thrown it at him, which he readily did. It had been a boy named Toulon. Caleb called to have a word with Toulon, and the young man lazily pimp walked to the big desk. He didn’t bother to deny that he’d done it, and although Caleb didn’t expect anyone who had just conked him in the forehead with a shoe to obey, he sent Toulon to the office, where he did not go, but at least he wasn’t around Caleb anymore. Caleb wrote a discipline report on the incident and delivered it to the discipline lady, a Mrs. Hadley, who after reading his account, recommended that Caleb think about it for awhile and try to see things from Toulon’s point of view. Doing that only pissed Caleb off, so from then on, he kept his eyes on the students. Toulon never expressed remorse or one-upmanship or anything other than the remote affect of someone who no longer gives a fuck about anything. Caleb kept a subtle eye on the young chap, not letting Toulon see he was watching him for fear of setting him off, but never giving Toulon another clear shot. From then on when the young man came to study hall, he slept. Toulon’s attendance had always been sporadic at best, and every day before class, Caleb would resort to saying a little prayer for luck that Toulon not be there. And when the poor boy would be absent, Caleb would thank God, really thank God. Finally Toulon’s truancy became chronic and he was removed from the school’s roster, an official dropout at fifteen. A miracle! To Caleb’s mind, an answered prayer. 231


Is this what Robin Williams felt like at the end of Dead Poet’s Society, Caleb asked himself one day as he looked at the vacant place where Toulon used to sleep. It was where the troubled young man had once attempted to bond with him, the new teacher, in his own clumsy, violent way. Caleb felt a pang. He thought, I wish you well, Toulon, my young criminal in the making! Someday we might see each other on the street, and through influences or interventions other than my own, maybe you’ll have turned out alright, and I won’t be afraid that you’re going to possibly assault me once again for old times sake. Roll on to new triumphs, Toulon, roll on.

He would have further basked in the sentimental nostalgic memories of Toulon and the gratitude felt toward a newly found God, but he was distracted by the broken window in the far corner of the study hall, about three acres away, through which entered a large white gentleman of about fifty-five, dressed in a suit and ushering in two other fellows who were carrying something large, heavy and wrapped in newspaper. They muscled the object through the opening from the street and followed the man to a nearby side entrance into a first floor hall “Who’s that?” Caleb said mystified. Of the several students sitting at the front tables nearest him, only one bothered to answer, removing her headphones to say, “What?” “Who was that guy wearing the suit and those other two guys following him?” “That the principal. He probably got those other guys working on his private gold bathroom,” the young woman said. Caleb reckoned she was having fun with the new teacher, so he tried to answer her in a clever manner. “Yeah, right,” was the clever bon mot that he managed to come up with. The young woman looked at him, raised her eyebrows, shrugged. Caleb said, “Maybe I should report that guy to security.” 232


The girl rolled her eyes, not offended that Caleb had in effect called her a liar or accused her of putting him on. “Security. They wouldn’t do anything if some crazy man broke in here. Crazy people in here everyday, Mr...what your name?” “Jones.” “Mr. Jones. Crazy people go to school here, and some of you all teaching motherfuckers crazy yourselves. But that motherfucker just now the principal, sir.” Time for that streak of Noel Coward wit to shine forth. “Yeah, right,” Caleb muttered. The young woman shook her head at the ignorant patronizing white idiot. She put her headphones back on and focused on her Naughty By Nature tape and her math homework, which suffered from the multi-tasking of listening, studying and keeping an eye on everything.

True enough, Caleb had never met the principal. He’d been interviewed by one of the assistant principals, an unsmiling woman named Mrs. Henderson. The after-school meetings were presided over by either Mrs. Henderson or one of the other three assistant principals. Caleb didn’t know any of the other teachers. His classroom was far removed, and he didn’t linger at the study hall when he didn’t have to be there. Once he had ventured into the teachers’ lounge, but it had proven to be smokier than Grandpa’s jock-strap and too toxic to stay there for more than half a minute. Leaving it felt like leaving a tobacco smoke sauna. The cafeteria food was awful, so Caleb brought his lunch and ate in his room. No one talked to him much during the depressing meetings wherein the assistant principals would brow beat the teachers and dump extra bureaucratic policies and paperwork on them. During one meeting, Caleb had sat next to a guy who said he was a new teacher too. Caleb asked if he had ever seen the principal, and the guy had said that he hadn’t but that he’d heard that nobody ever saw the principal and that it was best 233


never to mention it to the tenured teachers, whom you simply couldn’t trust, or to the administrators, who were monsters. This fellow, a full time temporary substitute (FTB) like Caleb, was pale, gaunt and fearful as he spoke in hushed tones about the mysterious principal who ran things through the workings of his ruthless assistant principals. Sotto voice he told of one full time temporary substitute who’d had the brass to ask one of the assistant principals if the principal was ever available. “What happened to him?” Caleb asked sotto voice. The other full time temporary substitute looked both directions, then whispered, “Story goes that he was gone the next day. He had to go into the daily sub loop, not even with cadre status.” Being a cadre was one step below FTB status and one step above daily substitute teacher status. After the other new teacher had said that, he clammed up, and Caleb didn’t say anything else to the guy. They didn’t know each other well enough to speak freely, and since the topic inspired paranoid fear in both of them, they dropped the subject and pointedly ignored each other throughout the rest of the meeting. Being a cadre meant that a person was guaranteed substitute work somewhere but wasn’t paid much and got no paid sick days or benefits. The only thing marginally worse was being a daily sub, which had no guarantee of daily work and paid even less than cadres. It was well know that people who were in the cycle of bouncing around day to day from school to school suffered from an attendant dismantling of the personality due to living without any semblance of security. Daily subs also had to endure the vicious verbal and at times physical abuse of the students in addition to the more subtle cruelty of everyone else in the system. From the administrators to the tenured teachers to the full time temporary substitutes, they all looked 234


down on the cadres and daily substitutes for the ugly recognition of what they saw of themselves and their own possible futures if the tides of destiny truly turned against them.

Still, the guy who came in through the window couldn’t have been the fucking principal. And Caleb knew that the girl was right when she had told him that the security wouldn’t do anything if he went to them except perhaps laugh at him in derision. Brandywine had enough metal detectors and security roaming the halls to make the place look like a gulag for young African American men and women, but the security were never around Caleb’s classroom, nor had he ever seen them anywhere near the study hall. The loudspeakers in the rooms frequently blasted out desperate sounding directives for the security teams to hurry to one place or another. Caleb figured it was a matter of time before he would have to call them, and he was right He’d had to call them because of a lad named Knarles Copeland. Knarles, who came anywhere from five to twenty minutes late every day, kept his boom box with him everywhere. Although his taste in rap was great, luminaries such as KRS 1 And Public Enemy, artists who should daily be blasted from the bell towers of every town hall or whatever, to have Knarles, who could be heard coming down the hall minutes before his full grand entrance into the class, to have him disrupt Caleb’s lesson every day, and everyday be resistant to Caleb’s imprecations to, “...please turn your wonderful music down, Knarles...” well, it was unacceptable; that is, it seemed unacceptable before Caleb learned that just about anything was acceptable. “Knarles, please turn your box down. We’re trying to learn about irregular verbs, both linking and helping verbs. It’s fascinating, Knarles, but we won’t be able to concentrate if you keep playing that devilishy catchy, yet distracting rap.” 235


Knarles back was to Caleb, and to his classmates he said, “I don’t even know what this man talking about.” “Oh I think you do,” Caleb, ever the raconteur, rejoined as he turned off a ditty from KRS 1's early canon of work, a rap about stomping a mudhole in some unfortunate’s head. Perhaps rightfully so, Knarles took serious umbrage at having his favorite song turned off by a dickhead white man teacher like Caleb. Glaring up at Caleb, Knarles snarled, “Bitch, you EVER touch my shit again and I’ll motherfucking drop your punk ass.” The other students in the room laughed, as much from Knarles’ audacity as the fact that Knarles, like Caleb, was not very intimidating. Maybe someday he would come into his growth and become a giant, but now, the sound of him making this outrageous statement carried about the same cachet as, say, Urkle or Barney Fife saying the same thing. Still, it managed to push Caleb’s buttons. Knarles, glowing in his triumph, turned on the genius flow of The Teacher, KRS 1. Above the din, Knarles loudly said, “Now why don’t you shut the fuck up, motherfucker.” So Caleb called security over the intercom, which wasn’t easy as Knarles had turned the volume of his box full blast. Nevertheless, finally Caleb got the message through to the security people. Once Knarles figured that they were coming for him, he left, bidding everyone adieu. “See you all tomorrow,” he called to his classmates. To Caleb, he good naturedly asked, “Is there any homework?” Caleb said that he was going to probably have detention, or even suspension. Knarles enjoyed a hearty and sincere laugh at that statement. And then he was gone. And about fifteen minutes later the security came. The team consisted of three very large men, two white and one hispanic. Caleb had a conversation with them at the door. “So where’s the kid?” the biggest man asked. “He left about fifteen minutes ago.” 236


Another of them asked, “Why didn’t you stop him from leaving?” “I was glad he left.” The three grunted in agreement. The third one said, “Who got hurt?” “No one. He just threatened me and called me a bunch of names and he wouldn’t stop playing his boom box.” The security team did not look righteously abashed. The biggest spoke again, asking Caleb, “So who was the kid?” “Knarles Copeland.” One of the three burst out laughing. The other two looked put upon. The second one spoke again. Putting a comradely arm around Caleb’s shoulder, he informed him, “Look, Mr. Jones, unless there’s been some blood that’s been spilled or someone’s waving a real weapon around...unless someone is seriously threatening to shoot, or to stab or bludgeon someone and you can tell they’re not playing, unless it’s serious like I just described to you, please don’t bother us. Whatever you can deal with yourself, deal with. Everyone will respect you more. The kids, the assistant principals, me and the boys here, everyone respects a guy who takes care of business on his own. Okay? Deal with it yourself from now on,” he advised, clapping Caleb on the back as he and his security team went back to whatever important shit they were preoccupied with. The biggest guy looked over his shoulder and called, “But if it’s really serious, don’t hesitate to call us.” He heard one of them mention Knarles name and all three burst out laughing. Caleb not only felt stupid but powerless. What was he supposed to do? What did dealing with things yourself entail?

Most of Caleb’s students didn’t like to write very much, but one student did. His name, 237


Jerry Knowles. He was a very large senior, a member of the local faction of we won’t say what branch of what gang. In an era of flat-top fades and elaborate box haircuts a la Kid ‘n Play, Jerry’s head was a clean shaven dome. Furthermore, he didn’t dress ‘house’ but wore pressed white shirts and pressed black or navy blue slacks and sensible shoes. This was miraculous because Jerry lived in an abandoned building that his gang squatted. To make it more homey, they stole electricity and furnished it with found objects: found couches, tables, chairs etc. His mother was smoking crack, and Jerry had been emancipated since he’d been nine. He was now just over his eighteenth birthday. Each day he would come to class on time, sit on the front row and have his books, paper and pen ready. If anybody came into class late, he would cast that person a frightening look, and there were no disruptions. Jerry told Caleb that if anybody fucked with him, please do let him know. Caleb thought of Toulon and Knarles. “Thanks,” he told Jerry. Mondays were usually days when the students selected a topic from a list or came up with their own topic to write on. Here is one of Jerry’s essays:

WHAT I DID ON MY VACATION IN JAIL Well Mr. Jones it went like this. Summer vacation right? Fun fun fun, but all work and no play in the devil’s hands are a workshop, so me and my friends are working and we are most assuredly slinging rocks for blocks. We were doing so well that I left my guy Twan in charge and me and some friends went into the alley to smoke blunts and get our dicks sucked by some of the more attractive crack whores who are always bothering you but there you are anyway. So there we were, me, Darnell, Tony, Tit-Tot and Tit-Tot’s brother Greasy G., laughing cause Tit-Tot’s ho say, “Wait a minute, Tit,” and she pop her teeth plate out and commence to go 238


back gumming Tit-Tot’s dick. It was rich I do declare, but then the fun stopped for real when the police rolled up on us sneaky style so’s we were caught literally, Mr. Jones, with our pants down around our ankles. Damn! How embarrassing. Oh how the officers did josh us as we were being arrested and ushered into the police vehicles. Especially Officer Bernetti. Someday on a cold winter night, I might be around the fire with a snifter of Henessy and I’ll be thinking back, reminiscing about the time when Officer Bernetti whomped me in the face for suggesting that he eat a bowl of fuck. I know it was a rash thing to say, but I think he found it amusing cause he was laughing despite himself when he whack me with his police stick. In fact I bet you start hearing that phrase a lot now among the more witty police officers if you get arrested. So I got hit in the eye but started a phrase, and you know, Mr. Jones, it is just like you said that one day when Shante was complaining about getting arrested for tagging and you said, sometimes you suffer for your art. I know I will never forget that night because the scar will always remind me of how I suffered for my sanity, like Mr. Vincent Van Go in that white people song. No juvie hall for me as I had just turn eighteen that summer, two weeks earlier in fact, fuck!!! Anyway because I was now barely legal, they took me to Cook County Jail in Maywood. But I didn’t really give a fuck because everybody else arrested with me was over eighteen except maybe one of the crack ho’s, but so what right? They couldn’t tell how old she was and she came with us. Still, you must realize that I wasn’t cool with going to jail. It was fucked up really, but I wasn’t scared too much cause I figure that I’m be with friends in jail. And I was. I was in with lots of other guys at first, then I was in a cell with me, Greasy G., Darnell, another guy from our set named What What and some punk motherfucker from around Casey Street and Cullen. In other words, they accidently put a kid from our rivals in with 239


us. The dumb motherfucker couldn’t even hide who he was representing because he had that stupid fucking logo tattooed on his stupid neck. So we had it in for him from the start, but we had to be cool. When it was late, What What showed us that he had a wickie stick that the policemen thought had been a regular cigarette or he’d hidden or some kind of shit. Anyway, he had a wickie stick in this jail cell. So we acted like we were cool with this punk and we all share the fucking wickie stick, and Mr. Jones that fucking shit makes you stupid, like tripping your balls off and seeing people and giant bugs and angels who aren’t there and not understanding shit that going down. Man. Like I’m not in the cell no more but in Antarctica for awhile, then it’s off to the planet that’s so far out it ain’t got a name or language. There no words just a roaring in my ears and Darnell is somehow E.T., and a bug in the corner not a bug anymore but a full sized dude in a butler uniform serving us tea and finger sandwiches on silver trays, and Greasy G. Look like that cartoon devil Hot Stuff but the rival still a rival. But then it’s off to Hawaii or someplace else. Cool you know? So we started fucking with this kid when we were all high on wickie. By the way, Mr. Jones, did you know that all that wickie is is simply a cigarette that is dipped in embalming fluid? Yes it is. So we started scaring this guy a little, hitting him in the face and the stomach, kicking him some. I guess you know what happen next. Then we made him suck all our dicks. He didn’t want to do that, but it was three to one and he was from our rivals, our nemeses as it were you would say. If the shoe were on the other foot he would have done the same to us, Mr. Jones. Tit for Tat! So we all got our dicks sucked after all even though it was by a guy instead of a crack whore. As a matter of fact, after he sucked our dicks a bit, we all took turns fucking him in the 240


ass, which he really seemed awkward with but oh’s well! All’s well that ends well right? Ha ha! But anyway so’s I got laid too. All while I was in jail. Still all in all, I know it was wrong but oh what a feeling! Oh what a feeling it was! THE END

In his critique, Caleb complimented Jerry on his courage in constructing longer more conversational complex sentences and expressed admiration for his writing voice in general, suggesting he pick up, or better, steal a Gene Genet novel. Caleb recommended that he might start with Genet’s Journal of a Thief, but to make sure and steal a translation and not the original in French. The grade of course was a A. Caleb saw the best in his students’ writing. For one thing, the raw subject matter was unimpeachable, so even the most roughly hewn first person narrative was fascinating because of the wild stuff his students would recount from their lives. Often the flaws and deficits of the writer gave the events described a more beautiful sheen, an deadpan irony or a more powerful impact than if the style were polished. In other words, Caleb was a proponent of grade inflation, giving many B’s, some A’s, very few C’s, and maybe two D’s. Three days a week, Caleb drummed grammar in their heads, but as a grader, he was easy. The only way to flunk was to never be there. Even then, if you turned in writing assignments, you might pass with a D. Caleb thought failing grades were stupid anyway. There wasn’t funding to adequately educate the students once, let alone to have the same bad students repeat the same classes to mess up in the same ways year after year. In Caleb’s mind, if someone didn’t want to be in his class, they shouldn’t have to be, and he shouldn’t have to try to teach around a resentful angry person 241


who didn’t want to be there.. Why could there not be work programs for folks who didn’t fit into conventional classrooms? If the trouble makers had their moments of insight and wanted to come back and go to school, they could try it again. As long as they wouldn’t fuck up. But failing kids to have them come back and mess up classroom after classroom violated the rest of the students rights. What’s more restrictive to the learning environment than having dickheads who don’t understand what’s going on trying to keep everyone else from understanding the lesson? So since there aren’t enough programs for the fuck ups who don’t want to be schooled, why not give them a D and get them the fuck out of there as fast as possible in order to have a better chance with those who want to be there. Many of them might be happier in a work program. Caleb figured he might even join them. Anyway, social promotion was how Caleb’s Dad got through high school, and if it were good enough for dear old Dad, it should be good enough for Caleb’s students, who were, in a way, kind of like his children.

“Mr. Jones, may I go to the restroom. I have to dookie,” Jerry asked, looking around to see the reaction to his wit. Instead of appreciative chuckles, there was either no reaction or rolled eyes. “No need to tell us why you’re going to the bathroom, Jerry.” “I’m going to dookie, sir.” “Yes, very good. You may have a pass and go, Jerry,” Caleb pleasantly declared as he reached in his drawer and got out a book of hall passes. “No need to write me a new one sir,” Jerry said as he produced a hall pass made out to him and signed by Caleb from yesterday. Caleb studied it. 242


“Excellent. We’ll just change the da...I see you’ve already changed the date.” “Be prepared is my motto, Mr. Jones.” “Well fine. Go on, Jerry, but hurry back,” Caleb said. Jerry got out of his chair and started to go out the door carrying his giant gym bag. Caleb said, “Uh, Jerry, I notice you always go everywhere with your gym bag. You can leave it here. It looks heavy, and you won’t be needing it. So just leave it here if you don’t mind.” “No disrespect meant, but I really need to take my bag with me. See...” Jerry came closer to Caleb and leaned forward as if he were on the verge of telling him about some delicate physical condition necessitating the taking of his gym bag with him to the bathroom. “See, Mr. Jones,” he whispered, grinning conspiratorially, “My gun’s in my bag, sir.” “Oooooh,” Caleb said. “Well you can still leave it here. I won’t let anyone play with it.” In a tone suggesting that of an adult telling a child why he musn’t try to fly off the roof and using his regular speaking voice, Jerry explained, “That’s kind of you, sir, and I know my,” and here he looked at his neighboring classmates before continuing, “...my art project would be perfectly safe, still, I wouldn’t feel right. If you understand.” “But, Jerry, we can’t have you going around the school with a loaded...art project. What if you shot...I mean accidently, uh, dropped it on someone’s toe..., and they found that you had a hall pass from me! How would I explain that, huh?” “I promise not to drop it. It’s just for...artistic protection.” Caleb thought carefully and decided, “Well, against my better judgement, go ahead. But promise not to get your art project out to show anyone. Promise?” Jerry held up his hand in a gang sign and said, “I promise, Mr. Jones. Not unless they get out they own art projects and threaten to...out paint me. If that happen, I promise to make sure to 243


chew up and swallow the hall pass. Okay?” “I wouldn’t want you to do that, Jerry. I wrote that thing in pencil, and you really shouldn’t eat lead,” Caleb cautioned his student. “You are preaching to the choir, sir. But don’t worry. I promise. Please! I gotta go dookie!” He looked around again, enjoying his own wit even though surrounded by philistines. “Okay, go dookie,” Caleb said, adding, “but remember about our little talk just now.” “Yes, sir,” Jerry said, and true to his word, he did not shoot anyone during his trip to the bathroom. Another good day. Lessons learned? Jerry learned the he could be trusted by someone outside his gang. And Caleb learned that rules and customs were often at odds when cultures mix, gang cultures at least, but that with the kind of lazzez-faire attitude toward the rules that many of America’s home spun heroes (Sheriff Andy Taylor comes to mind) have shown, Caleb could himself henceforth deal with his own problems in the classroom. Or so he told himself anyway.

Telling himself stuff like that was easier than facing uncomfortable truths concerning favoritism, responsibility, good common sense and other thorny issues. To cope with the stress, Caleb smoked more pot and stepped up his now daily gym routine to include an hour of weights after aerobics. Between the weed and the exercise, Caleb’s appetite grew to gargantuan proportions. He started putting on a bit of muscle, not the sculpted cuts like the gay men who lifted in his gym. They knew how to do proper repetitions without hoisting the weight or using the body’s momentum. Caleb lifted weights like he threw bales of hay onto trucks, and therefore did not get the most benefit out of the lift. Still, he began to feel his oats and started resembling Barney Fife with biceps, an ass and calves. 244


He felt confident in strutting his stuff a bit. The extra bulk, minimal though it was, made Caleb feel STRONG, and the extra confidence served him well in the classroom. He still literally let the students nearly get away with murder. And he still didn’t know how to inspire them like James Olmos in Stand and Deliver. Often as not, he had a hand in their hi-jinks and had a habit of getting them needlessly overexcited by his classroom delivery. This is probably because Caleb considered Pee Wee Herman and Iggy Pop to be teaching role models of the highest order. The massive dose of coffee he’d have on the way to school would have him pacing in the center of his first period class like a tiger in the round. “Alright alright alright. Okay, everybody, let’s do this! Are you ready for some prepositional phrases? Are you ready for some adverbs? This is the best thing in the world! Right here! Prepositions...Adverbs!” he might yell as a preface to a typical grammar lesson. If that didn’t get his young charges in the learning mode, he might peel off one of the rubber bands he kept on his wrist and pop someone in the head. Caleb usually regretted these strategies once the kids were too giddy. He wasn’t quite as frightened and bewildered as he had been right at the beginning; still frightened and bewildered just not as much. And as briefly mentioned earlier, Caleb started praying. The fright and bewilderment had worked much like the proverbial foxhole on the atheist. Now throughout the day, Caleb prayed. He prayed to know what to do and to not be so afraid. He gave thanks for the large things and the small things, like Toulon dropping out or some other pest falling asleep for the entire period. And he prayed for forgiveness for all the fucked up things he did every day and had done in the past. He also prayed for the weed to be good, and for sex, and at times for certain administrators to die. Sometimes the weed was good, but as for the other requests, God didn’t see fit to grant those prayers. Still Caleb continued believing in God, not enough to go to church. But still. So with his working out and his new found faith, Caleb felt more confident then at first. 245


He still felt like throwing himself under the wheels of the L train every morning as he guzzled his coffee and waited for the blue line at the Belmont Station, but not as much. And when he arrived at school and was walking toward the monolithic crumbling warehouse of military industrial misery, he told himself that it wouldn’t be a bad day, that whatever cruelties that were directed toward him or that he witnessed others suffer, he would endure. He’d do his best to be a good teacher. He would be okay and would leave it at the end of the day without agonizing all evening about what had happened and what he’d seen. That is how he braced himself everyday. That and the giant size bucket of coffee from the Duncan Donuts he’d get on the way to the L. By the time the first period bell rang, despite having lesson plans and materials scripted and choreographed to the tiniest detail, which he did out of fear, he still might not be emotionally ready to teach and otherwise engage his students. Being caffeinated to the tits helped. And that was blessing enough to survive.

On one dreary mid-winter day, Caleb entered his first period class to find one of his students, a large taciturn fellow named Taurus, sitting at his desk. Though Taurus was silent and intimidating of nature, he was a good lad, and when Caleb saw him sitting in his chair, he walked behind the youth and said, “Out of my chair, Taurus. We have to learn the difference between predicate adjectives and predicate nominatives today.” “This chair is comfy,” Taurus commented, settling his huge, muscle coiled frame into the creaky old wooden cage. Because Caleb was relaxed with his students and felt that he could get away with a certain amount of horseplay; indeed, he felt he could get away with inciting a riot in the classroom if he’d a mind, he grabbed the back of the chair and gave it a shake. The chair groaned as he slowly rocked it back and forth. Then it buckled over, spilling 246


Taurus on the floor. “Oops, so sorry, Taurus. Let me help you up,” Caleb told the giant. “No problem Mr. Jones,” Taurus said taking his teachers hand in his fantastic mitt. There was a rakish glint in Taurus eye as he saw his teacher labor to pull him off the floor. “Hey Mr. Jones, wrestle you for the chair?” Shall we blame the big coffee on Caleb’s answer to Taurus’ ridiculous challenge, or should we place the burden on low impulse control, no social filter working or plain stupidity? Could it be hubris because of his newly developed little guy muscles? Take your pick. Caleb answered Taurus in the affirmative, and immediately, a student named Sheldon helpfully ran to the door and draped his coat over the glass so that no one could see in, somehow reminding Caleb of a forgotten scene in Blackboard Jungle. The seating arrangement, a big circle of chairs, was a natural ring, and everyone hushed as Taurus and Caleb got into the center of the room. A sense of foreboding stirred in Caleb’s gut as he regarded the giant standing before him. Taurus is like ‘Taurus the bull’, it cluelessly occurred to Caleb, who further wondered if there was any connection between his mother naming him after a bull and maybe his father being possessed of bull like qualities. And Taurus, a puckish inward smile, the smile of an introvert etched on his face, uttered in a deep bass, “C’mon, Mr. Jones.” Caleb went for a traditional take down at the knee, coming in low, then with both hands grabbing Taurus’ massive knee, and yanking upward as he shouldered into Taurus to hopefully push him off balance and tumble him gently to the floor, being careful not to cause the young giant to hurt himself on the hard tile. Part of the execution went smoothly. The part where he came in low at his opponent and grabbed Taurus by the knee and yanked upward and shouldered into him went okay. After that things went awry. Taurus wasn’t pushed off balance, nor did he 247


tumble to the ground, gently or otherwise. Instead of all that, he simply reached down, covering Caleb’s back with his immense torso, wrapped his arms around Caleb’s waist and flipped him over his head and through the air so that Caleb landed flat on his back. A collective Ooooh went through the room as Caleb lay staring at the ceiling. Taurus had clearly won that round. On the plus side, Caleb’s lower back felt straighter than it had in ages. Quickly, so as not to lose face, Caleb leaped from the hard tile floor and resumed his stance. Taurus, for once feeling in his element at school, asked in a bemused tone, “You want to go again?” “Why sure!” Caleb came at Taurus again, the same way but this time putting everything he had into the take down. Somehow he managed to work it the way he’d planned, knocking the big lad down. Caleb got back to his feet. Taurus balefully regarded Caleb and said, “Damn, Mr. Jones, you a sneaky man. One more time?” “You got it, Taurus.” Caleb tried the same thing, the knee take down. Taurus didn’t budge. Caleb remembered pulling at the knee, shouldering the big torso, pulling the knee, shouldering... The next thing he knew was he was again on his back on the floor, but it was different this time. Caleb didn’t remember how he got there. What had happened was that Taurus had worked a pile-driver on him. If you are not familiar with what constitutes a pile driver, it is a professional wrestling move wherein one wrestler holds another upside down and drives the top of his opponent’s head into the floor. The mats used for these type of exhibitions aren’t solid. They give when the wrestlers hit the mats. The tile floor at Brandywine High School didn’t. The birds tweeting around his head mentioned earlier in regard to the Reeboc incident were again orbiting 248


Caleb’s vision. There was also blood dribbling from a gash along his hairline. He sat up, a bit dazed, and a bit too brightly he insisted, “I’m okay, everybody.” One of his students, nicknamed Rod Man, said, “No you’re not. Mr. Jones, your head sounded like a melon when it hit. You’re bleeding, sir.” Taurus had gone to his seat and was sitting with his hands folded on the desk. Sheldon too. Caleb stood, touched his face. He looked at the blood and a phrase from Clockwork Orange went through his head, the red red coovy. The red red coovy was running down his face. “Uh, I think I’ll just make a quick trip to the bathroom and freshen up a spot. Now everybody, I expect you to be on your best behavior.” “Nobody’ll act up, Mr. Jones. Um, sorry.” “Aw, no harm done. If I don’t have a concussion that is. Guess I shouldn’t have accepted your challenge, huh?” “Guess not.” “Well, let me hurry up and get this washed.” Caleb freshened up. The gash was not quite an inch in length. It stopped bleeding and a little knot raised. When Caleb got back to class, everyone was quietly waiting for him. “Now, let’s get to those predicate adjectives and adverbs!” he enthused, the caffeine, adrenalin and the endorphin from the wrestling match spiking through the pain from the lump on his head. It wasn’t unlike being high on speed and pain pills, except there would be no come down, just a sore head and possible scar in his precious beginning to recede hairline. Right then Mrs. Henderson stuck her head in the door, and Caleb thanked God for having timed her to come in now and not any earlier. She looked at the students and at Caleb, fixing on the growing goose egg on his head, and she suspiciously asked, “Is everything alright in here?” 249


“Just ducky, Mrs. Henderson. Learning about the predicate adjectives and the predicate nominatives, ma’am.” “What happened to your head, Mr. Jones,” Mr. Henderson asked. “Oh, on the way here. So clumsy of me. I tripped on the stairs.” “Are you okay?” “Oh sure. I’m okay.” “Well see the nurse during your prep period, Mr. Jones.” “Yes, ma’am.”

The nurse wanted to send Caleb to the emergency room, so at the end of the day, Caleb rode the L to Memorial Hospital. Sheldon was sitting next to him. He regarded the nasty gashbump on Caleb’s dome with awe and admiration. He said, “Mr. Jones, why the fuck you get into it with Warlord?” “Who’s Warlord?” “That’s Taurus street name. What the fuck you thinking?” “Just hard to turn down a challenge I suppose,” Sheldon looked at Caleb for a moment. “How hard’s it gonna be to turn down a challenge now?” “It’ll be easier I expect, Sheldon.” The doctor in the Emergency Room at Memorial put three stitches in his hairline. Why there, Lord? Caleb asked silently. Why have it where I can’t afford to lose the follicles? Anywhere is bad, but there! The only thing worse would be... well actually there were plenty of things that could have been far worse, but shit, his fucking hairline. Now he’d have a little scar 250


where the hair was just starting to thin anyway. FUCK! On the way home from the hospital, his head throbbed. Slumped against the window seat on the blue line heading north, Caleb rested his eyes, and a beggar sat next to him. He did not smell horrific as did some of the homeless unfortunates whom you could smell from fifty yards away if you were downwind. This guy merely smelled stale and mildewed. He was a large white man of about thirty-five, and he said, hello to Caleb. Wearily Caleb responded, “Hello.” “Is there any way I could bother you for a loan of a dollar or two.” “I don’t have any spare money, sorry.” They sat there silently for awhile. Caleb contemplated moving. He looked outside at the changing landscape, the graffitied brick walls and concrete walls. The beggar told Caleb a story. “Excuse me, but have you ever heard about the good Samaritan who was riding the L, and some guy asked him for a loan, and it turned out that the guy who asked for the loan was really a millionaire who was going around testing people.” By now, Caleb was looking warily at the beggar, who continued, “and the good Samaritan was the only guy who passed the test, see.” Caleb raised his eyebrows. The beggar explained, “What did the guy get for passing the test? Why the millionaire became his best friend!” “I don’t have any spare money.” “I’m not saaying I’m a millionaire going around testing people,” the beggar said mysteriously. Caleb sighed.

It was during the late spring when Caleb got a new aerobics instructor for his five-thirty 251


high impact class. She made it hard for him to breathe because his crush on her was so severe. Her name was Dakota. She would teach two classes in a row. She played Blue Mondays by New Order and Join Our Club by Saint Etienne during her sets. Caleb was transported to dreamy blue crushland just by the sight of her. One day, when he managed to contain his wildly beating heart and quell the butterflies in his stomach, he asked her how she managed to teach two high impact aerobics classes like that, one after another. “It’s like the Nike commercial,” she chirped, “just do it.” Caleb never missed her class. He decided to try to get her attention with his fancy workout spandex. Decked out in his skintight pink shorts with yellow lightning bolts, or his green and orange polka dotted ensemble, he was like one of those tropical birds who advertises his love with fancy plumage, but although Caleb looked like a wild loon, he was sensible enough to not approach the object of his desire. Instead, he silently crushed on her from the distance of his place as her student in class. For a short time, he got it into his mind to attract her by wearing fancy cologne, so he bought some Aramis and started spritzing himself with it before he’d go to his workout. Then he realized that he was using too much because the people around him were giving him a wide berth, so he stopped wearing it. It would have been easier if perhaps his instructor had felt the same way, but she didn’t. Besides that, she wasn’t bowled over by Caleb’s sexy workout gear, and when he started wearing the cologne she couldn’t get within ten feet of him. And though she’d never have hurt his feelings, Caleb was a dork, too short for her, and quite frankly, the harelip was a turn-off. She’d kind of rather kiss someone with an open cold sore who was tall and handsome. Nevertheless, she felt pity for the fellow who gave off the hopeless looove vibe, and she would always say hello 252


and play off the way he’d smile and turn red and look down. Fortunately he didn’t try to hit on her, or even talk to her besides the occasionally squeaked hello. So Caleb harmlessly crushed and every now and then bought another electric suit to impress his instructor. And every time he would take a class of hers, his stomach would do the same thing it always did, and so would his heart. But he knew she was not for him, so he never bothered her. Which if you think about it might be the creepiest thing of all to do. But because Caleb was too shy to say anything didn’t mean that he didn’t try to surpass himself in fashion-beauty. He found a pair of colored contact lens that were a brilliant blue that didn’t exist in nature. That got him lots of attention, strangers asking him if that was the real color of his eyes, and him admitting that, no, it wasn’t. His eyes were brown.

Nor for the rest of that year did Caleb get into any more physical scrapes with students. His hair grew back where the gash had been, healed up nicely by the end of school. And now that it was the end of school, well, he’d be broke. His status as full time temporary substitute didn’t allow for him to stagger his yearly salary over twelve months as regularly tenured and assigned teachers usually did. For nearly three months he’d have no paychecks coming in. Sure his Mom would shoot him some cash, but if he didn’t have to ask, he’d be better off. All spring, Caleb agonized about what he would do over the summer, and although he did worry a great deal, he didn’t save any money and pretty much spent what little he had as soon as he made it on weed, rent and food. He’d applied for summer school, but had been informed that summer spots would be given to assigned teachers. Time is what it is, and the spring term was over before he was able to figure out what to do that summer. Nevertheless, on the last day, Caleb felt a joyous liberation at not having to do a 253


job that he felt he couldn’t do very well anyway and which frightened him and caused him tremendous stress on a daily basis; on the other hand, he didn’t know what to do for the next ten weeks, and that question and permutations of it kept looping in his brain. On the L ride home as the familiar brightly painted pictures and scripts flashed by, Caleb kept asking himself, what now? What now?

STILLBIRTH OF A SALESMAN

What now? What now? How about a white blonde Hitler Youth doo to go along with the Martian blue contact lens. That would surely make Dakota swoon with love not to mention help get him noticed among the pool of people trying to get summer work. Caleb had been thinking about getting a shorter hair style when he walked into a salon called Mio, and a guy with a buzz cut who introduced himself as Schweby gave Caleb the same kind of short but thick buzz cut that he had, and it looked so great. It was such a sunny morning, the day after the last day of the spring semester, that Caleb felt he could do no wrong when he went in Mio, and Schweby buzzed his hair so wonderfully, and Caleb admired the job and how he now looked in his white tee shirt, jeans, work boots and newly buzzed hair. Now if only it weren’t that same old dull brown. Why not ask Schweby, whose own hair was white blonde, about perhaps lightening it for summer. “You should go white. Everybody should,” Schweby droned. It was tempting but so controversial, and Caleb expressed his concerns, saying that he was a teacher who needed summer work and did Schweby think that white hair would hurt his chances 254


of seasonal employment. “Naw,” Schweby said, so Caleb believed him and went white. Schweby put some peroxide on his head to strip the color, and then he put on the whitest shade of platinum dye that there was. It burned. Then Caleb’s hair was white and buzzed. Ultimate. So pure. On his way home, he went to show his pal, Johnny. Johnny, who had been napping, answered sleepily, and squinted at the vision framed in his doorway. “Mr. Jethro Bodine home from his Cabaret work in Berlin,” he announced to no one. He couldn’t stop frowning at Caleb as they did bongs.

As hard as it is to believe, finding a job was harder than Schweby knew and not even because of Caleb’s fashion-beauty choices. In the classifieds, all the good jobs demanded that the applicants have experience or at least some working knowledge of the required duties, and that eliminated Caleb from just about everything. Actually, he could have worked in a plant nursery, but there were no ads for that type of work, and Caleb didn’t think of applying at any nurseries on his own initiative. That left the other types of jobs. They were plentiful. The first of this kind that Caleb got was at a neighborhood Italian restaurant that always had a paper plate in the window with Help Wanted written on it. He came in one morning, and they put him to work for one day. He dropped too many slices of pizza while trying to serve the customers. Also, the cash register proved to be just about more than he could handle, especially during rush hours. When he would cancel a transaction because of a mistake, and there were many mistakes, he’d have to get one of the regular workers to help him, which by calling the other worker away from his job, defeated the purpose of having extra help. They gave him thirty dollars for the day and wished him good luck. 255


The next job of the afore mentioned type that Caleb got was at a potpourri factory. He read an ad in the paper for production workers and showed up at the listed address. Everyone who showed up was hired, and the newly hired men and women were broken into teams of a dozen. These teams took the fragrant bits of flowers, bagged them, tied them up and put them in baskets. This job lasted for three days until one of the members of his team, a fellow named General, got them all fired for flirting with the one of the women managers. She simply laid off everyone on his team. Caleb was really sad to lose this job. It was sub-minimum wage, but he liked the folks on his team. He liked smelling like potpourri at the end of the work day, which ended at a reasonable two-thirty in the afternoon. Despite not having benefits and being paid an insulting amount of money, Caleb was happier working at the potpourri factory than he had been as a teacher.

The day after being laid off from the potpourri factory, Caleb saw an add for door to door salesmen. The ad said that there were no cold calls, and that there was no experience needed. It said that he would be able to make hundreds of dollars a day in commissions. The thing that really made him hopeful about this particular job was the tone of the ad. It said that the work atmosphere was fun oriented and ‘rock n’ roll’. Brillings cassette music club. These crazy folks were looking for some party people to make money the new way, having fun. Caleb called the number, and some swinging chick made him an appointment for an interview tomorrow. There were hundreds of people there the next day. Caleb thought, Gee, I probably won’t have a chance, as he got off the elevator and went into the grand hall that the company had rented for interviews. He wondered how long it would take before his interview. 256


Not long at all as Caleb was interviewed and hired in a group along with twenty others. They weren’t chosen because of their moxy. They were ushered like cattle into a room where an attractive blonde girl in a business suit told them that they could make tons of money by going to these homes where the people had agreed to hear the sales pitch in exchange for some cheap assed radio. Once in the home, they’d sell these people memberships in cassette buying clubs. The girl told Caleb and his group that the company had developed a sales pitch that if spoken verbatim would almost guarantee a sale. She passed out the two page monologues that were supposed to be memorized that night for tomorrow when they would be taken out with an experienced salesman, shown the ropes and allowed to try the pitch. Then offstage, a young male voice yelled out, “Where’s the party?” A young man wearing a frat boy surfer persona strutted up to the girl, who pretended to be a little surprised and pleasantly off-put at the ‘spontaneous’ entrance of the next trainer. “Hey, Pamela,” he said giving her a hug. “Hi there, Jim,” she replied; then to the new employees, she said, “This is Jim. He’s...irrepressible. He hasn’t been working here that long, but maybe he’d like to tell you a little about his experience with us. I’d like to stay, but I have to get on a plane. I’m taking a little vacation to Hawaii!” She bounced off the stage. Jim cut them all a look and said confidentially, “Pammy can take a vacation whenever she wants to because you can make such good money here and work whenever you like. Sweet deal.” He reached out and high fived the closest person to him, one of the newly hired guys, an older gentleman wearing a yachting hat and a golden anchor on a dookie chain that nestled in his grey thatch of chest hair. Then Jim went on to further impress them. “Look at me,” he told them. He was dressed in bright oversized jams, a dago tee, sandals and a baseball hat worn backward. 257


“Man would you believe that already this morning I’ve made over three thousand in commissions! Whoo, and I tell you what. People are dying to get these cassette memberships cause they are such sweet, sweet deals. “Where I sold my first membership today, the people made me stay and party with them!” Wow, thought Caleb, I’m in the right place. I bet good old Jim was smoking bongs with these rich folks. I bet I’ll be able to quit teaching at that horrible school and do this full time. Jim went on. “My new girlfriend is the daughter of this older cat who I sold a membership to. He insisted that I take his daughter out. And it was love at first sight, dudes.” Cool boy Jim passed around a Polaroid of a beautiful young blonde woman. Caleb wondered if it would happen to him like that. Before he left them, Jim had this advice to this particular group of newcomers. “Rock and Roll! I gotta book, dudes. I got two appointments this afternoon. Then I’m gonna go put a down payment on a sweet Masarati I decided that I wanted this morning. It’s easy, dudes. Just go out there and rock it. Rock it!” The last person that came to speak to them was a stocky woman in her mid-thirties who wore a dark brown polyester pants suit. Her blonde hair was lacquered into a helmet. She too cut a look at the audience, but whereas Pamela and Jim were trying to captivate and charm the new workers, this lady collectively spat in their face with her eyes. “I’m Sharon. I’m the last trainer you’ll see today. So you met Pam right?” Someone in the audience mentioned that the pretty girl who had first spoken to them had said that she was going to Hawaii. Sharon smiled bitterly and muttered into her microphone, “The bitch. Well, sugar daddies do make the world go round.” She studied a copy of the pitch, frowned at the new employees and said, “Met Jim too, huh.” A couple of the people chuckled. In a snide tone, she drawled, “Yes, Jim...we’re all keeping our 258


fingers crossed that the drug rehab will finally stick this time. Oh, and don’t try and ‘party’ with the people we’ll be sending you to see or try to date any of our company’s prospective customers. Just stick to the script. That’s what’ll get you your money. That and don’t take no for an answer. Make ‘em want a membership or make ‘em feel sorry for you, but use the script. Now go home and memorize the things so you’ll be able to rattle it off tomorrow. Got it?” No one answered the nasty bitch. She rolled her eyes and dismissed them. Someone said that she was the president of the company’s daughter. That night Caleb drank coffee at the Café Squeeze and memorized the sales spiel. It was pretty stupid, and there was no way in hell that babbling the words in the script would insure anything except to irritate the prospective idiot customers of the Brillings Cassette Club. But he did what he was supposed to do. Memorized the page and a half of bullshit until he could say it without totally sounding like a robot. The next day, Caleb was paired with a mentor who was probably five to seven years younger than him. Despite being younger than Caleb and it being 1989, the young man, Chuck, looked as if he were trying to imitate Burt Reynolds. He was neither as muscular nor as handsome as Mr. Reynolds, he of the chiseled chin and Cosmo centerfold. In contrast to Mr. Reynolds, Chuck’s face held a pinched expression, and his eyes were of a beady and narrow set. He also had a top front tooth missing. Still, Chuck wore his hair exactly like Burt and also had a Burt like moustache. His manner, on the other hand, was all his own. Insisting on giving Caleb an exaggerated soul hand shake, Chuck said, “You’re really lucky you got me for your mentor. Man, you look pretty freaky. Are your eyes really that color?” “No.” 259


“Wow. Let’s hit the road. You got the list of customers we’re supposed to see?” “No.” “Shit! What the fuck!” Chuck snapped. “Go to the main office and have that cunt Sharon give you the list.” “Okay. Sorry, Chuck. I’ll get it.” “Well hurry.” Chuck was really perturbed. When Caleb got to the office, Sharon looked at him as if he were an escapee from a mental institution who had somehow gotten into her office. “Who are you?” she snapped. Caleb introduced himself, and as the boss’s daughter sneered at him, Caleb said he was there to pick up his and Chuck’s list of customers. Sharon said, “Why the hell isn’t Chuck here? That fool knows he’s supposed to pick up the list himself. Here. Tell him that I want to talk to him.” When Caleb took the list to Chuck and related Sharon’s message, Chuck shook his head sadly and said, “Fuck her. It’s just that she wants to have sex with me and I won’t. Come on, my fruity looking amigo. Let’s hit the road. Time is my money. Say, you got a contribution for gas? Like they say,” He smiled at his upcoming witticism, “It’s either ass, grass or gas. Ha! And even though you look like you’d probably like to smoke a choad, that ain’t me pal!” “Oh well,” Caleb replied. By then they were at Chuck’s rustoleum red Nova. Chuck continued to milk his jolly joke, but now in a more serious vein as they got in the car. “And as for grass, I figure that even a weird looking freak like you is smart enough to stay off the grass if you know what I mean.” Caleb handed Chuck three dollars. “I think I know what you mean,” he said. Chuck pocketed the five and grinned like a Jack O’ Lantern. “You read me loud and 260


clear.” They pulled out of the parking lot. “Where’s our first fish?” “Fish?” “Man you don’t know nothing do you. Fish is a word for customer. That’s salesman talk. Hey, are you in the mood for a coffee? We can go through the drive through at the first Duncan Donuts we get to. What’cha say partner?” “Sure.” On their way there, Chuck put on a motivational speaker tape, some old windbag named Earl Nightingale. “This guy gets me going,” Chuck informed Caleb, who thought that Earl was an insufferable ass. He was going on about leading the field, having a plan and a roadmap and having the courage to press on to your destination. Caleb didn’t know whether to laugh or throw up. When they got to the Drive through, Chuck and Caleb both ordered big coffees. When they got to the pick up window where you paid, Chuck said, “Hey, dude, the smallest bill that I got is a hundred, except for what you gave me for gas. Think you could pick up the coffees?” “Sure.” Caleb handed Chuck a five. When the girl gave them their coffees and the change, Chuck put the change in a small compartment between the seats. Caleb scooped it up and pocketed it. The houses they were to visit were all located in Maywood, and they arrived at the first place at suppertime. As Chuck pulled up to the curb, Caleb looked at a group of youngsters playing croquette on the lawn across the street. “Look at those little twerps,” Chuck observed, bitterly exclaiming, “I wish I would have had what they’ve got when I was growing up!” “You didn’t have croquette?” 261


“Hell, no. All I had as a kid was a big box that me and my brother and sister found.” Chuck’s features took on a melancholy, wistful cast as he doubtlessly reminisced about his beloved box. “We were poor,” he ruefully admitted, bitterly adding, “None of that spoiled ritzy, what did you call it?” “Croquette.” They got out, and on the way to the door, Chuck scowled at the privileged croquette playing youth. He further observed, “That old one’s got some big cans on her. Hee hee hee.” Caleb looked at his mentor as if he were crazy and hoped the kids in the other yard hadn’t read Chuck’s lips or picked up on his vibe. “Now watch the bullfighter,” Chuck said as he knocked. “Bullfighter?” “That’s me, dude. A matador in the bull ring of salesmanship. Watch and learn. First thing you do when you get inside, ask for something cold to drink, and then when you get it, take one drink and then nurse it.” “Why?” “People don’t wanna be rude, and they won’t throw you out if you’ve got a nearly full drink in front of you.” He stepped to the door and concluded, “As long as you’ve got to keep selling, keep that drink with you and keep talking. Old salesmen’s trick.” A woman in her early forties answered the door. She wore a peasant blouse, a long undyed, unconstructed linen skirt and sandals. “Welcome,” she said in greeting. Chuck and Caleb sat at a big table on the enclosed back porch with the woman and her husband. On the table were several trays of healthy looking snacks: petrified prunes that had a coating of red dust and an assortment of Indian sweets made of richly dyed marzipan. Some of 262


the Indian sweets were molded in the shape of vegetables like carrots, ears of corn and clumps of broccoli. Others of the exotic Indian marzipan treats were molded into simple roses, and there was one lumpy pumpkin. They all shook hands and introduced themselves. The woman’s name was Edna, and she worked in an office downtown. Her husband, Troy, was an architect. He was a thin academic looking man in his mid to late forties who was wearing a threadbare sweater and jeans, probably the type that were advertised at the time as having a “skoosh” more room, though he was trim enough not to have to. He wore his hair in a longish manner and had a salt and pepper beard. “Architect, huh, Troy? Hey I’m a bit partched. Could I trouble you for a glass of something cold?” “We have some freshly squeezed juice. Would that be okay?” Edna asked. “Anything is fine,“ Chuck said. Edna politely asked Caleb if he wanted any, and Caleb said no thanks, as did Troy. Before Edna could get away, Chuck continued, “Anyway, Troy’s being an architect reminds me of a joke I heard a few days back.” Everyone smiled uneasily, and Chuck continued, “So this construction worker is on the fifth floor of a building, and he needs a hand saw. He gets the attention of the guy on the ground, and he yells, ‘I need a hand saw.’” Chuck was acting out the joke, cupping his hands around his mouth and nearly yelling that he needed a hand saw. “The guy on the ground can’t hear the guy on the fifth floor. He’s too high up, so’s he tries to tell the ground guy what he wants through sign language. He points to his eye to say, ’I,’ and then he points to his knee, meaning, ‘need.’” and here Chuck makes a hand saw motion, explaining, “‘handsaw. I need a handsaw.’ So he thinks the guy knows what he means but then 263


the guy on the ground drops his drawers and starts whacking off, really flongin’ his dongy, ya know?” They knew, and their eyes grew wide with merriment perhaps, though it looked more like astonished disapproval, which utterly escaped Chuck but had not gone unnoticed by Caleb. His mentor continued, starting to crack himself up. “So’s this guy is jacking his meat and jacking it.” Here, Chuck got really carried away with acting out the joke, and he mimed jacking himself off to a thundering climax. Chuck moaned, “Awwwww!...” The prospective customers were looking horrified. Chuck said, “The guy on the ground jacks off so much that he blows a big load of sploooge, right? “And the guy on the fifth floor can’t believe it. He’s so angry. And he goes down to the ground and says, ‘What in the heck is wrong with you? I wanted a handsaw. Here you are pumping your peter! What gives? What did you think I wanted?’” The expressions of dismay on the faces of Edna and Troy were underscored by much blushing and looking away on Edna’s part accompanied by many queasy sighs from Troy. Chuck either did not see their reactions or read them as barely suppressed laughter. “And the guy on the ground who was stroking his sausage said, ‘I knew you wanted a handsaw. I was just trying to tell you that I was coming.’”

Half a minute later, the silence was broken when Edna said, “Uh, I think I’ll get that juice now.” “Before you go, allow me to present you with the complimentary gift from my company for your time and business, because after you hear about this deal, you’re not going to let me out of here without becoming a member of the family.” 264


“I beg your pardon?” Here Chuck spread his arms expansively and said, “The Brillings family. Yeah, Caleb, go to the car and get our new family their generous gift will ya?” As Caleb got up to go to the car and bring the crappy little radio and cassette player, Troy said, “I want to talk to you about that, Chuck.” Chuck flashed his one tooth missing million dollar smile. “Plenty of time for talk, folks, but right now let me have my protege fetch your rightfully earned present courtesy of Brillings Cassette Club. Go on now, Caleb, and hurry up for Christ’s sake. Jesus, why didn’t you think of bringing in the damn thing when we came in, huh?” “Why didn’t you tell me?” Caleb asked, now beyond pissed and embarrassed. At Caleb’s show of mutinous spirit, Chuck cast a conspiratorial look at Troy and Edna, which they did not return to Chuck but shared with each other, and Chuck said, “I think some old queen is on the rag, and I ain’t talking about you, Edna.” “Fuck you,” Caleb said to Chuck and walked out of the room. Even if he had to walk home from Maywood, he’d do it rather that put up with his asshole mentor for another minute. But the asshole mentor followed close behind. “Dude, don’t be so sensitive. Dude. Dude!” Chuck called. They were in Troy and Edna’s orange hallway. Caleb said, “Don’t call me dude, and listen, I’m not gay. Not that I think being gay is anything bad ‘cause actually, I’d rather be gay then be like you. What the fuck is wrong with you?” Chuck patted Caleb’s shoulders in a mollifying gesture, and reassured him, “I know you wouldn’t understand, but what you’re seeing is a little thing called sales technique.” Caleb looked at his mentor in disbelief, and Chuck said, “Just trust the maestro, du-I mean Caleb. Do you trust 265


me?” “No, not at all. Hell, no. Of course not,” Caleb declared, causing Chuck to look hurt. Caleb continued, “You know, I didn’t believe that stupid shit they gave us to memorize, but I think even saying that bullshit would be better than trusting your fucking instincts.” “That’s where you’re wrong, Caleb. Look I got these two fish in the palm of my hand, but I need you there. Don’t do this to me. Just watch, you’ll see where I’m going with all this. You’re absolutely right about the stuff they gave you to memorize as being bullshit. They just do that to see who’s serious, like how they make med-students who are in residency work for three or four days straight without any sleep to see who’s serious about being a doctor. So’s mastering that bullshit was like your test. You passed Now you got to trust me to help take you to the next level.” Caleb shook his head, and Chuck glanced over his shoulder back toward the enclosed porch, his expression fraught with anxiety. “Please, Caleb. You’ll see, buddy. Go on and get the shitty little fuckin’ radio.” Caleb started out to the car to get the crap present that had gotten them an appointment with these seemingly intelligent people. Before he was out of the door and out of hearing range, he heard Troy come in the hallway and tell Chuck, “Uh, Chuck, one of our kids made that call, our eleven year old, Michael. He got our information, and well, we’re sorry, but we’re really not interested.” “Sure. Sure. But you still get the present whether or not you accept our terms and sign a contract, which I am positively sure, Troy, when you hear our incredible terms you’ll declare whichever of your kids did this to be a natural born Eienstein genius. Besides, didn’t your good lady, Edna offer me some juice?” Troy hesitated. “Well, just so there aren’t any misunderstandings,” he cautioned. Caleb 266


headed for the car. In the front room, he encountered two of the young people who had been playing croquette. One was the eleven year old boy who had set up the appointment, the youngest of the croquette players, and the other must have been his sister since they not only looked alike but looked like Troy and Edna. The girl was about fifteen and had been the recipient of Chuck’s prurient remark about her buxom figure. They were both dressed in Kennington Colors, the boy in a sweater of such dizzying yellow and black checks that looking at it could induce a flashback even if you’d never dropped acid, and the girl was in a hooded sweater of a mingled pink, brown and green weave, lovely and bright in the way that Kennington clothing always was. They both regarded the thirty-two year old man, the white blonde hair and shocking blue eyes. “Are you here to see my Mom and Dad about the tape club?” the little boy asked, smirking. “Yes.” The smile the brother and sister wore was identical. It said, I could laugh in your face at how pathetic you look, how stupid you must be and what you have to do to for a living, but I’ll settle on smiling in a precocious and condescending manner and not worry about you picking up on our patronizing attitude towards you. Then without a word, they vanished out of the room. Caleb stepped out the front door. He could hear the kids’ voices saying something and giggling. When he got back with the cheap cassette player to the enclosed rear porch, he found Chuck and Troy sitting silently. Troy looked decidedly uncomfortable, but Chuck was contentedly gazing out on the backyard and poking his tongue through the gap where his front tooth should have been. Edna must have been getting the promised drink. There was a smile on Chuck’s face. Caleb plopped the puny stereo on the table, and Chuck rubbed his hands as if his 267


protege had brought them a chest of golden doubloons. “Here we go,” Chuck said expansively as he put a cassette in the player and turned it on. The Eye of the Tiger bleated a tinny sounding beginning, and Chuck regarded the complimentary radio in awe. “Lister to that tone. Troy, that is cutting edge technology. And here, I bet you’ve never seen one of these.” Chuck indicated a mega-bass button, which he switched on, giving the player slightly less treble. “Mega-bass,” he pointed out. Just then Edna re-entered with Chuck’s freshly squeezed juice. She served it to him in a clear glass. Caleb noted its rich orange color. When Edna came in, Chuck rose from his seat and swayed to the rousing anthem about tenacity in the face of heavily stacked odds. With one hand he took the glass of juice, with the other he took Edna’s hand and attempted a delicate stationary dance, which lasted until he took a sip of the bright orange liquid. As soon as he’d done that, his face screwed up in disgust. “Geeeeshk!” he exclaimed after having managed to swallow, and he put the mug down. “That’s God awful,” he choked. “What kind of damn orange juice is this?” His face was a mask of bitterness. “It’s freshly squeezed carrot juice, with a little wheat grass,” Edna said proudly unapologetic. “Need something sweet to get this taste out of my mouth,” Chuck gasped, and as he spoke, he worked his tongue in and out of his mouth much like a dog or a horse that has tasted something disagreeable. “Try one of these Indian sweets,” Troy offered pushing the tray toward the salesman. Chuck took a marzipan rose and popped it into his mouth. He chewed but found no satisfaction, his expression changing from the wrinkled face of having tasted terrible nastiness to a long face registering someone who would like to spit something foul out of his mouth. “Too 268


sweet,” he managed to say as he reluctantly chewed. And as soon as he swallowed, to get the cloying sweetness off his palate, he popped one of the dried, coated prunes in his mouth. “Aw fuck!” He cried with his mouth agape, as if the dried powdered prune was a hot coal. Chuck didn’t try to swallow but spit the chewed prune into his hand, went to the back door, and threw it into the yard. He sat back down, and Caleb could see that his eyes were watering. “Whew! I got to tell you I wasn’t expecting that,” Chuck admitted the obvious. “You folks are into the health and doing what’s good for you I can see,” Chuck said recovering. “And there ain’t nothing better for your family then saving money. That makes sense doesn’t it?” He looked at them beseechingly. Just then the two kids entered the room. The sight of the kids threw Chuck, and he glared at the children whom he viewed (correctly) as being privileged brats and whose entrance had messed up his pitch. “I saw them when we drove up,” he said, his tone betraying his disapproval. “Yes, we saw you seeing us too.” It was the girl to whom he’d referred to as having ‘big cans’. “We thought you were perverts who were going to try to get us in your car,” the little boy revealed. This revelation caused Chuck to nervously laugh and remember his place. “Ah, you guys must be Troy and Edna’s kids. I should have known. Ah ha ha ha!” Edna introduced her children. “This is my daughter, Chassie.” Chuck rose from his chair and inappropriately kissed the girl on the hand. “Enchanted, I’m sure. And can I just say...Edna... that the apples haven’t fallen too far from the tree. What ya think Troy?” Troy sighed piteously. No one else knew what to think, so everyone left that remark hang 269


in the air like a sour poot. Finally Edna said, “And this is our son, Michael. We’re afraid that he’s the scamp who caused all the broo ha ha of having you come out here.” Michael’s response at having been introduced was to put away his smirk face and affect an emotionless mask. “Well, Mikey,” Chuck began, “Think we’ll have to press charges against you? Huh dude?” Chuck joked. “My name is Michael, not Mikey, and I hate to be called dude,” young Master Michael spat. “Yeah, sure. Sorry about that, Chief,” Chuck joked. “My name is not Chief. What happened to your tooth?” “Michael, that’s rude,” Troy observed with quiet anguish, and Edna turned red and looked away. “Oh, that’s okay. See, Michael, my Dad knocked that tooth out of my head one night when he was drunk and trying to kill my Ma, and I tried to stop him. That was the night that I became a man.” “Wow. Cool. Did you shoot your Dad?” Michael inquired, much to the barely audible gurgling protestations of his father, which he either didn’t hear or ignored. “That’s okay, Troy. I don’t mind answering your son’s nosey questions because I’m not a bitter guy. And in answer to you, Michael, no, I didn’t shoot my old man. Many is the time that I dreamed of such a thing, but my Dad died in his sleep from choking on his own vomit Jimi Hendrix style while he was passed out from the booze, God rest his rotten soul.” Nothing to add to that, so Caleb was introduced to the progeny. Michael said, “Did your Dad punch you too? Is that what happened to your lip?” 270


“Michael,” Troy murmured, deeply and uncomfortably embarrassed. “Did your drunken Daddy wipe the smile off your face with his fist like Chuck’s did? Are you guys brothers?” “Michael,” Troy whispered. Edna stayed red and continued studying the floors, walls and ceiling. “Michael, really,” Cassie corrected her brother. “Caleb’s Dad didn’t hit him. He’s got one of those new ‘modern primitive’ lip piercings. I’ve seen a few kids at school with upper lip piercings like yours.” Caleb clarified, “Uh, it’s not a piercing; it’s a birth defect.” “Ha ha,” came Michael’s victorious note. “His hat hi hoo hawk hike hiss? (Is that why you talk like this?) Ah ha ha ha ha ha.” Caleb’s blushed. “Guess so, or should I say, ‘hess hoe’.” Chuck joined in the laughter, “Tee hee hee hee hee.” “You got a lot to laugh about, toothless,” Michael informed the laughing mentor, who stopped chuckling when his lost tooth was again mentioned. Edna left the room. Troy’s expression seemed to say , ‘That’s really enough, Michael,’ and if Michael had bothered to look at his Dad, he probably wouldn’t have given a shit what his father felt. In fact, he probably would have been encouraged by Troy’s quietly civilized embarrassment. Bored by the age old amusement of mocking a harelip, Michael announced, “I’ve got to practice my piano now.“ He abruptly left the room. In explanation for his rudeness, Edna said, “His teachers say that he’s really very bright.” “Why he had the good sense to contact Brillings Cassette Club. That says something,” 271


Chuck asserted. With the same expression of anomie as her brother, Cassie listlessly interjected, ”I have to go to Sasha Hoffman’s for our project.” Grasping at any branch of possible good will or familiarity that he might garner, Chuck said, “What kind of project you and old Sash up to?” Cassie stared through Chuck in answer, as if she were looking at a rude dog that had barked out of turn. Edna answered for her daughter, saying, “We’re so proud of Cassie and her project. She and her friend Sasha organize surprise birthday parties for the elderly in some of the area nursing homes.” To her parents, Cassie said, “May I have the keys to the blue car?” As Edna gave her daughter the keys, Chuck quipped, “And don’t let us hear that you were joy riding in your folks’ car. Your Dad works hard for his money.” Chuck winked at Troy. Cassie looked at Chuck as if he were a turd, and then she left the room. Moments after she was gone, Chuck loudly sighed and told Troy and Edna, “What a hottie. Bet she’s beating the boys off.” “What?” They were all looking at Chuck now. “I meant beating the boys off with a stick folks. Oh boy. You thought I meant...Naw, we can’t make sexual remarks like that. No, I’d never say that I thought she was giving the boys hand jobs. I mean who knows with kids these days.” Before Chuck could stick his foot deeper in his mouth, the uncertain and warbly notes of the beginning refrain of The Maple Leaf Rag came tinkling from the other room. As soon as the first fifteen or sixteen notes were played, Michael repeated them. Again and again came the beginning of The Maple Leaf Rag. 272


It was against this backdrop that Chuck began his sales pitch. At a missed note, Chuck said, “I can see why his teachers think he’s got so much on the ball, and I hope that you‘re not too hard on the boy for contacting Brillings Cassette Club like he did.” Edna asserted, “We’re not angry with him. We know that he was simply exploring choices. We don’t believe in punishing a child’s curiosity.” “Still,” Troy added, “We’re sorry that we’ve inconvenienced you.” “No inconvenience whatsoever,” Chuck insisted. “Because, Troy, Edna, when you find out how much money you’ll both save by joining our family, I promise you that you will change your minds. I promise you. Now do you trust me?” “We don’t want to be obligated to have to buy any...” “Don’t worry. Can you just hear me out? Just trust me for a few minutes while I show you, not tell you, but actually show you why you need to join our family?” His body language was pitched forward, his face beseeching. Caleb could see the beginnings of sweat beading on Chucks face. When Troy and Edna didn’t reply, Chuck went ahead. “I can see that you and your kids enjoy culture and music in particular judging from the golden notes coming from the other room.” Again, the opening notes of The Maple Leaf Rag stridently corrupted the air, and every missed or ill timed note would cause Chuck to wince or grimace during his pitch. Producing a calculator, Chuck said, “Allow me to demonstrate. Would you say that you buy one cassette a week? A month? How many a year?” “I don’t buy any cassettes. Listen, we don’t need to keep the gift. We have a stereo console, and I have no intention of signing a long term contract over how many years? Seven? Ten?” 273


“I completely understand your reservations, and if Brillings Cassette Club were like that, like all those other clubs that are doing just that like what you just now said, Troy, why then I wouldn’t expect you to want to sign. I wouldn’t be here trying to get you into this great plan. I believe in the Brillings Cassette Plan, and the reason why, the beauty of this thing is that you’re not obligated for ten years or seven or five or even two if you don’t want to be.” Caleb knew that Chuck was clearly lying or at the very least bending the truth in some way. Chuck pressed some buttons on his calculator and said, “Just take me for example. Before I belonged to the Brillings Cassette Club why I spent too much money on my cassettes. Like yourselves, I’m into music, mostly arena rock but also self help tapes by Earl Nightingale. He changed my life. Ever heard of him?” Chuck was punching figures, and before either Troy or Edna could tell him whether or not they had ever heard of Earl Nightingale, Chuck said, “I buy three cassettes conservatively a month, and in a year I save nine thousand dollars. And that ain’t pocket change, folks, is it?” Edna said, “I think you miscalculated. Those figures make no sense.” “Anyway,” Troy added, “No matter how much we’d save, we don’t want to be legally obligated to buy anything.” “That’s the beauty. You don’t need to be obligated by time.” “We don’t want it.” The eighteen notes trundling intrusively through the room grated like teeth breaking on the blackboard. “You could order your quota in a year or a month or all at once if you wanted.” Over and over came the butchered notes. Dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee. Doo doo doo 274


doo doo doo doo. Dee dee dee. Dee Dee Dee Dee...” “Like we said, Chuck, we’re not going to sign a contract with your company.” “You can talk till you’re blue in the face. Well actually you can’t because we’re going to have supper pretty soon.” “What are you guys having?” Chuck asked weakly. “We’re having tofu broiled seaweed garnished with crab nuts, and we’re sorry but we didn’t make enough for two more people,” Edna informed him. At Edna’s description of tonight’s menu, Chuck shuddered. “Too bad,” he muttered. Troy and Edna rose. Troy held out his hand to be shook. Chuck looked on in wounded disbelief that his dear friends Troy and Edna wouldn’t do the sensible thing and sign into the Brillings Family. Wearily he stood. Chuck seemed deflated, and he limply shook Troy and then Edna’s hand. Then, with bowed shoulders, slumped over and with Caleb by his side, Chuck started to leave the back porch. Then at the door, he suddenly threw his arms in the air and turned around to give it one more shot. “You know. If you sign up, I’d be willing to split my commission with you. And the only reason I say this is that I can’t stand to see such nice folks as yourselves miss out on the deal, literally, of a lifetime.” “No. No no no.” Caleb listened to Michael bang out The Maple Leaf Rag for the umpteenth time. He and Chuck were ushered out the door. Chuck shook his head sadly, looked over his shoulder and actually wiped away a tear. On the front porch, he looked at Troy and Edna one last time and plaintively begged them. “It just hurts me so much to see you not take advantage of this deal? Don’t you like to save money? Look, we came here in good faith, and I had to use my own gas to 275


get here, you know? Please sign up. Trust me on this, kids. Can you just trust me?” Troy and Edna managed to look even more uncomfortable than they already did. “We’re sorry. Here’s your company’s complimentary gift back. Really we don’t need it.” “Yeah, what do you think I’m supposed to do with it?” Chuck whined. “ I got a cassette player already, and it’s a little better than this rinky-dink piece of crap.” He sighed and wordlessly turned around and headed toward the car. Caleb shook hands with Troy and Edna. Edna said, “Sorry for the trouble. We’re going to have to have a talk with Michael about taking responsibility for his choices. You know, he’s tremendously bright.” Troy, looking positively agonized, apologized in his mind to Caleb not only for the inconvenience, but also for the teasing. And in his mind, Caleb told Troy to fuck off with his unspoken apology. From deep within the house The Maple Leaf Rag plonked its first eighteen notes again, missing the fourth, the eighth, the eleventh, the thirteenth, the fifteenth, seventeenth and the final note. And the kid was late on the few notes that were actually played on key. Back in the car, above the inspirational crapola of Earl Nightingale blathering something about ‘the strangest secret’, Caleb read the name and address of the next house they were to visit. They were to go to where Sam and Jane Wolcott lived on Chismire Street. Neither Chuck nor Caleb knew where this address was, and they drove for a half an hour deeper into Maywood. All the time they were driving, Caleb noticed that the neighborhoods were deteriorating, and as the houses and yards got worse and worse, Chuck reinvented the previous failed sale for Caleb’s benefit. “I almost had them, dude. I was soooo fucking close. They were salavanting, you know? I almost feel like going back there and giving it one more try. You know what they liked? They liked it when I made a big deal over their two brats. What fuckin’ brats. The little fucker calls us 276


out there on false pretenses, and then,” and here Chuck’s tone became self-righteously aggrieved, “...then he makes fun of your harelip.” “You seemed to think his little joke was funny until he made fun of your missing tooth,” Caleb reminded his mentor. “That was nervous laughter. I never make fun of the handicapped. Not like Mikey, I mean His Fucking Royal Highness Sir Michael. And that cold ass bitch of a sister Cassie. Fuck, here she goes around being a big humanitarian to a bunch of old fucks so’s she can feel good about her bitchy assed self, but she can’t even bother to be decent to me and you. By God, I’d like to plow that little bitch up the ass and cut her little faggot brother to pieces!” “At the same time?” Caleb asked. Chuck looked at him like he were crazy.

The home of the next house they were to visit was in a deplorably bad neighborhood. The street lights had all been shot out for blocks. The homes that were there looked beat if not abandoned as did most of the buildings. There was litter everywhere, and there were nearly as many overgrown vacant lots as there were run down buildings. Here and there a shadowy figure would furtively hurry in or out of one of the houses or buildings or would dart into the tall weeds of a lot or into an alley. “What the fuck, Chuck. I don’t want to be around here.” “And why not? These people’s money ain’t good?” “I think a detailed market research of the area would show the demographic here to be more interested in crack and smack than in long term rip off cassette club memberships.” A gunshot somewhere near made them both jump as Chuck went through a stop sign. 277


“Aw, there’s nothing wrong with this neighborhood,” he uneasily informed Caleb. “I grew up in a dear old place just like this.” Caleb would have been touched by the transparent lie, but he was becoming increasingly frightened. “Well well,” he managed to reply. Chuck became excited. “Here. I think this is it,” he said pulling up to a dirty yellow house with about a third of the siding peeling off to reveal mildewed, spun fiberglass insulation of a filthy yellow. There were no outdoor lights on the entire street. “Go out there and see if this is the right street number,” Chuck urged. “Fuck that. This place is scarey.” “Don’t be such a pussy. Now go on and check before we go to the trouble of going to the front door,” Chuck told his protege. “If this is so much like your dear old neighborhood, then you go. Yeah, take a trip down memory lane while you check the place your own fucking self.” “Oh, hell. Alright, but don’t think this won’t go down on my evaluation,” Chuck said getting out of the car. If the horrible neighborhood transported him to his own humble beginnings, he didn’t seem glad to be home. Chuck’s confident swagger was replaced by the scaredy-cat creep as he cautiously made his way across the yard. “Yeah,” he hissed to Caleb when he’d gotten to the front door. “This is the place. Come on and bring the gift with you this time. And lock the door.” Although junkies would probably see the cheap cassette players as an invaluable find, Caleb wondered what a crack head or dope fiend would do with the self help tapes. Caleb imagined some junkie stealing the tapes, playing them and his life turning around. He fantasized about the addict’s testimonial in which he would tell rapt, paying audiences of how his listening to 278


Earl Nightingale’s positive message of can-doism helped him turn away from the devil’s dick. He was thinking about this when from a few doors away came a string of curses followed by low guttural laughter intermingled with sobs. A block away, there were hysterical screams, then another burst of gunfire followed by more screams. These indigenous street sounds inspired Caleb and Chuck to began desperately knocking. He knocked and he knocked, and there were sounds from the interior. Still, it took several minutes for the person inside to answer. A white woman answered. She might have been anywhere from her mid-thirties to late fifties, so faded and worn was she. Her hair was a colorless greyish yellow and had the consistency of rotten straw. Her eyes were dead and sunken into her deep sockets. She was thin, and her complexion was yellowish grey. She wore a sweater with a picture of two cabbage patch kids on the front. She wore faded jeans and greyish white socks. “Hello, ma’am,” Chuck began, “Are you by any chance Jane Wolcott?” The woman was looking at Chuck, but then her eyes were starting to close and she was listing in the doorway. “Jesus,” Chuck muttered, then in a louder voice, he said, “Hello. Are you Jane Wolcott?” The woman looked at him uncomprehendingly. Caleb said, “Can we come in?” The woman stepped aside and allowed them to come into her house. It was stiflingly hot and smelled of cat shit. “Thank you,” both Caleb and Chuck gushed, happy to be out of the dangerous front yard. The woman said nothing in reply but slowly drifted to an ancient overstuffed chair where she settled. There was a coating of cat hair over everything in the woman’s home. And there were cats everywhere too, silently hurrying hither and yon or calmly regarding the humans. 279


“Are you Jane Wolcott?” Chuck tried again. Caleb was taken aback by the stench inside the room. That and the warmth were making him sick. He elected to stand. Chuck was sitting on a couch next to the woman. She murmured, “Yes.” There were numerous cigarette holes on the thigh of her jeans. She didn’t look at either Caleb or Chuck. A cat jumped in her lap, purred and stuck its ass in the woman’s face, but her eyes were closing. Caleb watched in horror as her nose headed toward the kitty’s ass, which was rising even higher in the air in anticipation of the nodding addict’s nose making contact. Chuck looked at Caleb. He lightly shook the woman by her shoulder and fairly yelled, “Jane! Jane, it’s me, Chuck.” Jane opened her eyes and found her nose touching the cat’s ass. She straightened in her chair and regarded Chuck and Caleb. Her eyelids began to settle again and she muttered, “Slade’s not here. He’ll be back with the get high. It’s what he said.”

Caleb watched Chuck spend the next twenty minutes trying to get Jane, or whoever she was, to wake up enough to hear his pitch. The room was dim, and it was like being in a litter box sauna. Several times he woke her enough to elicit a “Who did you say you were?” or a, “You got the get high with you?” but absorbing the fine points of becoming a member of the Brilling Cassette Club Family were lost on the woman. At one point, she managed to indicate that she wanted one of her cigarettes, which Chuck solicitously provided from her table. Once the cigarette was lit, she entertained Caleb and Chuck, who was loudly talking to her the entire time, with the spectacle of seeing her burn more holes in the thigh of her jeans as she rode the golden wave of her nod. 280


Chuck even resorted to trying to get her to tell him where her check book was. No matter what he said, she was barely responsive. “You think Jane here has a checking account?” Caleb asked incredulously. “Look around here for her checkbook, Caleb.” “Fuck no. You think I want to stick my hand in a drawer and get pricked by some junkie’s needle? Or get bit by one of these fucking cats or even stick my hand in some cat shit? No. No fucking way, Chuck. Besides, even if we did find a checkbook, this lady is too out of it to sign a check. And anyway, she ain’t going to have a checking account.” “If we can find this bitch’s checkbook, I’ll hold and guide her hand so’s she writes us a fucking check.” “The signatures won’t match, Chuck. Really.” Chuck looked unconvinced. Caleb sighed and tried again, slowly intoning, “It’s ILLEGAL.” Caleb looked at the addict who was continuing to burn holes in her jeans. Her arm and hand were like the neck and head of one of those mechanical birds that slowly dips its beak in water over and over. Caleb reasoned with Chuck, telling him, “We should just get the fuck out of here. If we don’t leave soon, one of these drug addicts are going to do something to your car. Then we’ll be stuck out here with Jane here. Fuck!” “You think?” Caleb said, “I’ve been thinking about those junkies getting hold of your motivational tapes and turning their lives around.” Chuck looked at Jane. A cat was sitting precariously or imperiously on top of Jane’s head as she repeated the burn a hole in her pants game. As soon as the glowing tip burned through her already burned jeans, she jerked her arm up, and her eyes opened slightly. “You’re not Slade,” she observed before closing her eyes yet again. 281


Chuck went to the window and looked out. He took one last look at Jane, and to Caleb he said, “Okay let’s go.”

The third place they were to visit was in a trailer park. They were to pitch their con to someone named Cooter Yates who lived in trailer number 493. The roads in the trailer park were like crisscrossing snakes that wound up and down about fifteen to twenty acres of hills. Near the top of the highest peak they found trailer number 493. There was a big confederate flag in the window. Molly Hatchet was blaring from two speakers on Cooter’s deck, which is where they first saw him. Cooter was as short as Caleb. He was plump, wore a bright yellow tank top and cut offs that were too tight. His hair was cut in a glorious but seriously thinning mullet, and at the sight of Chuck’s rustoleum painted car, Cooter perked up hopefully. Caleb brought the complimentary radio cassette player with him. Cooter could barely contain himself and nearly ran to Chuck’s car, but the gravel hurt his tender bare feet so he hobbled to the salesmen. “I’ve been expecting you guys,” he chirped loudly, as if he hoped that his neighbors would see that he had visitors. “Wanna beer, Chuck? How about you, Caleb?” Chuck looked at Caleb. How did Cooter know their names? Chuck looked at the prospective fish, and he said “Why I’d love a nice cold one.” “I’m cool,” Caleb said as he watched Cooter hobble back to his deck. “Foller me in fellers,” Cooter said going inside. “This guy will be a cinch,” Chuck said.. “Shouldn’t you let me try to get someone to sign tonight?” Caleb asked. “Look I can’t afford to lose this commission,” Chuck informed Caleb. Perhaps noticing 282


that Caleb was dissatisfied, Chuck said, “In a few more days of watching me, you’ll be ready. Tomorrow maybe.” Chuck didn’t know that Caleb was ready, ready to quit working for Brilling Cassette Club, and it was only the prospect of being stranded so far from Lakeview that prevented him from walking away right then and there. The inside of Cooter’s trailer was extremely neat. Cooters library consisted of backdated Soldier of Fortunes, Guns & Ammo and Enquirers, and they were stacked in two artillary cases next to his couch. On his coffee table was a framed photo of Cooter and two people who were obviously his parents. Both of them had a hand on each of his shoulders. Cooter’s stereo and albums were carefully placed beneath the rebel flag draped front window. His albums were arranged alphabetically. Caleb and Chuck were ushered into nicely upholstered chairs. Caleb’s was green and Chuck’s was peach colored. As soon as they were seated, Cooter served them bottles of Bud with attendant frosted mugs. He spread coasters for them. “Oh, I didn’t want a beer, Cooter. Thanks anyway. Hey, how’d you know our names?” “I called Brillings this afternoon to find out who would be coming out. Didn’t want ‘em sending out any spics or niggers or faa...” Cooter looked at Caleb, smiled mischievously and said, “no spics or niggers!” “Hey don’t worry,” Chuck assured Cooter. “Caleb here might look like a pole smoker, but he not only ain’t faggy, he bags more tail than you and me put together probably. The girls love his crazy hair and freaky blue eyes he tells me.“ Caleb looked at Chuck. Caleb guessed that none of them had been with a woman in quite some time, but if any of them were to be fortunate enough to interest a female, Caleb was confident that for once, he would have a chance of beating out the competition. He figured Chuck’s fanciful remarks were yet 283


another example of his no fail sales technique. Cooter looked at Caleb adoringly and chortled, “I didn’t think youse were a queer. I can tell a queer from a hunderd feets. So’s you gets lots of dates with your look. Ma’ be I ought to color up my hair and get me some purtty eyes like you, Caleb.” “That’s a great idea,” Caleb hazarded. “We could chase some tail, huh?” “Eeee hee hee hee,” Cooter squealed. “These are some nice digs you got here, Cooter,” Chuck observed approvingly. “Aw thank yer.” “And may I also compliment you on your taste in music,” Chuck added. From the speakers the lively tunes of Molly Hatchet just kept a-comin’. At this compliment, Cooter looked ready to burst with gratitude. “I got Skinner, Outlaws for ya, Almans, got some primo Jimmy Buffett.” “All right!” Chuck said. Then on a serious note. “Cooter, I can tell that music is really important to you, and I’m here to help you save money on whatever it is you’re spending by going to some retail store and buying cassettes.” “I only own albums,” Cooter clarified. “Then you’re in real luck, Cooter, because our complimentary cassette player will allow you to play all the music you’ll be saving money on from joining the Brilling Family.” “Aw, that sounds nice.” Chuck then demonstrated the complimentary cassette player, making sure to show Cooter the mega-bass button, which seemed to drive him crazy with pleasure. “Now, let’s get down to business,” Chuck said rubbing his hands together, and in a like manner, Cooter too rubbed his hands in anticipation of getting down to business, whatever that 284


meant. “So, how many records would you say that you buy in a month?” Chuck asked him, calculator at the ready. Cooter replied by grinning without comprehension and shrugging his shoulders. Chuck took a guess, suggesting, “Five would you say?” “Shore. I guess.” Then Chuck brought out his calculator and with a display of math wizardry, showed Cooter that if he bought only five cassettes a month how he would save fifteen thousand dollars in a year’s time by ordering his music cheaper through Brillings Cassette Club. “Good God, I could retire on that!” Cooter whooped. “See? See how your buddy is here to take care of you?” Chuck said. This caused a surprising reaction from Cooter, at least surprising to Caleb and, judging from Chuck’s expression, surprising to him too. As soon as Chuck had called him buddy, Cooter reached over and gave the salesman a big hug. “You’re my best friend, Chuck. You too, Caleb,” he informed them. Chuck recovered and Caleb saw his mentor relax as he reeled in the fish. Easing out of Cooter’s embrace, Chuck declared, “Of course we are. Would your best friends steer you wrong? I couldn’t sleep at night if I thought that I was getting you into something that wouldn’t benefit you 100 percent.” “Aw stop it or yer goin’ make me cry,” Cooter admitted, sniffling a bit and wiping the snot on the back of his hand. “Now if you’re worried about having to buy new cassettes to replace your old collection-“ ”Why I hadn’t thought of that at all, Chuck.” “Well, it’s no problem, all you have to do is put a blank cassette in your complimentary cassette player, hit play and record at the same time, and you can record your vinyl onto tape. You 285


just have to be sure there’s no outside noises while you’re recording. Like, say, the telephone or conversations or outside work going on. You know? And you can get blank cassettes from Brilling for pennies on the dollar!” “Hey, you guys hungry? I could grill us a couple of hamburgers. You like hamburgers?” “Why sure. I’m getting kind of hungry,” quipped Chuck. “What about you, Caleb?” “Naw, I’m not hungry, but thanks anyway.” Cooter went across the room and opened a closet door where he took out a clean grill, a small bag of charcoal and a cooking apron with a picture of a gun across the front, which he dragged to his deck outside. “We can take our beers out here if you want, guys,” Cooter called. He stuck his hand in long enough to plug in his outdoor deck lights. Caleb and Chuck joined their host. On their way out the door, Chuck mouthed, ‘I’m this close’. The hamburgers were sizzling, and Chuck said, “My notes tell me you’re a taxidermist by trade.” Cooter eagerly nodded. “I stuff fish, deer heads, whatever.” “That is interesting,” Chuck informed Cooter, and Cooter looked mighty proud. “So a guy like you must keep pretty busy.” Cooter happily shrugged. “You look like you make a good penny,” Chuck observed. “Yeah I do okay,” Cooter admitted, shyly pleased at his obvious success. “Well then this should be no problem, Cooty. Can I call you Cooty?” “Hee hee hee hee hee. Shore you can!” “Aw great. And you can call me Chucky. That’s what all my friends call me. Right Caleb?” 286


“Uh, sure Chucky,” Caleb said. “So’s who’s ready for a brewski?” host Cooter hollared ecstatically. “Hey, ready is my middle name,” Chuck admitted, adding, “But before we party any further, let’s get you signed up.” “Shore thang, Chucky.” Chuck shot Caleb a look that radiated triumph. He brought out a pen and a contract. “You will just sign here pal.” “Give it here!” “Okay, okay my eager friend,” Chuck chuckled. “But before you sign, I’ll need either a check or your credit card number.” “Huh?” “Well, Cooty. This is a long term contract, so as a sign of good faith, we need some money up front, and to show our family that you’re a regular citizen, we need you to either write me a check or give me your credit number to show you’ve got an account and all.” Cooty’s face and neck turned bright red. “Wow. I ain’t got that stuff.” “Huh?” “Naw, Chucky. Ma and Pa get my check every month, and they bring my groceries and what I need over here. They do it all fer me. Pretty cool, huh?” He brought Chuck and Caleb new beers and freshly frosted mugs. He then tended to the sizzling burgers and put two sets of buns on the grill for toasting. “Man, fellers, there ain’t nothing smells better than meat cooking over a grill is there?” Chuck downed a third of his beer straight from the bottle. “You mean, they control your 287


bank account?” he asked wearily, bitterly. “Shore. Is that a problem, Chucky?” “Oh, no. Just get them on the phone, Cooter, and tell ‘em or have me talk to them.” “You’d do that fer me?” “Anything for you, Cooty.” Chuck and Cooter disappeared inside the trailer where Cooter called his parents and put Chuck on the phone to convince them to go along with the deal. From his place on the deck, Caleb could hear Chuck futilely talk. There was the familiar spiel about how their son would save tons of money on cassettes, but they were having none of it. Chuck even put Cooter back on to try to persuade them, but it was no go. Caleb heard Cooter protest that Chucky and Caleb were his best friends. Caleb could imagine Cooter’s poor old Dad telling him that if they were real friends, they wouldn’t try to get Cooter to give them money for such an obvious ripoff, and almost on the money, he heard Cooter protest, “No, Pa, it ain’t that way at all. They’re making me money by doing this. It’s an investment like that there stock market. I won’t even need my checks no more with what I’ll be making is what Chucky told me, Pa. What was it I’d be making through what I’d be saving per annual yearly rate? I think it was fifty thousand a year I’ll be making, Pa!” Then Chuck took back the phone. “Sir, I’m just trying to help Cooter because he’s my friend,” Caleb heard Chuck say, followed by, “We’ve been pals for awhile. I try to look out for him around here. Make sure the niggers and the faggots don’t try to talk to him, you know.” Chuck then tried again to explain to Cooter the Elder how young Cooter would be so much better off if he were meeting his music needs through Brilling Cassette Club. Caleb heard Chuck say, “Sir, may I ask what kind of musi-“ Doubtlessly, Cooty’s Pa had cut Chuck off mid-sentence. 288


A slight breeze blew up on the deck. It was pleasant there. While Chuck and Cooter tried to persuade Cooter’s Dad to allow strangers to victimize his son, Caleb tended to the hamburgers and buns that were on the grill. First he took the buns off and put them on the two paper plates with the American Eagle illustrations. Then he put the hamburgers on the buns and covered the patties with the top buns. He resisted the temptation to put mustard, onion slices and pickles on the sandwiches. He’d leave that to Cooter and Chuck. From down the lane came the booming percussion of gangsta rap, and Caleb heard from inside the trailer Cooter let loose with an ugly racial epitaph, followed by a peel of giggles as if he’d made a remark worthy of repetition at The Algonquin Table. Caleb briefly thought of spitting on Cooter’s burger for his being a racist, but Cooter seemed so...cognitively challenged that Caleb didn’t. Instead, he watched a group of kids playing foursquare in the street. Cooter and Chuck emerged from the trailer, and Caleb recognized the look on Chuck’s face, the look of defeat. Cooter on the other hand was not fazed by the deal having fallen through at all. When he saw his burger, he said delightedly, “Ahhhh, Caleb you’re the man!” Chuck despondently took his own burger and gave it an angry bite. With his mouth full, he said, “C’mon, Caleb. Time to go.” “Hey where you guys goin’?” “Gotta’, go, Cooty.” Chuck put down the barely eaten hamburger. “Ain’t we gonna party no more?” “Ah, not now. I’ll call you tomorrow. We’ll hang out maybe.” “That’d be great, Chucky. You come too, Caleb.” “If I can, Cooter.”

289


That was the last stop for the night. Chuck hadn’t sold any memberships, and Caleb hadn’t even been given the chance to try, not that he thought any of the people they’d visited would have been swayed by any sales pitch. He didn’t say so, but he was done with Brilling Cassette Club. Chuck was quiet too. Nor did he turn on Earl Nightingale but drove them back downtown where Caleb would catch a bus home. Caleb had made nothing, had lost money. Finally Chuck broke the silence. “I should have eaten that fucking burger at Cooty’s crib. I’m starving. How about you?” “I’m pretty hungry.” “I could really go for an ice cream cone,” Chuck said. “There’s a great place up here on Brompley Avenue. You into a cone?” “Why not.” They pulled into the drive-through. Chuck ordered two dips, one of watermelon malt and the other of funkadelia crunch on a waffle cone. Caleb ordered one dip of cappachino on a regular cone. Before they got to the pick-up window, Chuck said, “Say, dude, any way you could get it? I hate to break a hundred.”

The very next day Caleb was telling Johnny of his ordeal with Chuck and The Brilling Cassette Club. Johnny cut him off and suggested, “I bet you could work for Sandy. Sandy would probably love it since you get pot from him anyway. He’ll pay you under the table, then get some of your money back when he sells you pot for retail price.” “Sounds like a good idea to me,” Caleb decided. And a good idea it sounded to Sandy too when it was suggested to him by Johnny and Caleb the next time they went by his place to cop. Greeted by Sari at the door, Caleb and Johnny 290


entered to find Stevie and Joey playing fooseball. They were being cheered on by a lovely young blonde woman in a flight attendant’s uniform. She looked up from the fierce competition to say hello to Johnny and be introduced to Caleb. Sandy said, “This is Liz, my girlfriend.” After Stevie scored a winning point against Joey, the defeated fooseballer crumpled to the ground in wired anguish. Seeing a human rolling around on the floor overstimulated Sari, who with much tail wagging and loud barking started alternately licking Joey’s face and humping his head in a show of superiority. In his Popeye voice, Joey unsuccessfully commanded the doggie to get off. Joey said, “Stop it Sari.” Johnny said, “Good dog. Show the human your dominance of his puny ass. Good girl, Sari. I see Sandy’s been springing for the REALLY GOOD obedience school these days.” Meanwhile Stevie had now focused on Johnny and Caleb. He said, “Oh hello Johnny; How’s summer vacation treating you Caleb; bet you’re glad to get away from the kids: it’s been too too long since we got together; I trust you saw me trounce my worthy adversary on the field of green; these tables are balanced so you have to compensate which is what Joey doesn’t understand.” Then they all looked at Sari continuing to have her way with Joey’s head. “That’s right, little one,” Johnny cooed to Sari. “Dominate him, my looove.” Sari barked her reply. “Oh Sari get off me girl!” Joey squawked delightedly, his feet kicking in the air. “Joey and Sari are just like that commercial of the adorable toddler and the basket of puppies,” Liz commented. She was smiling too much, and Caleb assumed that despite her clear eyes, skin and unwired demeanor, she was high too. “Except the puppies weren’t humping the toddlers head were they?” Johnny observed. 291


Sandy, all business, said, “So what do you guys want? A quarter each?” “I’d like an ounce if you give me a break,” Johnny asserted. Sandy thought for about five seconds and said, “I’ll knock off forty if you get an ounce.” Caleb said, “I’ll just take a quarter, and I was wanting to ask you about working some days at your antique store.” “Have you ever worked retail?” Sandy asked. “Just selling pot a little,” Johnny helpfully offered. “Do you know anything about antiques?” Here Johnny butt in, challenging Sandy. “Do you?” he asked. Sandy looked at Johnny, hurt. “Of course I know something about antiques, fuckhead. Jesus, Johnny, give me a little credit.” It’s a testament to Sandy’s affection for Johnny that he never took umbrage at the many cutting remarks at his expense. Johnny further tested Sandy’s inexplicably high regard of him, saying, “Now I think you’re just trying to hurt Caleb’s feelings. Come on, pal, we don’t have to listen to idiot boy here run you down like he’s salesman of the year. I’m sorry for telling you that Sandy was a human being about things. And, Sandy, as for you, just get us our fucking dope if you don’t mind and we’ll be on our way, prick! And don’t give us any of your crap buds please. The least you can do is give us something bodacious. Your most bodacious buds! Don’t add insult to injury!” “Okay, okay. Caleb, stop by tomorrow and check the place out. I’ll give you ten dollars an hour. That’s cool right?” “Super. Thanks.” Sandy then got out a large Bell jar of buds and his balance beam scale, and he meted out their reefer. By then Joey was off the floor, and he and Stevie had disappeared. While they were 292


gone, Sandy rolled a large joint, which they smoked on his deck. When it was Liz’s turn, she passed it without taking a hit. Sandy blew a hit in Sari’s face, causing her to squint. Caleb asked, “What time should I be there?” Sandy took a deep hit and said, “Ahh, whenever.”

After lunch and bongs with Johnny the next day, Caleb took the red line north all the way to the, um, we won’t say what station. From there it was a three block walk over the Chicago river and past several chi-chi bistros and shops. Sandy’s Antiques was a small upscale operation which, as mentioned before, did not depend on it sales for its biggest profits. The front of the business was done in wooden slats that had been varnished and enameled to an artificial rustic perfection. There were two rocking chairs and an empty jug for moonshine on the front porch of Sandy’s Antiques. It was there that Caleb found Sandy sitting in a patch of early afternoon sunlight. Caleb took the other chair, and wordlessly, Sandy handed him a smokeless pipe. They did hits on the porch for about five minutes, holding them in so no smoke came out when they exhaled. They’d take turns doing hits and looking out for shoppers, nudging each other if they spotted someone approaching. People passed on the street, none the wiser hopefully. When they were done getting high, they went inside Sandy’s store. The inside of the business was an enchanting collection of pieces. There were chairs, tables, night-stands, footstools, a few beds, china cabinets, love seats, ottomans and lots of cut glass lamps. On an ancient butcher’s block was a television with a baseball game on. A rotary phone was ringing on a pearl inlay stand. Sandy answered. To the caller he said, “I’ll be home in forty-five minutes, maybe an 293


hour.” To Caleb, Sandy then said, “Hey, it’s Joey. Wanna say hi?” Caleb took the phone. “Hi, Joey,” he said. Joey croakingly replied, “Caleb is that you buddy; working for Sandy huh; that’s really great; I bet you’re enjoying not having to deal with kids during the summer; I always say that you’ve got to admire the teachers the policemen the firefighters and the doctors and nurses, but not so much the doctors cause they’re paid so fucking much, but what are you gonna do if you’re sick; you’ve gotta pay the cocksuckers; know what I mean?” “Yeah. So how’s it been going?” “Hell I don’t know whether I’m coming or going with this fucking investment thing; you know I was lucky cause I made a bundle last week when everyone else I know took a bath and it was all cause I was sleeping off a coke binge when all these other fuckers were buying up shit that ended up crashing within days so it just goes to show you; well I don’t know what it shows really cause cause cause you can lose it in a fucking day; did I ever tell you about my mentor; the guy who taught me everything; had a terrible free basing habit made millions then lost everything in a matter of three weeks through dud investments and all this after he’d broken all his pipes, thrown out his torches and had been clean for over two years and had a twenty-two year old wife; he must have been in his early fifties; penthouse in Chicago New York, a huge estate in St. Topaz, but then, Caleb, he lost it all; he fucking lost all that fucking money so fast and they found him hanging; he hung himself; shit so there you go it just goes to show you that you should never give up your bad habits; I know I’ve paid fucking Sandy about a hundred and fifty thousand over the years; fuck probably more, but I did great last week; and then I beat Stevie bowling!” “Wow. Man, it’s been great talking to you. Uh, here’s Sandy.” Sandy took the phone back and said, “If you don’t let me get off the fucking phone, I’ll 294


never get there. Okay? See you in awhile. Hey, let’s get some lunch. Huh? Oh. Bye.” Sandy hung up and showed Caleb how to work the register. He also showed him a couple of pages which had helpful information like how to work the register, cancel a sale, use the credit card machine, how to close the store at the end of the day and where to stash the money, checks and credit card receipts in the back room. The cluttered backroom was shadowy, and it was where you were supposed to look for pieces that customers asked for that you couldn’t find in the front. Over time, Caleb would see that often as not, he wouldn’t be able to find the pieces in the back either. Sandy also showed him the security code and wrote it down as well as the telephone numbers of the building management, a plumber and the cellular phone number of someone named Irving. “If anyone comes in wanting something that you have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about, and around here it’ll happen all the time, if that happens, call Irving and he’ll know what’s going on. I have him working here two days a week, and he knows his shit. But when you’re talking to him, don’t say anything about dope, or about what I do. He’s straight, and he doesn’t have any idea of what’s going on, and we don’t want him to know. He’s cool with knowing we smoke, but just be cool.” “Okay.” “Hell, I’ll call him right now. I told him about you, but I’ll introduce you.” Sandy dialed. “Hello? Irving, Sandy. I’ve got Caleb here. Say hello right?” Sandy handed the phone to Caleb. “Hey is this Caleb?” “Yeah, Irving? Nice to meet you.” “Likewise, my friend, likewise. So where did you meet that meshuganah Sandy?” “Through a mutual friend.” “He’s crazy right? Am I right, Caleb?” 295


“Yeah.” “Hey, you have any problems call me on my cellular. Anybody asks for any shit you don’t know what they’re talking about or you don’t know where it is, call me. These customers that Sandy gets are always wanting something farchadat, the fancy cocksuckers.” “I will be. Thanks, Irving.” “My pleasure, Caleb. I’m glad you’re working for Sandy. He said that you’re a teacher right?” “Yeah.” “God bless you, my friend. Look, I’m selling beer at Wrigley right now, and I got to get back to work, so I’ll hear from you. Oh, and have Sandy show you the back room cause we keep a bunch of pieces back there. It’s a big fucking mess, but every time I straighten the place up, Sandy messes it up again. Muhshuggy!” “He did show me. You’re right. I don’t know if I can find anything back there. Anyway, thanks again. See you Irving.” Caleb hung up. Sandy further revealed, “Here’s some menus from places around here that deliver. And here’s the remote. You might want to bring reading material. Some days it can get pretty quiet. There’s a little box of sifted bud, a hitter and a lighter. Just be cool.” And that was all that Caleb needed to know. Sandy told him that he had to meet Joey for lunch, and he left. Caleb reckoned that Joey hadn’t driven up from his and his mother’s home to have lunch in the city; furthermore, from the pace of their conversation, he didn’t really believe that Joey would be eating anything. Caleb checked the spot where Sandy had said the box of manicured weed would be, and sure enough, there it was. Caleb brought it, the lighter and the hitter with him 296


Sunlight cascaded through the front windows. The rug over the floor was an opulent Victorian baroque pattern of gold, maroon and emerald. In the corner by the window was a throne of oak with a matching footstool. The seat back and arms were upholstered in chocolate colored leather as was the footstool. Flanking it on the right so that it was visible when looking in the front window from outside was a beautiful floor lamp with a cut glass shade of springtime lavender hues. On the left of the throne was a short table large enough to hold a coaster and a book, or in this case a little antique Chinese lacquered box of bud. The chair was positioned perfectly to watch the t.v. Caleb sat down and put his feet up. He did several hits right there. Then he channel surfed. No one in the store. What a great job, he thought. If only no one ever comes in to bother me, and I never have to sell anything. The register intimidated him a bit, as did the credit card machine and, when he thought about it, the prospect of people expecting anything of him. Caleb kept shifting from channel to channel, scene to scene in the most comforting rhythm. His breathing settled, and he was asleep.

He woke up to hear someone speaking. The person was saying, “Hello? Do you work here?” Feeling a little cranky at having been suddenly awakened, Caleb frowned at the customer, a little old woman in matching pearls and earrings and wearing a nice outfit. She was accompanied by a little girl of five or six in a sailor suit. Caleb regarded them in horror. “What do you want?” he foggily asked, still half asleep. “Oh, we were just browsing,” the woman informed him. Caleb wondered why if they were ‘just browsing’ he’d needed to be wakened. 297


“Can I help you find anything, ma’am,” he sighed listlessly. “Not yet. We just didn’t want you to think that we were lurking.” “I wouldn’t have thought that.” The little girl, who was near Caleb, said, “What kind of box is that? And what’s that next to it? Buy it for me, Grandma!” “Um, that’s not for sale. It’s a, a spice box, and the other thing is a ceremonial Indian, uh, thing.” The little girl reached for it, but he snatched it away. “Sorry, it’s very delicate, and not for sale either. They’re, uh...sold. I just haven’t tagged them yet. Uh, if there’s anything I can help you with, just ask. I probably won’t know what you’re talking about, but there’s this guy I can call if it comes to that.” Dazzled by Caleb’s blinding salesmanship, the elderly woman promptly ushered her granddaughter out of the store. Caleb went back to surfing channels and dozing. It was going to be a good summer after all, he thought right before he dozed back off.

IN THE HEART OF THE HEART OF THE HEART WHERE THEY TELL ME WHAT TO TELL ME WHAT TO TELL ME

Thus the rest of the summer proceeded splendidly, with Caleb working two to four days a week at a job that involved little more than getting high off his dealer’s weed, ordering takeout, watching television, reading and napping, with the occasional customer to be dealt with. They would always ask for things he’d never heard of, Asphere Ware this or Swain’s Bench that or a Winscott of Poodle-dee-doo something or other, and he would have to call Irving, who would 298


usually know what the customer was referring to and could direct Caleb to the desired item through the labyrinth of antique chairs, tables and lamps in the back room of the store. Oddly enough, every time Caleb worked at Sandy’s store, he brought in lots of money. It probably cannot be said that the purchases could in any way be credited to Caleb’s nonexistent sales ability. Actually, Sandy did have fine merchandise. Beautiful pieces as vulnerable as exotic animals in captivity would arrive on a daily basis to replace those items that had been bought despite Caleb’s indifference to the customers. Perhaps they thought apathetic contempt was how clerks in high end antique stores were supposed to behave. No one ever complained or raised an eyebrow, except when they would come in right after he’d have taken a hit. It was during the idyllic days of late summer when, a week and a half before school was about to begin, Caleb received a letter from the Chicago Board of Education. Maybe they were going to assign him at Brandywine. Perhaps they were telling him that he had now served his apprenticeship as a full time temporary substitute and was now going to be made a full time teacher. Instead of saying any of that, it coolly informed him that someone in the system who had more seniority had bumped him from his position at Brandywine, and that he should report to the Chicago Board of Education to sign up for daily sub work if he wanted to continue teaching at all. Oh, and as of last week, Caleb no longer had any health benefits. The next day, he took the hated ride on the south bound Halsted bus to Pershing Road where he then walked the last mile to the evil castle of bureaucracy rather than wait for another bus to take him closer. The Chicago Board of Education was an ugly old brown trio of massive brick six story buildings that were connected by hallways to each other and which rose above the surrounding neighborhood like an angry mountain range. The workers inside were often as not 299


surly. It was standard operating procedure to put calling teachers on hold for up to an hour only to then disconnect them entirely. It was a place where civil servants who knew nothing of education festered throughout their careers, and administrators who had fucked up their schools were routinely promoted like shit rolling ever upward. For those who had to make a trip there, it was recommended that they take along aspirin. New teachers just entering the system, subs desperately looking for positions and teachers who had been displaced were herded and shuffled to different rooms on different floors like anxious refugees where they then stood in lines to be given forms to fill out so they could stand in other lines and fill out other forms. And that was what Caleb did that day. It was there that Caleb saw all the other full time temporary substitute teachers who had started out with him at Brandywine. They had all been bumped too, and that made him feel a bit less miserable. He looked out of the sixth floor window at the tree tops of the south side neighborhood, the greenery extending all the way to the downtown buildings. He remembered what had been said about the effects of daily subbing on those who did it for a long time. He wondered what he would do now that he had no medical benefits. Not get sick, he reckoned. Quite a decent view from the sixth floor though, he thought.

Caleb found that daily sub work wasn’t all bad. Yes, it was true that he never knew where he would be traveling on any given day, and going on the L or by bus to schools in iffy neighborhoods could sometimes prove to be a little too thrilling. Then there was the shift in economic levels, from lower middle class to screaming poverty, and as mentioned, the incentive to stay healthy because of not having medical insurance was worrisome. And there was the problem of getting his pay mailed to him. There was the matter of it’s coming late. And his calling the 300


Board of Ed and being put on hold for an hour and a half, only to have the line go dead after that period of time, well, that made his brain boil. Still, there were moments of excitement such as the two full cans of pop whizzing by his head when he was in one of the halls of Wells High School. Thank God they didn’t connect. It was strangely stimulating to have no back up, only the expectation that he control crowds of resentful teens who were strangers. Minutes stretched into hours. Pandemonium in Bedlam. And of course, there was the ill will shown by the regular staff towards him because he was a sub. There was all that to consider. No, there really was one good thing. No matter how awful the day was or how mean the students were or how condescending the staff were, he didn’t have to go back the next day. So that was a good thing. And not all the schools were terrible. Caleb taught one day at an early childhood center for toddlers with severe physical handicaps. It was a privilege to be in their presence. The toddlers were millions of miles away from recognizable cognizance in many cases. Some were as still as stones and others ceaselessly active, constantly crawling or stumbling around the room. To Caleb they were beautiful tragic nebulae, and he tended to them as if he were handling God. Also, there were many decent high schools and good classes. Caleb had the opportunity to work with many different types of student populations and many ethnic groups. There were a few Indian summer afternoons when he wasn’t afraid to walk from the schools to the bus or L stops. It wasn’t all bad; of course every morning he never knew what he would be walking into or even if he would work at all. Caleb still worked for Sandy on Thursdays and Fridays. Also his Mom, unasked, sent him money. So Caleb bounced around from school to school. One day he may suffer an insult or 301


physical threat from a student. The next day he might endure the browbeating of an administrator or other teacher for, say, giving the wrong kid a bathroom pass. Having despaired of convincing anyone that they really didn’t have to pee, Caleb gave most kids a pass to the bathroom one at a time, as long as students weren’t obviously trying to get out of class. And as mentioned, some days ended up being not so bad.

One good day he was sent to Ridle High School, which was an old institution for physically and cognitively challenged kids from around the city. Adjoined to the high school was an elementary school. That day Caleb taught a class of combined educably mentally handicapped students (EMH), many of them with secondary physical handicaps and a few physically handicapped students of regular or superior intelligence. He taught them a lesson about nominative pronouns, which some learned easily while others struggled. They were gentle. After the lesson was finished, he allowed the students to draw or read. There was a tiny library in the southwest corner of the room, and it was partitioned from the rest of the room by shelves of books. One student who had suffered traumatic brain injury as a toddler wore a white helmet. She was a small white girl whose name was Abbey, and she spoke in a halting sing-song voice. Abbey walked with a limp, and her left hand curled inward in one of the symptoms of partial quadriplegia. She wore a brown jumpsuit and sprags of her straight brown hair stuck out of her helmet. She asked to get a book from the library, and Caleb gave her permission. After awhile, a young man in a wheel chair, Farrell, asked if he could return the book that he was reading and get another. He was one of two identical twins, young African American men who were dressed the same and who shared the same style of short box fade haircuts. Farrell and 302


his brother Terrell suffered from a neurological disease which had robbed them of their ability to walk and was now claiming the use of their arms. Caleb gave Farrell permission. He offered to help wheel the young man to the library, but Farrell said that he could do it himself. Caleb watched in silent admiration as the young man gripped his wheels and used his body weight to throw himself forward. Slowly he disappeared into the library. One student whose name was Sheena suffered from terrible tremors. She was a beautiful African American girl who was dressed as if she were younger and were going to a birthday party. Her party dress was a pink pastel and the skirt was flounced with what looked to be layers of crinoline. She tried to speak, but to Caleb’s ears, her words were garbled beyond comprehension. When he asked her to repeat herself, he saw in her eyes the same disappointment that he had so often felt when someone he’d been speaking to hadn’t been able to understand him because of his harelip. With great effort, Sheena, again tried to communicate something to Caleb. He smiled at her helplessly. To Sheena’s left, a thin, Hispanic student named Faith, who was in a wheelchair, snapped, “Sheena’s trying to tell you that she wants you to draw her a horse by the sea if you can.” Faith was dressed in loose denim and a cotton work shirt. She rolled her eyes at Caleb as if he were dumb and then exchanged glances with Virginia, who was missing one of her legs because of childhood cancer. Virginia was a heavy white girl who constantly held a half smile on her bemused countenance. The girls looked at each other as if in complicity over their teacher’s stupidity. Faith touched Sheena’s trembling shoulder and added, “Is that it, Sheena?” A beautiful smile crossed Sheen’s face as she roughly pushed her drawing paper and colored pencil set in Caleb’s direction. Caleb quickly drew the girl a horse on the beach. Pointing 303


to the expanse of space he had left for the ocean, he said, “Maybe you can draw in some of the waves or color the water blue.” Caleb went on to tell Faith the meaning of the word resonate, which she had encountered in the article that she was reading on sound waves in space. As he explained, he saw Sheena try to control a blue crayon, but her shaking hands and arms betrayed her intention and she scrawled a streak of blue across the paper before accidently tearing it. Sheena made a soft cooing noise of regret, her head bobbing and shaking as she gazed at the ruined drawing. Faith said, “Hey, Mr. Jones, Faith needs you to make another one.” Sheena tried to pat Faith’s hand and ended up grabbing her friend by the wrist. “It’s okay, Sheena,” Faith told her, grinning at the tightness of Sheena’s grip. Caleb drew another horse on the beach for her, and this time he asked Virginia to assist with the coloring of the ocean. Taking a blue crayon, Virginia lightly colored the portion of the page designated for the water. Sheena expressed her pleasure by lightly humming and tapping Virginia’s shoulder. Her tremors lessened. Caleb went on to help a completely paralyzed young man with something he wanted to have written down. The young man’s name was Herbie. He had no use of his muscles, nor could he speak. He was a loose formed white lad with a very short buzz cut and a soft, melancholy expression. Caleb helped by writing down what Herbie indicated when he would point to letters and words that were affixed to a table fitted over the arms of his wheelchair. Herbie had a band around his nearly bald head, and his pointer was fastened to the band. He wore what might have at one time either been a mechanic’s or a janitor’s clothes. His white shirt and dark blue slacks were rumpled. When he would smile, or make an especially great effort, one eye would twist upward as the opposite corner of his mouth would stretch into a grimace. One arm was often stuck out at an 304


uncomfortable looking angle, and both hands were drawn into small fists. Here is what Herbie had Caleb write.

HERBIE’S JOURNAL FOR TODAY My mind goes faster than I can point. There are so many things I want to say to everyone, but no one has the time. I like a girl in our class. She doesn’t know. I wish I could talk to her. Also walk and move hands. I’d ask her to go out with me.

It took Herbie nearly twenty minutes to point that much out to Caleb, and to help, Caleb had to stay on his feet constantly going from Herbie to the other students. That was okay, because they were all busy with their books, writing and pictures, only occasionally asking for help drawing a house or a cat or spelling a word or helping read or define a word. Before the end of the period, he noticed that Abbey and Farrell were still in the library, so he went to help Farrell get back to his desk so he could get ready to go. As he got to the entrance he stopped and looked in. Abbey and Farrell were reading a book together at a table in the little enclosed area. Farrell was softly reading aloud to Abbey, and occasionally in her sing song voice, she would ask him about something he had read to her and he would patiently attempt to answer. It was a charming tableaux, except in addition to reading together, Abbey was sitting on Farrell’s lap and he casually had his hand under her sweatshirt on her boob which he seemed to be fiddling with as if he were working the combination to his locker. Caleb took several steps back then made approaching noises, clearing his throat and whistling the little tune, ‘Come and Knock on Our Door’ from the show, ‘Three’s Company’. When he got to the entrance, Abbey was seated in her own chair as she 305


and Farrell continued to read. “Time to go?” Abbey singingly asked. Farrell allowed her to wheel him back to their table. At the end of the day, when it was time to go, the secretary at the main desk asked if he would like to come back. Caleb told her that it would be his pleasure. Ridle High School and to a lesser degree the Elementary School started using him daily, and after a month, he was made him a cadre. Caleb stopped working for Sandy during the week, occasionally working a Saturday instead. It had taken Caleb about two months to end up at Ridle. There weren’t that many students, about two hundred in the high school and maybe seventy five on the elementary side. Ridle was ruled with an iron fist by its principal, Jane Berring and her protege, Sally Porttage, Mrs. Berring and Mrs. Porttage. They were both very large, matriarchal African American women who brooked no nonsense from their staff. Mrs. Berring was a tall heavy woman who wore her hair in elaborate confections she had updated weekly, and she was also fond of stylish sweeping dresses and jewelry. Mrs. Porttage was extremely tall, a big boned wide hipped woman who was not especially heavy, just big. Both of them carried themselves with imperious dignity. Mrs. Berring would cock her head back and fix a teacher, an aide or a bus driver with a cold, cold stare, her expression unreadable. Mrs. Porttage wore glasses and would cast a half lidded, steady, calm glare that would bore into whoever was unfortunate enough to be the recipient of her look. And like her mentor, her expression was also unreadable. At times when they would see Caleb in the hall, they would nod, but usually they would look through him. Being a cadre meant that he could come to Ridle every day, and he would be paid slightly more than a daily sub, although not nearly as much as a full time temporary substitute and nothing compared to the average poorly paid teacher. Nor was he paid benefits. Nevertheless, it was a 306


degree of security, and even more importantly, he was at a good place working with some very endearing students. And as he showed up everyday, the staff warmed to him. Did these positive upswings mean that all was golden? Giving daily subs cadre status and having them teach the same class for the entire year like a regularly assigned teacher or a full time temporary substitute was a common practice among principals in the Chicago Public School system in the late 80's and early 90's. The principals saved the system thousands of dollars by paying cadres very little to teach these chronically open positions. By law in those days, if a substitute, cadre, or full time temporary substitute taught the same class beyond a certain number of days, he or she was entitled full time status. Assignment. Tenure. Principals got around this by telling these teachers they could work at the schools and have a regular program if they didn’t insist upon permanent status. The downtrodden members of this sub-strata who were offered this type of situation weren’t in any position to turn down these tainted and disingenuous offers. To even ask to be assigned after the allotted number of days was up was to be asked to be dismissed. So Caleb didn’t protest, and he was thankful to be able to come to the same gentle students on a daily basis. It was an honor to be among them every day, so being treated unfairly by the administration was just the way things were. Caleb couldn’t understand what the principals personally got out of keeping positions open and having unassigned teachers teach them. Perhaps they enjoyed the power of withholding such fundamental security as medical care. They weren’t pocketing any of the money saved from holding these positions open year after year. The Teachers’ Union was worthless to all but assigned teachers. To people like Caleb, the union was worse than useless since they not only did nothing for him but also deducted dues from 307


his already insultingly low paycheck for their institutionalized neglect. Caleb didn’t know whether the reason that the union was so awful was because teachers were by nature a spineless lot, willing to settle for nothing and be scapegoats for society’s dissatisfaction with its youth, or whether the teachers’ union was worthless because its officers were basically wanna’ be politicians in collusion with management and the well connected. Take your choice. The Teachers’ Union is a joke.

Caleb’s Mom listened to his fiery views about his union, the Board of Ed and his administrators. She said, “You could always come back here” “I like the city, Ma.” “Ben Thatcher, who’s on the school board, said that there’s going to be some teachers retiring, and that you should get your application in, so you can come home if you want.” “ I like it here. If I’ve got to teach somewhere, it might as well be somewhere that I like. For that matter, you could retire and come up here and live. Get you a place nearby. It would be great, Mom.” “You’ve got to be kidding. Anyway I ran into your Uncle Pal and Aunt Vee Vee at the grocery store. Bertie’s got a new girlfriend, Maze Lewis, and he’s putting up drywall with her Dad, Bobby.” “That’s great. How’s Nadine and Matlock been?” “Oh my gosh! About a week ago, Nadine called me and told me that she’d just gotten an anonymous phone call.” “What’s the caller say to her?” “He said, ‘Are you Nadine Williams?’ She said, ‘I am,’ and then whoever was calling said, ‘Expect a package from Marshall Fields,’ and then he hung up.” 308


“Wow.” “Oh, and that’s not all. Matlock got married!” “What?” Caleb reckoned he hadn’t heard right. “Yes, Nadine sent me a wedding invitation, and I actually went,” she told him, and when twenty seconds of stunned silence on Caleb’s part passed, she continued, “He got married to another Chihuahua that lives on south fourteenth street.” “At least he married a home town bitch,” Caleb interjected. “It was...something. Caleb was in his tux, and SqueezeBox was in her-“ ”SqueezeBox?” “Yes, that is the bride’s name.” Another pause. “Uh, were they married in a church?” “Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous. They had some friend of the little girl dog’s owner pretend to be the priest.” “Did he wear vestments?” “You’d better believe it.” “How was Matlock?” “Nadine was holding him, but he was, well, he was Matlock. He was pretty shaky. So was SqueezeBox. They looked like they were afraid we were all going to kill and eat them.” “Are they living together or something?” “No.” “Uh, Matlock’s been fixed hasn’t he?” “No. Nadine considers that barbaric. Anyway, it’s not a real marriage, Caleb. It was just something for Nadine and SqueezeBox’s owner to do. An excuse to have a party.” 309


Caleb was picturing it. “Was there a reception? Wedding cake?” “Yes there was. It was all at Nadine’s house. Me and a couple of her friends, and Squeezebox’s owner and some of his friends.” “What did the bride and groom do after the reception?” “They avoided each other and their guests. SqueezeBox crawled behind Nadine’s stove and stayed there chewing one of her wedding presents, a leather bone I got her, and Matlock hid under the bed with a new kitty cat Nadine got. Her name is Winky Lee. She’s his sister. Matlock gets along with her really well. He loves her so much. You ought to see them together.” They talked awhile more. Caleb’s Ma asked him how Johnny was. Caleb said, “Johnny’s doing great. He’s got a girlfriend that he’s crazy about.” It was true. A couple of months back, Johnny had been fixed up by Sandy’s girlfriend, Liz, to go on a date with her wholesome, uncorrupted by Sandy, life long friend, Irene. Then, KABOOM! Irene and Johnny had hit it off immediately. “He’s a changed man, Mom. Much nicer now. He’s not always teasing and sarcastic.” “That’s nice. And what about you? When are you going to meet a nice girl?” his Mom asked. Caleb thought of Dakota. “Well there is a girl I like.” “Is she a nice girl?” “Well she seems to be, but she doesn’t know that I like her.” “Just friends then huh?” Really, they weren’t even friends, but Caleb said, “Yeah.” “Well, maybe something will come of it.” “You never know,” Caleb replied, but really he did know. 310


Caleb and Johnny were in Johnny’s new SUV. They were going to get some fresh cut flowers for Irene, and Caleb was trying to tell Johnny about the injustice of the Chicago Public School system. Before Johnny had met Irene, his response to Caleb’s complaints about his job, or his gaylordesque moonings over Dakota or any stoned rambling he’d babble was to make the wry observation, “And this affects me how?” Now, since he’d met Irene, Johnny merely cheerfully ignored Caleb’s goings on. Now he pulled into the parking lot outside the downtown flower shop called Urban Gardener. His broad smile, his playful sock on Caleb’s shoulder, all this and so much more showed a new, kinder Johnny. Waiting for a break in whatever Caleb was talking about instead of simply interrupting him, Johnny said, “Wanna come in, Caleb?” Caleb was on his soapbox. He said, “Sure. And the way the Chicago Public School System makes even more money off me is by paying me through the mail by check. See, Johnny, for every day my money is withheld from me cause it’s held up in the mail is another day that they, the Chicago Public School System, makes interest off of money that is rightfully mine. And you know my pay always comes to me late! Try to tell your landlord to give you a break on rent because you’re a fucking teacher. Yeah, the Chicago Public School System doesn’t make much from me, but multiply me by thousands of subs who get their pay mailed to them and get it late every time like I do! They’re fucking ripping me and all these other subs off.” “Be sure and lock the doors. You always forget,” Johnny reminded Caleb, not having heard a word of what his friend had said. “Think she’d like gladiolas?” “I’ve never even met her.” “All in good time,” Johnny said as they went into Urban Gardener to get a couple dozen 311


gladys. The inside of the flower shop was beautiful and fragrant. Until now, Johnny had never evinced any interest in flowers. Now he had bought them for Irene on three occasions that Caleb knew of. “It was crazy,” Johnny gushed. “I was with Sandy, and we had to pick up Liz at her place because she’d just gotten back from a flight, and while we were waiting I was looking through her vacation pictures, and there was one of her and a bunch of her friends. So I saw Irene, and I said, ‘Who’s this?’ and Liz was like, ‘That’s my friend, Irene. Would you like to meet her?’ and I tell you what, Caleb. I knew from the start that this girl...she’s the one, man.” “Wow, that’s great. That’s exactly how I felt the first time I saw Dakota. Do you get butterflies in your stomach when you see Irene? Does your heart start racing like it’s going to jump out of its chest?” As Caleb asked his friend these questions, Johnny diverted his attention from the lovely displays of roses, snap dragons and sprays of baby’s breath to his effusive pal. Johnny looked at his friend sympathetically and said, “Naw, buddy. What me and Irene have is grounded in reality, not some sad jack off fantasy like your sick infatuation with your aerobics instructor. Sheesh.” Johnny chuckled indulgently. “It’s not like that, Johnny. You’re not the only one who can have deep feelings for someone, you know,” Caleb protested, adding, “And I don’t think of her when I jack off. I use porn.” But Johnny wasn’t listening. He said, “Now do you think Irene would like all one kind of flower, or a mix? I want your honest opinion.” Caleb told him mixed, and Johnny got all gladys.

“Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones, can we do my musical today?” It was Marty McCagle running down the hall toward Caleb. Marty was in Caleb’s afternoon English class. He was a thin white student with dark slicked back hair who favored red wind breakers and crew necked tee shirts and 312


sweaters. He was also a fan of musical theater and wrote plays for his English class to act out for their, (really his), own amusement. Most of Marty’s classmates had been performing Marty’s plays since they’d all been in the elementary wing of Ridling. All his plays involved Marty as the hero. When they’d all been kids, his uniform would consist of a towel tied around his neck as a cape, but his outfit had evolved into a more subtle turned up collar, a timeless look in Caleb’s estimation. His love interest in each incarnation of his vision from first grade until now was always Lishy. Lishy, Marty’s inspiration, was a petit young Hispanic woman whose grandmother dressed her like a hatless nun to hide her recently developed enormous breasts. Her attitude toward Marty, who considered her to be his girlfriend, was one of benign indifference. She liked Joey from New Kids on the Block and would not be persuaded by the childish, make believe ‘starring Marty’ shows that she had been going along with since before she could remember. Although she knew that she should be honored to be his muse, she felt used, as if she were merely an appendage to Marty’s romantic action hero image of himself. Still, she considered Marty to be her friend, so she went along with his dramatic and at times histrionic demands upon her as an actress. Gamely, she would stumble over her lines or improvise when she lost her place. This in itself was a testament to her good will towards him, as the combination of Lishy’s reading skill deficits, (she read at a second grade level), and Marty’s earnest but confusing and at times illegible writing efforts frequently left the entire cast at sea and either looking at each other in bewilderment or daydreaming until someone cued them to read their line. Still, though the action or line of narrative would sag and occasionally break down completely, they had all performed Marty’s plays enough times to be able to improvise when no one remembered whose line it was or what exactly was going on. As a template to his plots, think the Elvis Presley and Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry era 313


cinematic oeuvre, although throughout Marty’s early work, he cast himself as various superheroes, which neither Elvis nor Mr. Eastwood ever did. As Marty’s cannon of work grew, his heroic persona evolved and covered a range of icons from super-heroes, firemen, cowboys, and soldiers, to Marty’s current image, a type of stylized Michael Jackson manque race car driver, 21 Jump Street undercover lover cool guy. Marty fancied himself in the mild anti-hero mold, the bad boy with gang ties who was trying to turn a new leaf and be good. His acting technique relied not only on the emotional life with which he would inform his lines but also on a fearless willingness to embrace serendipity and improvise at any moment. He also incorporated elements of Kabuki in the repertoire through a series of signature poses and expressions on which he relied. There was the hands on the hips or thumbs hooked through the belt loops pose which he would combine with a sexy under the eyebrow look for instance. All had been honed through years of practice. Also, in recent years, Marty had begun incorporating music and other media into his performances. Usually this meant cuing someone to play recorded songs that Marty, who had a penchant for Michael Jackson, would then dance to and sing along with during different high points in the play’s action.

On one occasion however, when his classmates had refused to participate, Marty had incorporated a video of Beat Street which he played on the school television while he acted along with the scenes, casting himself as a kung-fu disco king named Junior and throwing himself into every scene by making comments to the various actors as well as singing, dancing and kung-fu karatifying the air in front of the screen when the scene called for it. This lasted until some of Caleb’s students protested. 314


Omar was a wheel-chair bound Hispanic lad who resembled no one so much as a beautiful brown Humpty Dumpty, and Deareo was a young African American student who had the waviest, long black hair that Caleb had ever seen. She had suffered traumatic brain injury from falling off a chair the wrong way as an infant, and the scar from the accident began over her right eyebrow and disappeared into her hairline. It had caused paraplegia and the attendant limp and drawn arm, It affected Deareo’s right arm, which she sometimes protectively held with her left hand. Every time Mr. Jones would see Deareo, which was several times a day, he would tell her, “Deareo, you’re my herio,” and though she was long tired of hearing it, she went along with Mr. Jones because of her unusually sweet nature. Although she and Omar were among some of the sweetest natured of his sweet natured students, they had led the class in a general revolt that had gone unchallenged by Lishy, who had been slated to jump in the action whenever she felt inspired as Marty’s kung-fu disco queen love interest. Omar’s speaking voice very much resembled that of the deceased actor Hervie Vallichez who played Tattoo on the television show, Fantasy Island. On that day Omar had said, “Mr. Jones, please make Marty stop pretending along with the t.v. He’s playing like a baby.” Marty had interrupted his performance with the aside to Omar, “Hey, cool it, Omar.” Deareo had addressed Marty directly. “Stop playing make-believe in front of the television. It’s unseemly.” Robert Michaels was another much beloved student of Caleb’s, a young African American kid who had suffered tramatic brain injury as a young child of three. He both wore a protective helmet and was wheelchair bound. On that day, he’d said, “Marty’s actin’ like a damn baby,” and at his own mention of the word baby, Robert had giggled. “We’ll put him in a diaper. A didee!” 315


This had tickled him to no end. “Deareo, Robert, come on now,” Marty had countered. Robert had pressed his hands in a prayerful manner. He’d closed his eyes, smiled and bowed in Marty’s direction. “Yesssss, father,” he’d said solemnly before then becoming transfixed by the television screen, which was still continuing in real time. Marty finally hit the pause. “Come on, guys. Lishy, when are you gonna come in? You can either come in now and help me fight the rival karate school or you can come in during the disco dance contest.” A wheelchair bound young man named Jose had weakly chimed in, more sighing than speaking. “Mr. Jones, this is exactly what he did when one of my care takers took me to visit him. Play, play, play. And trying to make me play in front of the t.v. with him.” Jose lived at the same group home that Herbie did, and he wore the same kind of loose, ill-fitting clothing that poor Herbie wore. He was quadroplegic, and like Herbie, Omar and Farrell and Terrell, Jose also had an automatic chair. He was a shy young man with lovely brown eyes with long lashes, a faint mustache and curly black hair. Because of poor muscle control, his head often hung to one side, and he had a condition which caused him to drool excessively, which Caleb would temporarily remedy by regularly wiping Jose’s mouth with paper towels. He would also rig both cloth and paper towels under the side of Jose’s chin to try to sop up the spit. On that afternoon, Jose had said to Marty, “Marty, we all love you, but enough is enough.” Caleb had expressed his own appreciation at Marty’s ‘performance art’ but had gone along with the class, telling him that perhaps someday they would all understand but for now, just stop it please.

316


And that had been that. Marty had been defeated but unbeaten, or beaten but undefeated, one of those. In any event, he did stop annoying his classmates on that particular day, but today was another matter. Marty had a new play for them to perform. He had brought his boom box with the songs he’d need taped to be cued at key moments by his classmate Zuzandra. He had enough copies of his script so that none of the players would have to share, and he had taken pains to copy the script very legibly. Plus, today, his class was receptive. Of course, Caleb was always ready to accommodate Marty in his creative endeavors. He reckoned that Marty was some kind of idiot savant crazy genius. The drama gods were smiling. Since Marty had seen Michael Jackson’s Beat It Video, gangs had figured into many of his plays, and today was no different. Also, everyone would have to play dual roles. Marty tried to work it out so that at no time did he have one person playing two roles that were talking to each other, an unfortunate and confusing occasional occurrence. A wonderful student named Chester, of Serbian ancestry, would be working the video camera that Marty had brought from home. Chester was shaped like a pear and shared the same delightful mannerisms and disposition of Baby Huey. What he lacked in technical ability, or concentration, he made up for in enthusiasm. Although Marty hated for Chester to work the camera, Caleb always wanted him to, probably because Chester so obviously loved to do the filming. One day the class had been once again watching Chester’s shaky take on scene after scene. Marty had boiled as he’d watched Chester absently panning to the ceiling where he would leave the camera for minutes, thereby missing precious action. Worst of all was his incessant commentary, totally inappropriate to Marty’s mind, throughout not just the movie they had been watching, but every movie he filmed. If Chester wasn’t muttering something like “Wow,” or “Gee 317


whiz,” or a Randy Macho Man imitation, “Ohhh Yeahhh!”, he was laughing or even talking to the actors, encouraging whoever was in the scene with a “Way to go,” or warning them by loudly saying, “Look out! They’re comin’ to get you,” or chastising them, telling them they’d better be nice to Lishy or Marty and threatening to “...open a can of whup ass on ‘em...” if they weren’t. So the class had been watching Chester butcher another of Marty’s masterpieces when, after the umpteenth time Chester had turned the camera around to mug into it and say hello, Marty had complained to Caleb. Caleb had stupidly replied that Chester’s camera work showed great sensitivity and said that Chester was ‘a natural heir to the dogma movement,’ whatever that meant. No matter, today was fraught with the possibility of everything going right. Marty just had a feeling. To make sure that Chester would concentrate on what he was doing, Marty, like he always did and which never did any good but maybe this time it would, Marty gave Chester a pep talk as he got the camera out of its case. “So, Chester, keep the camera on me, got it?” “Got it chief!” Chester, his eyes half open, saluted Marty. “And listen,” Marty added, “remember, when you’re filming, no talking.” Chester made a zipping motion across his lips to show that he understood, but he always did that; nevertheless, maybe this time...”Really, Chester, you can’t talk, and no turning the camera on yourself and saying hi. This is show business, pal.” Chester’s brow furrowed, and he proclaimed, “I’m the best camera guy in the world. Mr. Jones calls me the, the king of Post Dog Momism, buddy! So there.” He smiled beatifically. Oh well, Marty thought, maybe this time he wouldn’t mess things up.

Marty’s first order of business was to assign roles. This was nearly a formality since in the 318


narrow confines of their classroom, with the exception of Lishy who was always the romantic lead, each of the students had played countless times absolutely every type of role that Marty had created. As he passed out scripts, he told them, “Lishy, you’re Run Around Sue. Ramiro, you’re my brother and the leader of the Tiger’s gang as well. I used to be the leader, but I quit to find a better way.” Ramiro looked around, his heavy lidded eyes nearly closed. Ramiro was a small, stout Hispanic teen. He was pale as the moon, and Marty was fond of casting him in sympathetic antihero roles. Today he was dressed in a blue turtle neck and black slacks. Marty informed Jose, “You have two roles today. You’re my Dad, but you’re also the second in command of the Leopards.” “Oh my goodness gracious,” Jose sighed, pitifully amused. “Deareo, you’re my Mom-“ ”Again?!” “But listen. You’re also Paul, the leader of the rival gang, the Leopards,” he explained. “That’s fine, but why can’t I play the gang leader role as a girl?” Deareo asked. “Deareo,” Caleb said. “Yeah, I know, you’re my herio,” Deareo finished for him, then turning her attention back to Marty. “What do you say?” “Oh, I don’t know about that,” Marty fretted. “It’s a great idea I think,” Caleb said. “Ehhhhhh,” Marty whined. “You know, just forget it. In your mind, I can be Paul or whatever guy you want, but I’m gonna play it as Paula, so just don’t call me Paul. Don’t do it.” 319


“Okay,” Marty said, then turning to Omar, he said, “And you’re Chicky Baby, Ramiro’s second in command,” “Oh my gosh,” Omar said, looking a little excited at the prospect of playing Chicky Baby.. Robert Michael spoke up. “Who am I?” he asked. “I’d like to be a policeman and arrest you, Marty, you bad boy.” “You’re Preacher Bobby.” “Hot diggity dog!” Robert’s face was scrunched up in pleasure, and to himself he whispered, “I’m Preacher Bobby,” as if he had told himself the most wonderful secret imaginable. Robert Michael was the son of a preacher man, his father the minister at the Forever Christian Tabernacle on forty-seventh street. Robert had heard thousands of of his father’s sermons and could recite a wedding service or deliver a funeral oration with the best of them. “Virginia, you’re one of the gang members. You’ll just kind of be around during some of the scenes,” Marty told her. “Do I have a name?” “We’ll call you JoJo.” “Whaa? JoJo sounds like a dog.” “It’s a street name,” Marty assured her. “And I’m the camera guy,” Chester shouted. “Yeah, take the cover off the lens but don’t turn the camera on yet, and don’t talk during filming. And don’t forget and point the camera at the ceiling or the floor. Keep it on me, Chester.” “Hey, who’s the cameraman here?” Chester protested. Marty went on, carrying his small boom box to Zuzandra. Zuzandra was a sweet African 320


American student with soulful eyes who never met anyone else’s gaze. She also was in a wheelchair. Zuzandra’s parents sent her to school in stylishly modest outfits. Her family was very religious, and her papers and conversations were sprinkled with constant references to her church, The Forever Christian Tabernacle. Marty placed the box on the table in front of Zuzandra. “You know what to do,” Marty told her. Zuzandra, who showed many of the signs of autism, shook her head and enfolded the boom box into her arms. “Seventy Seventh street on Tuesday night they’re having revival, and my Grandma takes me and my sisters so’s we see the Reverand Davis sayin’ his piece.” “Okay, Zuzandra, just remember, watch me. When I do this,” Marty raised his eyebrows and tugged his ear, “You turn the music on until I tug my ear again.” “Okay.”

Finally, they were ready to begin. Marty had all his actors either take their places or stand off scene. Marty gave a subtle nod to Chester, who was looking at a squirrel on the power line outside the window. “Psssssst.” Marty hissed. Chester smiled at the squirrel. Marty tried again, “Psssssst!” Someone nudged Chester, who aimed his camera at Marty and chirped, “Action!” “No, put the camera on my Mom and Dad,” Marty said. “Who? Your Mom and Dad are here? Where?” “No, Jose and Deareo. They’re just playing my Mom and Dad .” “I thought you told me to keep the camera on you,” Chester reminded him. Touche. It was true. “Well, I was wrong,” Marty conceded. “Keep the camera on the 321


person who’s in the scene.” “Well who’s that?” demanded Chester a little crossly. “Jose. Jose and Deareo for awhile. Then you’ll turn the camera on me or whoever is in the scene. Mr. Jones, could you help him?” “I’ll help him a bit, but really, I tend to trust Chester’s instincts.” “You got my back, Jones,” Chester said holding his free hand up for a high five, which Caleb met. “Okay, and Chester, you don’t need to say action,” Marty explained. “I’ll say action,” Chester said, apparently misunderstanding what Marty had wanted. “No, don’t say action. When I nod, you just start filming,” Marty explained. “Alright already,” Chester said in good natured testiness. They all took their spots. All was at the ready. Marty nodded. “Action,” Chester yelled, starting the film focused on Marty and, with some assistance from Caleb, panning to Deareo and Jose. Marty looked at Zuzandra and tugged his ear. ‘Oh Mama’ by TuPac came on for about twenty seconds before abruptly ending, signaling Deareo’s first line. Looking vaguely alarmed, she said, “Papa, I need a dollar to go to the church and light a candle in thanks for Marty’s turning his life around.” She then held her copy of the script close to Jose’s face so that he could read his line. He paused before his delivery. Smiling merrily, he breathily murmured, “I give you two dollars, Mama! One for a candle to thank good saint Jude for saving our son Marty from the gangs, and one to good saint Christopher to protect our other son Ramiro, who’s still in the gang...And is now the leader, notthat...now that...now that-is that right Deareo, does it say, now 322


that?” “Yes it does.” “Thank you. Now that...what the heck does that say, Deareo? I can’t read this right here.” “Now that Marty has killed....no, quit the band, no, quit the...” “Quit the gang,” Marty prompted. “Now that Marty has quit the gang!” Jose triumphantly piped. “You go, Jose!” Chester enthused. “Why thank you, Chester,” Jose replied. Deareo studied her line, then stated, “Who’s ringing the doorbell?” Marty was agonizing over Chester’s remark and Jose’s not staying in scene in order to reply, and he consequently had forgotten to make the sound effect for the door bell buzzing. He made a tardy buzzing sound. “There it is again,” Deareo improvised. “Who is it?” She nudged Jose, who piped, “It’s Marty’s girlfriend, Runaround Sue.” Marty tugged his ear, and the ever vigilant Zuzandra cued the song ‘Runaround Sue’ which ran around for about half a minute before fading out. This was the cue for Lishy’s entrance. “Hi,” she said impassively to Jose and Deareo. “Hey, Lishy, what’s happening?” Chester called out. Caleb quietly shushed Chester, who said, “Sorry Jones,” and refocused his attention. Deareo said, “What’s up, Runaround?” “It is my...” “Birthday,” Marty prompted. “My birthday. Where’s Marty?” Jose spoke. “He’s working on his racing boat. The big race is this tonight.” 323


“It is my birthday and I want to go out,” Runaround Sue Declared. “Why don’t you call him on the phone?” Deareo asked offering Runaround Sue a chalkboard eraser. “I think I will,” Runaround Sue asserted. This time Marty was ready. “Ring ring,” he said, then answering his own eraser, he said, “Hello? Who is this?” “This is your girlfriend. Do you know what day this is?” Lishy improvised. “It’s the race day,” Marty offered. “No, it’s my birthday,” Runaround Sue said angrily, and she stamped her foot for emphasis. Marty did a credible job of portraying a fellow who had forgotten his girl’s birthday. He slapped his forehead with the flat of his palm and painted an anguished expression on his puss. “Oh, Sue, I’m so sorry, baby-“ ”He called her baby,” Robert cried out, laughing at the word, baby. Marty didn’t let Robert’s outburst deter him. He informed his vocal delivery with much suavity as he intoned, “Honey, what can I do to make it up to you. Hey, when I win first place in the boat race, I’ll dedicate the trophy to you.” “I do not c...care for no...what’s this word?” “Trophy,” Marty prompted. “Thank you. I don’t care for no trophy.” She paused. “I will go with ya...ya...” Deareo whispered the word in Runaround’s ear. “I will go with your brother...your brother, Rain?” “That’s Ramiro,” Marty corrected. “Oh, Ramiro. I’ll show you and go out with him,” Runaround declared. 324


“Hey don’t, Sue. Don’t you know that he’s still in the gang and now that I’ve quit the gang to turn my life around he’s the leader.” Marty was tremendously in scene, gripping the eraser as if his life depended on his talking some sense to his girl over the phone. “Yeah,” Runaround Sue said disinterestedly. “Well don’t go out with him,” Marty pleaded. Chester couldn’t resist putting in his two cents at this point. “Don’t go out with Ramiro, Lishy. Stay true to Marty.” Runaround Sue made her declaration. “I will go out with him now.” And she slammed the chalk eraser onto a desk. “Don’t go out with Ramiro,” Jose mournfully editorialized. “Don’t, that boy is nothing but trouble,” Deareo concurred. “I will go to him now,” she said while stifling a yawn, and then she turned her back on Jose and Deareo and walked to the street, about ten feet away. Also ‘on the street’ were Ramiro, his general Omar/Chicky Baby, and Virginia/Jojo. Marty tugged his ear, and another bit of the song Runaround Sue played. When it ended, Runaround Sue said, “What are you up to, Ramiro? You and...and...” “Chicky Baby,” Marty told her. “ Chicky Baby and Virginia. What you up to?” Ramiro dead panned, “We’re selling drugs. At nine o’clock we’re going on a gang fight. Wanna’ come?” “Okay,” Runaround Sue mumbled. “Hey, I gotta call my Mom,” Omar as Chicky Baby said. He moved a few feet away and pretended to be using a cell phone. “Hello, Marty.” 325


“Is this Chicky Baby?” Marty asked. Omar’s smile widened. “Yeah, It’s Chicky Baby. Look I got some...what is this word here?” “News,” Marty prompted. “Some news for you, man. It’s like this. Me and your brother Ramiro are selling drugs on the corner.” “Shame on you,” Marty told Chicky Baby, who looked ashamed when taken to task for his bad activities. “Well that’s not why I called. Your girl, Runaround Sue is with Ramiro, and we’re getting ready to rumble with the...what is this, the leapers?” “It’s the leopards,” Marty corrected him. “Your handwriting is bad. Well you got to get down here, cause I think someone is gonna get hurt,” Chicky Baby determined. “Jump back! I’m on my way, man,” Marty replied, furiously tugging his ear. Zuzandra faithfully cued ‘Beat It’. In an aside to his players, Marty urged, “Dance everyone. Like you’re getting ready to rumble.” At first, they looked at each other suspiciously. Then, Ramiro, Virginia/Jojo and Chicky Baby began to furrow their brows and frown at Deareo and Jose. Deareo returned the hard stare, but Jose merely looked distressed. Then, at Marty’s repeated urging, they all started dancing the best they were able. Ramiro and Deareo shuffled from foot to foot. Chicky Baby, Virginia and Jose kept time with their fingers, gracefully dancing their fingers along to the rhythm as they made their chairs move back and forth using their wrists to move the throttle, steering device. Marty danced and kung fued his way to the area between the two groups of Ramiro, Omar 326


(Chicky Baby), JoJo and Runaround Sue. Marty gestured for both groups to come in closer, which they obliged by walking or wheeling their chairs in nearer. Now the two groups were facing each other, not unlike the two groups in the Beat it Video. At the finale of the musical interlude, Marty tore off his red windbreaker and tossed it on the floor, turning up the collar of his shirt as the music faded. His exhibition had caused everyone to stop dancing and stare unabashedly at him. “Whoa boy, look at that,” Chester snapped in admiration. Marty blushed, picked his jacket off the floor and put it back on, being sure to turn up the collar on it so that he had both his windbreaker collar as well as his shirt collar up. “You’re the man,” Chester encouraged. Despite his knowing better, Marty allowed himself to fall out of scene long enough to smile at the compliment and nod at the camera. Then he looked at his classmates and said, “What’s going on here?” It was Deareo’s line. “We’re getting ready to have a gang war, so you better get out of here. Punk!” “Ooooh oooooo,” Jose murmured. “He’s mad!” Virginia exclaimed. “You can’t talk to my brother like that,” Ramiro mumbled in an emotionless way that Marty found perfect for tough guy roles. “You call him your brother. He’s not in your gang anymore, so he’s not your brother,” Deareo charged. “He used to be the leader of the gang, so you can just shut up,” Chicky Baby chimed in. As did Chester. “Yeah, Deareo, you just quit arguing with Marty. It’s his play.” “That’s fine. If he stays, he can be in the rumble too,” Deareo said. Marty turned his attention to Runaround Sue. He struck one of his poses, that of the well 327


intentioned boyfriend with his hands outstretched in the classic stance of supplication, plaintively making his case, “Darling, I...I love you.” Runaround Sue looked at him indifferently. She’d heard that one from him before. She improvised by saying and doing nothing. Yes, she was acting, but she wasn’t in love with Marty at all. Now if he were Joey from New Kids, it would be an entirely different matter Still, it was her line, and she had missed her cue. Ramiro nudged her and pointed to where she was to read. “If you did love me you wa...waaa...” “Would,” Ramiro prompted. “If you loved me you’d...you’d...” “Remembered my birthday,” Ramiro whispered. “That’s right,” Runaround Sue indignantly said. “Marty, if you’d loved me, you’d have remembered my birthday.” “You go, Lishy,” Chester said approvingly. Marty frowned at Chester, then turned his attention toward his love interest. “Runaround Sue. I do love you. I had to get my speed boat ready for the race cause I wanted to win the trophy for you on your birthday. I wanted to give you the trophy while I proposed.” With this, Marty dropped to one knee, put his hand over his heart and said, “Runaround Sue, would you marry me?” Runaround Sue rolled her eyes and looked exasperated until Ramiro pointed to her line. Reluctantly and haltingly, she said, “Yes. I love you too. Th...Thi...This is the hap...” “Happiest day of my life,” Ramiro prompted. “This is the happiest day of my life,” Runaround Sue listlessly echoed. Deareo stepped up to Ramiro and stuck her fist in his face. “Time to fight.” Ramiro set his jaw to look extra fierce, and Jose, out of scene and quite sincere, mewed, “I 328


don’t think we ought to fight.” By the worried look on his face, Chicky Baby agreed. Nevertheless, it looked like a rumble. Ramiro put up his fists. “Oh my God,” Jose moaned. Marty tugged his ear, and on came more ‘Beat It’ as he put himself between the warring tribes. “Hold it,” Marty exclaimed, striking yet another pose, this one directly out of the Beat It video where Michael Jackson intervenes between the two dancing gangs and grabs the gang leaders by their shirts in a display of desperation and peace loving machismo, or something. “Hey, let go of my shirt,” Deareo complained. “Guys! Guys, chill out!” Marty pleaded. “Listen I’ve got a way to settle this.” “Oh yeah, how?” Deareo demanded. The ‘Beat It’ sample ended. Marty explained. “Tonight is the big speed boat race. I’ll represent my old gang, the Tigers, and you guys send your best. If I win, all the gangs are dissolved, and everyone has to get along and clean up the park. And stop selling drugs.” Jose missed his line. He was looking at Marty’s performance. In fact, no one was looking at the script right then because no one prompted him for nearly half a minute. Finally Marty hissed, “Jose, it’s your line.” “Sorry, where are we at, Deareo?” “Let me see.” Deareo quickly found her place and showed Jose. “Okay, thank you, Deareo,” he said. “You’re welcome,” Deareo responded. Jose began by playing a bit with his line. “Soooo. So so so soooooo, if you win, the gangs break up, but what if we win?” “I don’t know. What do you want?” Deareo said, clearly displeased with her line. “If we win we get Runaround Sue? Hey, we 329


don’t want her, we want something better,” she demanded. “Like Joey MacIntyre,” Runaround Sue volunteered. Deareo considered. “Why, yes,” she said. “Deareo, just read the line,” Marty whined in a low voice. Deareo sighed. “It’s your play,” she conceded, then with little relish, she woodenly read, “If we win, we get Runaround Sue.” “Let the games begin,” Marty proclaimed, and then to Runaround Sue, he said, “Don’t worry, doll. There’s no way I can lose, and by tomorrow night we’ll be on our way to Hawaii on our honeymoon.” “Oh yeah, don’t count on it, buddy,” Jose jeered, running his wheelchair into Marty’s ankle. “Ouch,” Marty yelled. Quickly recovering he mimed several kung fu and karate moves on Jose, in the David Carradine, Billy Jack tradition of the ass kicking peace lover. With every feigned blow, Jose would cry “Ow. Ow. Ow.” After awhile, satisfied that he had whipped Jose long enough, Marty straightened himself and said, “I’ll see you guys at the races.” He tugged his ear and ‘Beat It’ came on.

At the end of the pretend pier stood Runaround Sue. She was facing the two competitors. Marty was in an old rickety wooden wheelchair that was supposed to be his speedboat, and Jose was in his electric wheelchair/speedboat. In a scene out of Rebel Without a Cause, Runaround Sue held up a handkerchief, dropped it and set the chairs to racing around the room. What Marty hadn’t counted on when he’d been writing the script was the advantage Jose would have when they went around the room during the race scene. Whereas Jose efficiently 330


buzzed wherever he wished to go with a flick of his wrist, Marty, unused to being in any type of wheelchair, was finding his to be impossible to control, wildly and shakily veering first in one direction and then in another. Jose, who often raced his chair with the other students who had electric chairs, was going backwards, popping wheelies and pivoting in tight circles. “Hey, Jose”, Marty huffed sotto voice, “slow down. I’m supposed to win.” “Ok,” Jose said, easing off his throttle so Marty could overtake him. “Go Marty. Go Jose,” Chester yelled to his pals, encouraging them equally but filming the floor. They raced until the end of ‘Beat It’. At the climax of the song, Marty raised his arms in victory and jumped out of the aged wheelchair. Ramiro, Virginia/Jojo and Chicky Baby, not to mention Jose, all clapped their hands. Deareo stopped Jose from clapping, reminding him that he’d lost and was supposed to be disappointed. Chester was lightly clapping his hands too, and Caleb allowed his cameraman artistic license to totally fuck everything up. Marty raised his hands for silence so that he could make his speech. The applause died down. He tugged his ear and Zuzandra cued The Battle Hymn of the Republic by Elvis. As King Elvis crooned about glory hallelujah, Marty grabbed an empty vase that was serving as the trophy. He said, “Thank you everybody. It was a tough boat race, but I won.” Marty bit his lip, got down on his knee and proposed again. “Now I want to take the time to pledge my love to my lady on this special day, her birthday, to my soul mate, and I want everyone here to bear witness cause if I get the answer I want, well, I brought Preacher Bobby here to do the honors if you, Runaround Sue will be my wife, and if you, Ramiro, will be best man.” For the first time in the production, Ramiro’s face brightened, and he seemed excited, more then Runaround Sue, who had her arms crossed. “Sure,” she acquiesced. “I’ll marry you.” 331


It was at this point in the script that Jose was supposed to shoot at Ramiro and have Marty throw himself in front of the bullet, but Jose couldn’t bring himself to do it. “You’re supposed to shoot at Ramiro and hit Marty, Jose. Go ahead,” Deareo told him. “Don’t do it Jose,” Chester cried out. “Aw, I don’t want to,” Jose admitted. Deareo said, “Aw, hell, give me the gun. I’ll do it,” and with that she pointed her finger and pretended to shoot at Ramiro. “Pow,” she deadpanned. Right on cue, Marty cried, “Hey look out, brother,” threw himself in the path of the bullet and took the shot for Ramiro. “Oh!” he cried and crumpled to the ground. “Oh no!” Chicky Baby said. “That is exactly what I was afraid of,” Jose interjected. “Somebody had to put him out of his misery,” Deareo explained. “I like it when Marty dies. That’s always my favorite part,” Virginia added. As the strains of Elvis singing his heart out about a baby crying for his daddy swelled to the heavens, Marty whispered, “Runaround Sue, hold me. I’m dying.” Reluctantly, Runaround Sue knelt down and awkwardly cradled Marty’s head in her arms, her disproportionately large bosom pushed against the side of his face. He was in heaven. The strings swelled. “Pretend to cry and tell me you love me and not to die,” Marty instructed his leading lady. “Huh? Uh okay,” she said and sighed. With weary reluctance and embarrassment, she said, “Boooo hooooo hoooo. Oh booo hooo.” That was it. “More crying. Tell me you’ll miss me,” Marty told her. The king was sing-yelling the refrain, the strings were blowing out the high sorrow, and the sound of the band was elegiac and show bizzy. Runaround Sue did as she’d been told. “Oooooo 332


hoooo hooo. I love you. I’ll miss you. Don’t die.” Ramiro did not miss his cue. As the king, the strings and the choir reached a crescendo, Ramiro said, “In honor of my brother, I’ll dissolve the gangs after I kill Deareo.” And with that he pretended to shoot Deareo, who did not fall to the ground, but merely exited stage left. After the end of Elvis’s ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, some organ church music came on. Preacher Bobby entered, pushing himself along in his chair. He used both his hands and his legs to get to his place. When he reached center stage where Marty, Runaround Sue and the others were, he began his speech. Raising his right hand in supplication, Preacher Bobby said, “What then, brothers and sisters? What then? How may we then judge a man? Is it...” Robert blinked his eyes and stared wide eyed at his classmates and teacher, trying to channel his father’s words. “Is it how he is at the end, at the end of his time, or by what he was for all his years down here in this wicked world.” A rapturous, pained expression crossed the boy’s face. “And how may we measure a soul? By what was wanted or what was done? “Our friend lie before us on this day...I came here to perform a wedding, and I deliver a funeral service on this here boat dock.” Robert Michael spread his hands as if indicating the docks and the blue waters beyond. He said, “Our dear friend, Marty, lies before us, so heroic and brought to a tragic end so terrible soon. “ I begin by telling what I knew about him as my friend. What was Marty? Sometimes he was a astromaut and other times a cowboy, even others, he was a disco dancey rock singer. He was also a karate-man, a speedboat racer and a whole mess of other stuff. So I guess what I’m trying to say about this ex-gang member, who only wanted to get his education, is that I think he was a hero for trying to do right during his short life. And I think you should recognize that he 333


was a hero too. And do the same as him.” And with that, Robert seemed to tire. He held his hand up as if in benediction, or because he was done or perhaps even because he was really tired, and then he pushed himself off the scene. The organ music continued, and Marty opened one eye. With his hand, he tried to subtly signal to Chester to stop filming. “You want me to quit filming?” Chester inquired of the reanimated corpse, who as imperceptibly as possible, nodded.

As the school year went by, Caleb gained ten pounds of muscle and became really good at his aerobic workout routines. On days when he lifted weights, he still used his body weight and momentum to cheat on his repetitions, so his muscles weren’t as cut as the gay cats but were more rounded. On aerobic workout days, Caleb’s pulse would still race at the beginning of every class that he had with Dakota. He felt as if he were probably blushing whenever he’d say hello. One day Dakota handed him a card. It said, “Caleb, your commitment to your health is awesome. Thanks for making me a part of your program. Keep it up!” Although this might seem insignificant, it still made him inordinately happy. He was like a silver spandex knight who had received a hanky as a chaste token from his lady crush. It made him goonily happy. He was still in a state later that day when he was driving with Johnny to the different car dealerships. Johnny was in the market for a new car now that he’d been making great money for awhile. As Caleb sang along with the radio, which was playing ‘We Make Good Pets’ by Perry Farrell, Johnny noticed his friend’s preternaturally happy condition. He asked Caleb why he was acting extra thick, and Caleb related his instructor’s note to him. “Oh, This proves it beyond a shadow of a doubt. She really likes you,” Johnny observed. “Naw she doesn’t.” 334


“You know, this would be charming if you were twelve years old, Caleb, but...I’m grossed out to tell you the truth. Sheesh, give it up. I’d tell you to ask her out, but...Go to a hooker or step up the masturbation regimen or something. Or ask her out, so she can turn you down, and you can stop crushing on this gal.” “Man, I’m not gonna ask her out.” “Atta boy. It’s a good idea to waste your life pining for someone whom you’re scared to approach. That’s exactly what I’d do in your situation.” Johnny’s cell phone rang. It was Irene at her job. Johnny was a changed fellow because of her. “Hello, my dove. How is your day going? Great. Mine’s going great. Thinking of you, my dear, thinking of you. And checking out cars with Caleb.” “Hi, Irene,” Caleb yelled. She was really nice. “Did you hear Caleb? He says hello. So what do you want to do about dinner later? Whatever you want. Grilled steaks sound great. Bye. I love you.” The mention of food and steak had made Caleb’s stomach stir to life. “Aw. Man, I’m hungry. Let’s pull in somewhere and get a burger,” he suggested, and Johnny obliged. They went to the first Macdonald’s that they came to. Johnny parked his SUV, and they got out. At the door was a homeless person who asked them for change. Caleb gave the person a quarter. The homeless person turned to Johnny and said, “Spare change?” “No thanks, I’ve got enough already.” He flashed a handful of change in the homeless person’s face and broke out laughing. “Bwahh ha ha ha ha.” “God bless you,” the homeless person said. “Such warmth, Johnny,” Caleb mentioned as they stood in line for their burgers. 335


“They should get a fucking job,” Johnny replied. “Hummm, ‘They should get a fucking job,’ didn’t Dorothy Parker originally say that to George F. Kauffman?” Caleb said. “Oh, I see. Since you gave Sir Drinksalot a quarter, you’re really looking out for his well being. Make way for Mahatma Ghandi everyone. He gave the man a quarter! And what are you going to do now, take him in your apartment? Get to know him so you can help him dry out and get some sort of gainful employment? No. No, you’re not. So really we’re pretty much the same in regards to our willingness to help our fellow man, ya fucking Democrat.” Caleb looked in surprise at Johnny. He said, “You mean you’re not?” Johnny gave his order to the girl at the counter, then turning to Caleb, he said, “No, of course not. What would make you think I’m a Democrat? I mean I know why I knew you were from the goofy shit you’re always doing, like giving a homeless addict a fucking quarter and patting yourself on the back like you did something, but what made you think that I would be a Democrat?” “You don’t hate gays. You’re not religious. You take drugs.” Johnny looked around himself at the other customers and the workers behind the counter and hissed, “Shut the fuck up will ya? Jesus...No fucking social filter do you have. Look, I just don’t think that lazy fucks should live off the system. Let Darwin’s law take care of them.” He got his order and paid. Caleb moved up and gave his order. When they were seated at their table, Caleb said, “Why not give them jobs and put them in work programs like F.D.R. ? Why can’t the government do shit like that? Some of them are good with kids so they could do the daycare while the others did all kinds of other stuff, like clean the streets even, or... all kinds of shit. Help build stuff. Or tear down stuff for new stuff to be built. 336


Since they’re getting money anyway. They’d be better off and wouldn’t resent getting handouts cause they’d have earned it themselves. Why not?” “Well how should I know, but it’s unfair to blame the Republicans for that. It was the Democrats who said that it was insulting to make poor folks work for their handouts.” “Neither party does what’s in our best interest. They’re both just figureheads for global corporations-” “I was wrong. I apologize, comrade. You’re not a Democrat at all, you’re a fucking Commie.” “The trickle down theory of economics doesn’t work. Five percent of the population own ninty-five perce-” “Oh where is Joseph McCarthy when you need him?” Johnny rhetorically asked as they settled into their meals.

On their way out, there was the same homeless person, this time standing in the parking lot. Johnny handed him a dollar, saying, “Here you go, sir. You should have just about enough for a bottle of that fortified wine that I know you’ve been dreamin’ of. Enjoy your ride on the Night Train courtesy of me.” “Thank you. God bless you, sir,” the homeless person said shuffling away. To Caleb, Johnny said, “There. Since I gave him more than you, I suppose that makes me a bigger humanitarian than you.” “No, just a bigger Democrat maybe.”

Caleb became acquainted with his fellow teachers and student aides throughout the first 337


school year. He got to where he had lunch with the same group everyday. There was Jackson. She taught math. Jackson had gotten her prep period and lunch period back to back so she could watch General Hospital. And Palmer Weeks. He was a big gay Irish cooking teacher. Palmer ruled his kitchen with strict discipline, which was quite an accomplishment considering that many of his students had appalling hygienic habits and very short attention spans. Often he’d let loose with loving tirades, letting slip a curse word when a kid would fuck up too much. Brayfield was an African American woman who was Weeks’ aide and library helper. Her husband was developing a crack cocaine problem, and she was going through the terrors of having a loved one addicted to crack. Nevertheless, she was at work everyday. Her kids were in school everyday, and she was not only functional but cheerful and funny. Caleb tried not to look at her bubble butt, but he often did. It was magnificent. Mr. Brown was also at the table. He was an African American gym teacher who generally did not like white people but made allowances for his fellow teachers who happened to be white. He was nearly as short as Caleb, but was solidly built. He had a loose front tooth that would slightly move back and forth when he breathed. He was often as not the devil’s advocate in whatever was being discussed at the table. Dave Eckols was a cadre like Caleb was, and he was a tall, balding Jewish man with a slight over-bite who was about seven to ten years older than Caleb. He had bounced around the system as a daily sub for years, and like Caleb, Dave had finally landed at Ridle, where he had found his niche. He was as gentle and patient with the students as he was socially inept around his peers, but he would sit with the group at lunch, nervously nibbling the carrots and celery sticks that he would bring from home. He wore thick horn rimmed glasses and suffered from chronic sinus 338


condition which was worse at different times of the year than it was at others. Usually to some degree, Dave would be blowing his nose or making snot sucking noises at the back of his palate and throat. Pricilla, an aide, was an Italian American woman whose son, Paul, who also worked at the school as an aide, was on crack. Every time payday came around, he would disappear for up to three days. Pricilla’s friendship with Ms. Berring kept Paul from being fired, but the young man, who was an army veteran, was melting before everyone’s eyes. Like Brayfield, Pricilla didn’t obviously dwell on her loved one’s addiction. Both women were by now used to the cycles of a crack addict and somehow didn’t become drawn into their problems to the point where they couldn’t function. Last but not least at the table was Mr. Z, Caleb’s aide for sixth hour. He was a gentleman in his sixties who was from Brazil. His was an artistic soul. He could both paint and draw beautifully as well as play the guitar flamenco style. And he had recently taken up the trumpet! Coming to class, Mr. Z would make a fashionably late dramatic entrance and would then formally greet each of the students old world courtly style. Class stopped for about three minutes when Mr. Z entered the room. What he was best at was calming students through his art. Caleb would send kids who were having bad days to Mr. Z who would draw their portraits with astonishing speed and clarity, his signature talent being able to make the ugliest most unfortunate looking kids look like how they would want to look, downplaying flaws and accentuating their most lovely features so that he captured their likeness and bolstered their self images.

One day when they were together eating lunch, Dave was suffering more than usual. The lunch that day was noodles, tomatoes and ground beef. Brown and Palmer Weeks held forth on 339


who was the better cook, for though Palmer Weeks was a formally trained chef, Mr. Brown had learned to cook from his mother and would concede superiority to none when it came to matters of the kitchen. As they debated back and forth, Dave made sinus snorting sounds that cannot be represented by our alphabet, wet sucking noises. He would intersperse sucking down and swallowing his phlegm with blowing his nose into a damp grey handkerchief. Although it didn’t bother the other men, with every honk, snort, suck, swallow or wheeze, the women would roll their eyes or exchange glances, which was lost on Dave who continued eating and listening, occasionally laughing at something that was said when he wasn’t tending to his upper respiratory problems. Jackson was quiet until Dave grabbed the end of his nose and cut loose with the loudest, wettest sucking sound yet, then she drawled, “Dave! You’re about to make me lose my lunch with your snot sucking and your blowing your damn nose.” “What?” Dave said abruptly, as if he were both surprised that she would say anything but also aware that she was telling the truth. “I’m sorry. I can’t help it.” He looked embarrassed. “Well you need to stop,” Jackson advised. To Brown and Brayfield she declared, “Only a white person would blow his nose or suck on his snot and swallow it at the table like that. Only a white person, I tell you. No offense to you white people here, but you are crude.” “And don’t forget their funny smell,” Mr. Brown added. Brayfield put in her take on the matter. “My motherfucking husband’s on crack and half the time he can’t put a damn sentence together, and he knows not to blow his nose or do whatever it is Dave’s over there doing at the dining room table. When he’s home that is. I’m going to put that son of a bitch out this week. I swear to God.” “You’re gonna have to. What’d I tell you months ago,” Pricilla told Brayfield. “You got 340


to do that for their own good and yours as well, and most of all for your kids sake,” she advised. “Is that what you did with James?” Brayfield asked. “He wasn’t living at home when he got on that shit. And when he was on it, like most mothers, I took him in for awhile. For as long as I could put up with his sickness.” A look of sadness, a sorrow both hard and broken crossed Pricilla’s face. She said, “I had to put him out though. Don’t wait until he starts stealing your shit or your kids’ shit. Addicts can’t help it I guess, but you’ve got to be strong.” A soft glottal sinus slurp came from Dave. “Shit, Dave. Get up and go somewhere to do that and then come back.” Brown said, “Where’s Dave going to go?” His every word made his loose front tooth quiver. “At least he could stand ten feet away,” Jackson offered. Mr. Brown appealed to Jackson and the other women. He said, “Shit, Jackson, don’t do to Dave what the white man has done to us. Let’s be bigger than that. So we disapprove of his snot suckin’ ways. Live with it, Jackson. Think of Dave’s good qualities, and remember that his people have been persecuted like ours. I don’t go with that black against jew thing. Dave, y’all jews might have lots more money, but I don’t begrudge you. We’re both oppressed, although blacks historically have been more oppressed then y’all have. We just an oral tradition people and didn’t bother to document that shit in writing.” “I’m not rich,” Dave observed. “If I was I wouldn’t be a substitute teacher.” “What would you be?” Palmer Weeks dryly asked. “I dunno,” Dave said, fighting the urge to clear his sinus by just allowing himself a delicate sniff. “Maybe a weight lifter.” 341


“A professional weight lifter?” Jackson asked incredulously. Caleb said, “Dave, do you even lift weights or exercise?” Dave smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “I’m starting to lift weights next week at the weight room in the complex where I live.” “Well, honey, it takes awhile to become a champion weight lifter, and uh, well, you’re too damn old,” Palmer gently pointed out to Dave. “Like I said, I dunno. Maybe a job in civil service,” Dave brain-stormed. “I like to collate paper,” he offered. “I think I’d have liked to have been a shepherd or a forest ranger,” Caleb said, eliciting further comments on white folks curious and insane ways from Mr. Brown and Jackson. “But that’s all right. Y’all go on and pursue these dynamic dreams of lifting weights or, or being a damn shepherd in the hills, or living in a motherfucking forest by yourself, if that’s y’all’s calling. Cause we all miss our calling,” Mr. Brown began. Sensing a joke, Brayfield said, “What was your calling, Brown?” “Well, I have missed my calling too, which was to have been a great chef. And Palmer Weeks, I’m taking this opportunity to challenge you to a cook off.” “Sure, dilettante . What shall we cook?” “Something simple,” Brayfield said, adding, “cause everyone at this table should be the judge, and if I’m one of the judges, I got to say that whatever you cook, you should keep it simple.” “What about chicken?” Pricilla stated. Brown said, “That’s fine with me.” Pricilla said, “Also, I can’t eat fried food, so either baked, broiled or roasted. Something 342


healthy.” “No problem,” Palmer Weeks said. “A week from today, here. Mr. Druselli will cover for me,” Mr. Brown said. It was settled. Mr. Z spoke for the first time during lunch. To Dave, he said, “I think you would make a wonderful, vital weight lifter.” And with an old world flourish, he handed Dave a quick, yet accurate sketch of himself with a weightlifter’s body and dressed in a speedo bikini brief. The angle and Z’s artistic license complimented Dave’s face, downplaying his over-bite, making his eyes less feral and making him seem to have more hair. Dave looked at the drawing, adjusted his glasses and grinned. Jackson, and Brayfield glanced at it and whistled. Pricilla laughed. Caleb said that he thought it a great work of art. Without looking at it, Brown passed it to Palmer Weeks, who looked at it, looked at Dave and said, “Can I have this?”

Throughout the year, Abbey claimed to be Ferrell’s girlfriend. She would try to hold hands with him whenever possible, and Caleb monitored them so that in his class, the two of them were never left alone together. He sympathized with them, but he didn’t want them exploring their love on his watch. They were sweet, casting each other soulful looks across the table and clumsily coming into brushing contact with each other. Abbey had learned to sign ‘I love you’ as a child, and to Ferrell, she would signal. Ferrell, less publicly demonstrative, could be seen mouthing endearments to Abbey when he thought no one was looking. But Abbey proved to be a coquette, and during a class that she shared with Ferrell’s twin Terrell, she began a clandestine friendship which involved the exchanging of lusty notes. Ferrell 343


found one of the unabashed missives and the shit hit the fan. One day, Herbie glided in. He was agitated and pulled up to Caleb’s desk. Outside, in the hall, the voices of the students became a little louder. “What’s up, Herbie?”Caleb asked. .Herbie pointed to a word that said help. Then Herbie buzzed out of the room, and Caleb followed. The voices outside grew in volume, and now other voices were joining in. Down the hall, the twins were fighting. They spit and cursed each other and bumped their electric chairs like bumper cars against each other. Caleb was careful not to get between them as he yelled at them to stop fussing. As they clashed, twin against twin, Caleb noticed Abbey’s look of beaming, radiant satisfaction. The incident got back to the principal who called the parents. The twin’s parents took it in stride and told their boys that no woman was worth fighting your brother over, but Abbey’s father was very upset. He was a racist who hated African Americans and wanted to keep the white race pure. He didn’t want his daughter race mixing, and the administrators had to do much soft pedaling to assure the fellow that what had happened did not merit having his daughter removed from all classes she had with the twins, whom she’d been in school with since kindergarten. Still, Abbey’s Dad did have a talk with her in which he forbid her to be girlfriend to Ferrell, Terrell or any other African American Romeo she might encounter. This weighed heavily on her mind, and for several days she came to class in a morose mood. When Caleb would ask what was wrong, she would just groan and put her hands to the sides of her helmet. Caleb knew what was wrong. She wouldn’t have much to do with Ferrell or, so Caleb heard, Tarrell either. Finally, when Caleb once again asked what was wrong, she put a finger over her lips and said, “Shhhh,” and after class was over, she lagged behind. In her sing song voice she said, “I don’t know what to do. My Dad doesn’t want me to be 344


Ferrell’s girlfriend or to ever talk to Terrell. My Dad doesn’t like black people. He calls them niggers. I don’t feel that way about black people. Do you, Mr. Jones?” “Hell no, Abbey. Sorry, but your Dad is stupid to be that way. It’s wrong to hate someone because they’re a different race than you.” “He says white should stay with white and black with black, except he said nigger.” “Well that’s ignorant and bad of him to say, and I’m sorry he said that to you, but you probably can’t change his mind, so don’t worry about trying to argue with him. You can’t change his mind, but I’m glad that you’re not like that,” Caleb told Abbey. She shook her head sorrowfully and proclaimed, “But I love Ferrell.” She was clearly very upset and was at the risk of having a stress induced seizure. Caleb said, “Don’t worry, Abbey.” In her halting, oddly cadenced speech, she said, “How can I not worry?” Caleb thought about this situation. How would Abbey’s father know one way or the other since these kids only saw each other during their class periods and lunchtime. Caleb thought about what he would do if he were in Abbey’s situation. He thought about his way of dealing with most bothersome things that couldn’t be walked away from. It came to him, the easiest and best way to deal with this problem. He felt like Prometheus giving Abbey the gift of fire. “I’m going to tell you how you can be Ferrell’s or anyone you want to be’s girlfriend, but you have to be true to one guy at a time, Abbey, and I don’t want to hear about you fooling around improper like or making out or getting caught kissing.” “How? How can I be Ferrell’s girlfriend. I won’t do nothing bad. I’m never alone with him anyway.” Caleb looked into her eyes, magnified by her strong corrective lens. He imparted a 345


precious and profane secret. “Lie to your Dad,” he told her. “Lie.” Abbey looked as if she was having trouble processing what her teacher had said. “Lie? My Dad and Mom told me never to lie to them.” “Is your Dad right or wrong about Ferrell?” “He’s wrong.” “And if you went ahead and was Ferrell’s girlfriend and told him, would he let you be or would he give you grief?” “Grief.” “Then lie to him. Don’t tell him your business, and if he asks, tell him you’re not with any black guys, and you’ll both be happy.” “It’s one of the ten commandments,” Abbey reminded Caleb. “That’s very true.” There was an awkward silence between them. “Still, I’d lie,” Caleb advised, adding, “And I say that to you honestly.” Despite herself, Abbey chuckled as she got up to leave. “There’s the smile I like to see,” Caleb told her. “Now go out there and do whatever you want to do, Abbey. Just remember what we talked about. And lie.” She left his room, and he could hear her call out Ferrell’s name in her sing song voice, only now, she sounded happy.

After school staff meetings were always the worst in Caleb’s opinion. They generally involved the principal or vice-principal browbeating the teachers and aides, or there would be some speaker boring them to death. Today it was Mrs. Berring standing before them as they all sat in the auditorium. She walked back and forth looking at her notes and frowning. As soon as the teacher’s had settled, Mrs. Berring said, “I have some bad news.” She regarded them. Mrs. Berring was wearing an azure and teal sheathe dress and her hair was built up 346


and over to one side. She went on. “Now you didn’t want to listen to me in the past when I said that we’re too lax with these kids around here and with ourselves. You thought, Mrs. Berring is just being hard on us cause she’s a big B, and you’re halfway right. I am a big B. But I wasn’t being hard on you people because I took delight in it. I’m hard on you because I have to be. I answer to people who hold me responsible for all kinds of things.” She paused. “I was a buffer for you, but you didn’t want to hear it. Well, when the higher ups came around here, and came around here and came around, they didn’t like some of the things they saw.” She smiled bitterly and paced back and forth across the stage, now using the notes to fan herself. “They saw some of you doing your jobs and they were not impressed, and this time when they came to me, I couldn’t buffer you any more.” By now the staff were exchanging looks of grave concern. They all did a good job. What was this bitch going on about? She told them. “Next year, Ridle is going to have a big change, and you are going to have to adapt. We’re getting regular and able bodied L.D. students brought in with our EMH (educable mentally handicapped) and TMH (trainable mentally handicapped) population.” The teachers spoke in hushed tones, and Mrs. Berring said, “Quiet. Now I had to accept this. In fact I had to all damn near get down on my knees and thank my bosses for doing this reverse mainstream experiment instead of what they wanted to do, which was close the school. “And do you want to know why thy wanted to close us? It was because when they came around they saw you relaxing in rooms with what they felt were too few students who were making too little progress from year to year. Do you understand?” Mrs. Berring mopped her forehead with one of the scarves she misted in White Shoulders and carried with her. Then hands on hips, she bellowed, “Don’t tell me that we got kids who can’t go beyond 347


certain levels because I can’t tell my bosses that. They don’t want to hear that organic deficits are going to allow a child to develop so far and no more, and that we can’t undo what God himself has done to these children. Don’t tell me because I know, and don’t tell me because that is something that my bosses and the politicians and society won’t accept. These kids have got to show some progress. And when my bosses were here, they saw you eating in your classrooms during your classes some of you. They saw you napping during your preps in your rooms and in the Teacher’s Lounge. Oh, and that teachers’ lounge was too smoky. You people that smoke, and that includes me, are going to have to go outside to light up in the future. Also, they saw aides not at their posts. This is unacceptable. I hear that some teachers even watch General Hospital during their prep, Jackson.” “Mrs. Berring, you yourself have be-“ Mrs. Berring daubed her throat and bellowed, “Whatever you’re going to say about me coming in sometimes and watching it with you doesn’t matter. And now is not the time, Jackson.” Both women humphed, and Mrs. Berring continued. “I warned you folks that you needed to run a tighter ship, and when the people from the board came here, they not only knew that many of our students are making no progress, they saw that you all were complacent about it. And that’s why we’re going to be getting able bodied non-handicapped kids. We’ll be getting them mostly from the Henry Horner Projects just west of here. A few of our kids come from there now. There will be other kids bused in from different parts of Chicago, but that is what is going to happen. The fun time is over. You should thank me for keeping the school open, but I don’t expect thanks from you. I wasn’t doing it for you anyway. I was doing it for the kids who’ve been here since kindergarten. And I did it for me. “Next year you’re going to have these able bodied children in your classes along with our 348


population, and some of the new kids are going to be rough. Next year we’ll have CPS security here, also metal detectors and a couple of officers around everyday to help us. Now one thing I’ve learned is to cover my ass. I suggest you all do the same next year. That means you’ll not be able to treat these regular or LD kids like you do some of our innocent kids. You’re going to need to keep them in class. Don’t believe their lies, because they’re going to lie to you. That means you’re going to have to be on point about your attendance. Cause if one of these kids who’s supposed to be in your class isn’t there and you don’t report it, and that kid commits a crime, my big ass is going to be called on the carpet, and if that happens...” She squinted at the teachers and the aides and bit her lower lip and huffed. “If that happens the best thing that’ll happen to you is you’ll get fired and never teach again.” She waited a moment and said, “Now anybody who doesn’t like this, you can get up and leave.” No one left. Another staff meeting. Lovely.

Faith and Virginia first met as very young girls in the kindergarten class of the elementary wing of Ridle. Virginia, like Abbey was second generation Chicagoan, her parents having migrated from Oklahoma before having her. Faith had been born and lived in a village in Columbia until her family came to Chicago when she was barely four. She was an extremely smart girl, but because of her parents poverty, her physical challenges and both her and her parents’ inability to speak English, she was placed at Ridle rather than one of the better city magnate schools. Let us visit Faith’s first day in an American classroom.

The kindergarten teacher was a woman named Mrs. Lutz. She was a loving grandmotherly figure, and her charges were little Virginia, Robert, Marty, Abbey, Jose, Deareo, Ramiro, Omar, 349


Chester, Lishy, Ferrell and Terrell. Their classroom was on the second floor in an old, crumbling but cheerful and light filled room. Mrs. Lutz had hanging plants in her room, hamsters and guinea pigs, and there was an aquarium and a terrarium which her students maintained. When Faith came to them, they were finger painting on large swaths of butcher paper. Mrs. Lutz put her arm on Faith’s shoulder and called the classes’ attention. Mrs. Lutz, beloved by her little kids, was so sweet she seemed to ooze sweetness and she took Faith’s hand as she said, “Everybody, please stop what you’re doing. We have a new student today.” Mrs. Lutz enfolded Faith in her arms and gave her a reassuring hug. Then, as if presenting her to the class, she let go her embrace and said, “This is Faith.” Faith stared at her classmates. She was all eyes and black hair, so thin and red brown. Nothing her classmates said made any sense to her. But she wasn’t frightened at all. She understood that she was there to learn the new language and the new ways. Anyway, she’d had plenty of real stuff in her life which had caused her pain and fear, so this wasn’t so much. As the big white woman prattled on, Faith regarded with equanimity her new friends. At one point a couple of the kids interjected their own excited remarks to something Mrs. Lutz had said about her. They were all smiling at her and when Faith’s teacher had said her name, the others said hello in English. Faith said, “Hel-lo.” She was in a pretty skirt that her mother had made for her the week after they’d arrived. Faith’s mother was a talented seamstress, and her father a fine tailor. They’d had a comfortable income in Columbia, but had to leave everything when they came to America. After introducing her, Mrs. Lutz said, “Faith is a very smart girl, but she came from a different country, the country of Columbia. In Columbia They do not speak English as we do over here, so Faith doesn’t know how to speak English yet.” Several of the kids piped up that their parents were from different foreign countries, and 350


many of them had either parents, uncles, aunts or grandparents who couldn’t speak English. Mrs. Lutz nodded at them and continued. “Then you can see how it’s up to all of us to help Faith along and teach her English.” Virginia clapped her hands and cried out, “Mrs. Lutz, I’ll teach Faith how to speak English!” Mrs. Lutz was touched to the point of her eyes dampening. Virginia was a sweet girl whose leg had been amputated as the result of childhood cancer. Furthermore, she suffered from cognitive challenges which labeled her educable mentally handicapped. In addition to these setbacks, Virginia’s diet of fatty starches had resulted in a weight problem even at her young age. The thought that this dear child, who would always mentally be a child, was going to teach Faith, who was very bright, made Mrs. Lutz want to cry. Both students were bonded, like so many in her class, by the mutual challenge of being from impoverished homes and confined to wheelchairs, but they were such a contrast, the spindly, obviously quick Hispanic Faith and the heavy, pasty white Virginia, poor Virginia without her leg. Her diminished mental capacity didn’t stick out as much now as it would in coming years. Despite her cognitive deficits, Virginia did, however, possess a sophisticated sense of humor. Mrs. Lutz, in her good hearted haze which could see no fault in her special angels, did not know this about Virginia. If she would have known of Virginia’s bent and intention, she never would have sobbed, “How sweet of you, Virginia dear, to offer to take Faith under your wing. Yes, Faith may sit next to you, and you may be her special friend. Oh!” It’s true that Virginia took Faith under her wing and taught her the names for objects in their classroom, which she picked up immediately. Virginia also taught Faith to pay her compliments so that throughout the day, Faith would raise her hand and say, “Virginia is pretty,” 351


“Virginia’s smart,” or “Virginia is a rich girl,” or a good girl or some variation on the up with Virginia theme. Also, not every day, but too often, when they weren’t within earshot of anyone else, Virginia taught Faith to say things that it amused her to hear someone say, but which she would never say herself. One day during art, Faith came up to Jose and said, “Hey rabbit teeth, quit your drooling,” as well as “Can you see two of me, Mr. Cross-eyes?” During recess one afternoon, Faith said to Deareo, “You’re fat as a bear.” She had Faith refer to both Robert and Abbey as “Helmet head.” To Omar, during a Friday lunch, Faith said, “Do you know Humpty Dumpty?” Virginia had Faith bring Marty to tears by telling him that his mom was a whore, and Lishy wouldn’t speak to Faith for two days after Virginia had her make mention of Lishy’s occasional accidents by dubbing her “Queen Poops-Her-Pants”. Herbie and Chester were taken to task regarding their dress. Herbie, who had to wear whatever someone donated, was dressed by the state and was dubbed “Hobo,” while Chester’s boy boobs and tight shirts were treated to ridicule when he was advised to “Get a bra, titty-boy.” Virginia had Faith call Zuzandra by the nickname, ‘Shakey Mumbles’, and she also had Faith ask Ramiro why he had black hairs growing out of his big nose. All of this tickled Virginia immensely. Truth be told, Faith could read the hurt expressions of the people she’d insulted, and she possibly enjoyed the cruel laughter of the other students and even the humiliation at having drawn emotional blood, even if she didn’t understand what she was saying. From these early experiences were forged the subconscious underpinings of her American personality. But after so many times, while Virginia was still laughing uproariously, Faith learned that the other kids weren’t laughing as much if at all, since most of them remembered the pain of being 352


innocently humiliated and maliciously laughed at. When it would happen, they would let it pass. Being the sweet kids that they were, nobody told. Within a month, Faith had learned enough English to be able to communicate without Virginia’s help. One day Virginia sought out Faith. She said, “Faith, go to Omar.” She pointed to Omar and giggled. “Go to him, say, ‘Diaper boy!’” Virginia nearly split a side laughing. Faith was working on her alphabet. She said, “Tell her yourself.” Virginia smiled uncomprehending and repeated her wish, putting a hand on Faith’s shoulder and saying, “Say, ‘Go poop yourself, diaper boy’.” Another unrestrained burst of laughter came from Virginia. Faith looked up from her printing efforts. “Can’t you see I’m trying to write. I’m not saying that to Omar. If you think it’s so funny, you go over there yourself and tell him, you big puta.” Virginia was too passive aggressive and nonconfrontational to do that, nor did it register that Faith was finished with their game, so she continued to sit there grinning at Faith and waiting for her to do her bidding and hurt Omar’s feelings for her amusement. When Faith continued writing, Virginia tried another tact. Pointing at Marty, Deareo Lishy, Ramiro and Jose, Virginia said, “Go over there. Say, ‘Virginia’s beautiful.’” “I’ll go over there and tell them that you’re a big puta,” Faith offered. Guilelessly, Virginia asked, “What’s a big puta?” Faith regarded her best friend. Faith’s assimilation into the classroom at the expense of her classmates’ dignity had brought out a dormant streak of contentiousness that now came into its own. “Puta means beautiful princess.” 353


So Virginia went to Deareo, Jose Lishy, Ramiro and Marty herself and announced, “I’m a big puta!” Ramiro smiled mysteriously. Lishy giggled and Jose said, “Awwwww.” Virginia then went to Omar and Robert. “I’m a big puta.” Omar looked at the other Hispanic kids in the room. Then he looked at Virginia. “You are?” he asked. “Oh yes, I’m the biggest puta in the class. The only puta really,” Virginia said grandly. When Omar whispered to Deareo what a puta was, Deareo’s eyes widened. “Don’t call yourself that word,” Deareo warned. Virginia couldn’t be more delighted. “Are you jealous?” she wheedled. Deareo rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders. “If you say so, puta.” When she told Chester and Herbie, Herbie smiled. Chester, who didn’t know what it meant, said, “I know you are.” Zuzandra’s response was swift, culminating with snot flying out of her nose when she violently and convulsively laughed at hearing Virginia call herself a bitch. It was during math when Virginia raised her hand and announced to Mrs. Lutz, “Ma’am I’m a puta, a great big puta.” After the general merriment at that announcement, Mrs. Lutz took Virginia aside and explained to her that puta was a bad word. Virginia saw that she’d been set up by Faith, but far from being chastened or hurt or even angered, Virginia’s cheeks turned red, she covered her mouth in delight and laughed. Mrs. Lutz asked where she had heard the word, and Virginia said she didn’t remember.

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As stated, Virginia’s was a sophisticated sense of humor, and as her friend’s language ability and American personality developed, Virginia would become an appreciative audience to Faith’s sarcasms, usually aimed toward their teachers or parents. In the ensuing years Faith and her family had developed and prospered. Faith could read and write three years higher than grade level. Her parents owned their own successful custom clothing business. They had taught Faith how to sew at an early age, and she made all of her own clothes. Though she was still small and stick thin, she was always dressed in the most stylish fashions. Faith was able to mend, alter or assemble a lovely outfit effortlessly. Furthermore, from her earliest years at Ridle, Mr. Z had helped her develop her drawing talent so that now she was an accomplished artist with an original style who concentrated on clothing design. Also, for the past few years, because of her high test scores, she had participated in an after school program for gifted students and was being considered for admission to Malcom X High School, a magnate school for gifted students. After high school, Faith wanted to go to The Columbia School of Design downtown. She had plans to get hired in a fashion house in New York and eventually design her own line of clothing. She wanted to earn a very comfortable living, go places and find someone to marry and build a life with. Virginia’s life and circumstances had much remained the same if not diminished. Her parents were largely unemployed and her father suffered from alcoholism, which would occasionally cause him to behave badly and be thrown in the clink for domestic battery or disturbing the peace. Virginia’s parents neglected and ignored her. They dressed her in the same plain jeans or dirty pastel stretch jogging suits that they always had and always would. Virginia was now much larger and had lost her other leg to cancer, but her mind was still the same as it had been back in Mrs. Lutz’ class; in other words, she still couldn’t read, write or do math, but she did 355


still enjoy a chortle at someone else’s expense. And no one scratched that particular phantom itch like her old chum Faith. During Caleb’s time with them every day, he was often the butt of Faith’s observations. There was the day she brought him an application for Hairclub For Men, which Caleb didn’t need, it might be added. All in good fun. Tra la. Another day. There she was staring at him while he was talking, and Caleb had said, “What are you staring at, Faith?” “I was just noticing that the color of your teeth really goes well with your brown sweater,” she’d replied. Caleb’s fashion choices were often a source of Faith’s drier observational humor. Such as: “Hey, Mr. Jones, wearing your Mom’s old blouses again?” And: “Mr. Jones is gonna be in Marty’s new play, ‘The Fairy Pirates of Boystown’.” Then there was her running routine where she mimicked Caleb’s speech impediment, “Hey Hitder Hone, who ooo hawk hike hiss?” (Hey, Mister Jones, do you talk like this?) Though it did not tickle his funny bone, Caleb would chuckle appreciatively. He might say, “Oh Faith, Milton Berle has nothing on you, dear.” All of this accompanied by Virginia’s belly laughs and occasionally the other students’ giggles. And then there was the beloved man boob chestnut that Faith had learned at Virginia’s knee. During a demonstration on how to diagram a sentence, Faith had raised her hand. When Caleb had called upon her, she had said, “Have you ever thought of putting those things in a bra?” Faith was also the first in a line of many students who would draw attention toCaleb’s breath. The next year when Ridle took in regular able bodied students from the Henry Horner projects, many of them would directly comment on his tart exhalations, but it was Faith’s asides to 356


Virginia that first got Caleb eating mints, chewing gum and brushing his teeth after lunch to offset the pot, coffee and stress that could have made his breath smell bad. What it took him time to realize was that it didn’t matter whether or not his breath smelled, it was the joke that mattered. Faith would get Virginia’s attention, point to Caleb, roll her eyes and mouth “Whoo, bad breath.” One day after he’d helped her punctuate a compound complex sentence, he heard her whisper to Virginia, “Mr. Jones breath smells like a dirty ape’s ass.” “Uh, what was that, Faith dear?” “I was just telling Virginia that Mr. Jones is my favorite class.” “Is that what’s got Virginia tickled?” “I don’t know why Virginia laughed at that, Mr. Jones. Stop laughing at our teacher, Virginia. He’s the best teacher in the school. Stop laughing at Mr. Jones, girl. Don’t you know he’s got an ape’s ass?” “Did you say ape’s a-“ ”I said great class, Mr. Jones. Great class!” “Uh, thanks.” “ By the way, I love that little motorcycle jacket you wear to school. Do you own a motorcycle?” “No.” “Uh huh. Just the jacket.” ‘Nuff said. Faith looked at Virginia, and both girls stifled their laughter. Oh well, Caleb thought, if I can be a source of mirth to my students, I guess I’ve done my job. By that line of reasoning, Caleb was doing his job as well as any teacher in Chicago.

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Faith’s participation in the after school program paid off. A letter came through the school telling that she had been invited to transfer to Malcom X. With her parents backing her, she had decided that she could not pass up the opportunity. So she would be leaving. Soon. And her departure was just that sudden. Within a week of having received the letter, she was ready to go. On her last day, the class threw her a little party and all her classmates from her years at Ridle came to the room. The class chipped in and bought her a Boyz 2 Men tape, a sketch book with colored pencils for her dress designs and a diary. Caleb brought a cake that said, Good Luck Faith. We love you. The kids danced, and near the end of the period, Jose began to cry big tears that rolled off his long lashes and mingled with his drool. He weakly said, “I don’t want you to go, Faith.” Deareo began the procession of gentle hugs. At the end of the period, Faith said, “Thanks everybody. Well, goodbye.” Her voice was husky. Virginia hadn’t accepted Faith’s transfer, had pretended it hadn’t registered. She smiled at her best friend, whom she wouldn’t be seeing again, and said, “Bye. See you tomorrow.” Faith didn’t bother to correct her. “Yeah see you,” she said, slowly wheeling out of Caleb’s room for the last time. The next day and from that point thereafter, Virginia no longer broke into peals of helpless laughter. She didn’t ask where Faith was or bring up the possibility of keeping contact with her. She didn’t have anything to say when Faith’s name was brought up by one of the other students. As time went by, she grew heavier and more uncared for, more unkempt. Her face rested in a beatific and composed half smile, and when spoken to she would reply sweetly, always civilly. But Caleb and her classmates knew, and from Faith’s new life she knew too. They all knew that the quiet, increasingly distant Virginia harbored a secretly raucous wild woman rocking with earth 358


splitting laughter and possibly running from mountain top to mountain top and then through the air on the wings of her lost legs.

As the day of the grand cook off between Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown approached, everyone heard and took sides. Palmer Weeks was the slight favorite by virtue of his being a trained cook, but Mr. Brown wasn’t far behind, backed not so much by followers who had tasted his food but by students who preferred gym to cooking class. Despite Mrs. Berring’s harsh words about the staff being complacent and lackadaisical and basically all of the things that bosses have leveraged against workers since forever, she bestowed her blessings on the upcoming event, letting both sides know that she expected a private tasting that would be delivered to her office. In order to ‘cover everyone’s asses’ the competition was altered slightly to make it defensible should any of Mrs. Berring’s bosses make a surprise visit and ask how a cook off between two teachers was beneficial to the handicapped student population. To do that, both cooks were to choose a two students to be their assistants and help them with the preparation of the meals, and the competition was written into both Palmer Weeks’ and Mr. Brown’s lesson plans. It was a Battle of the Roast Chickens. Jackson was having her soaps taped by one of her students, and she had a floating sub to sit in her class the next period so that she and Brayfield could continue to watch the cook off and be judges. Caleb was avoiding the responsibilities of his job by having his pal and fellow teacher Miss Bernath take his charges for the period after lunch. They were a sweet quiet bunch and had grammar handouts and journal assignments, and Bernath was a friend, so Caleb didn’t feel bad. Mr. Z and Pricilla simply stayed away from their assignments that period without feeling the need to make arrangements. 359


Palmer Weeks was wearing his rainbow cooking apron and baseball cap. His side of the kitchen was getting in the mood for cooking with a mix tape of show tunes and house music, Frankie Knuckles and Lil’ Louis segueing into Oklahoma and South Pacific. Chester and Robert had been appointed to be his helpers by Mrs. Berring, who appointed Deareo and Marty to Mr. Brown. Chester and Robert were wearing Hawaiian shirts, and Robert, though he had been repeatedly asked not to do so, had colored his helmet in rainbow stripes using magic markers in imitation of Palmer Weeks. As Palmer was getting the boys ready to chop red potatoes, garlic, thyme and parsley, they were dancing, dancing to the point that Robert ran a wheel over his head chef’s toe. Palmer Weeks nearly cut his finger when Robert danced on his toe. Instead, he dropped the knife on the counter and took the Lord’s name in vein. “Ooh hoo hoo, bad word, Mr. Palmer Weeks,” Robert pointed out. Mr. Brown’s team was caught up in the sweeping grandeur of West Side Story’s ‘There’s a Place For Us’ gazing off and slightly swaying in time as Mr. Brown brought in the big sloshing pot of brine in which were soaking several whole chickens. Mr. Brown, wearing a plain white apron and a hair net on his shaved head, took one look at his helpers and yelled, “Come on now, Palmer Weeks. We’re not in the disco. You’re hypnotizing my helpers with your gay folk songs.” “This is a cook off, and it deserves a little fanfare,” Palmer Weeks replied in a benign manner, adding, “besides, if they get a job in the kitchen, they might just be exposed to music. They have to learn not to be distracted by it, so they don’t run over anyone’s toes.” “Mr. Brown, Mr. Palmer Weeks said something bad,” Robert revealed. Brown appealed to his colleague. “The least you could do is put on some dusties.” 360


“Yes, put on the dusties station,” Jackson said and Brayfield concurred. Palmer Weeks turned off his tape and put the fm radio on the dusties station. Gladys Knight took the Midnight Train to Georgia. Deareo began clearing a space on their counter, and Marty asked what he could do. Mr. Brown said, “Get the sack of my stuff out of Weeks’s refrigerator Both cooks quickly assembled their ingredients and utensils on the counters and near the stoves. Jackson said, “Are you both ready to begin the first of what I hope might be many Ridle cook offs?” “I am,” Palmer Weeks “I am ready to cook,” Mr. Brown said. “Well then le-“ Jackson started to say. Mr. Z obliviously interrupted, telling the competitors, “Gentlemen, you may rest assured that I have every confidence that both meals will prove to be sumptuous feasts for every sense. From the mouth watering aromas,” here Z closed his eyes and inhaled, “to the visual melange of savo-“ ”Z, knock it off.” Jackson asserted. Bowing at the waist old world style, Z said, “My most esteemed Mrs. Jackson, I profoundly apologize. I know that your beauty is matched by the largeness of your heart and I can only humbly pray that you can forgive me, your biggest fan, I assure you.” “Oh my heavens!” Brayfield said. “Mr. Z, how you talk. Please sit down.” “Yeah, these boys have got some cooking to do, and your pleasantries are holding things up, Z.” 361


Bowing even lower, Z began, “Ladies, No more shall I cause our esteemed chefs further delay. It grie-“ ”Okay, Z. Okay. Boys, start your cooking,” Jackson announced. Palmer Weeks split his chickens at their breasts, pulled them apart, flattened them on the counter, then began pounding the hell out of them with a large mallet. As he did that, Chester carefully quartered the laundry basket of red potatoes and Robert started chopping bunches of fresh thyme and parsley. As team Weeks began its food prep, Mr. Brown had Deareo begin slicing the bag of lemons and Marty separated and peeled garlic cloves while Brown painted his five birds with soft butter. Palmer Weeks had Chester and Robert salt and pepper the flattened birds as he heated oil and preheated his oven. Chester, in charge of the sea salt, was careful in his sprinkling, but Robert, who hadn’t had Palmer Weeks cooking class since last year, worked his grinder too enthusiastically. And Palmer Weeks increasingly louder admonitions to stop might as well have been him saying, “More pepper, Robert, faster with the pepper. Yes, good, more!” In reality he was saying, “Jesus, enough already, Robert. You can stop now. You’re...Chester, step away from the bird, Chester, if you’re going to sneeze-Oh shit!” Without another word, Palmer Weeks was at Chester’s side with a dish towel at the ready as Chester’s face crumpled in a pre-sneeze expression. Palmer Weeks helped him step back and then he gingerly covered his student’s mouth and nose, his entire face in fact, and caught the sneezes, five of them, each mightier than the previous one. When it was over Palmer said to Chester, “Go wash your hands, and if you’re going to sneeze, what do you do?” “I sneeze,” Chester answered. 362


Palmer Weeks rolled his eyes and loudly said, “YOU COVER YOUR MOUTH.” Chester saluted. And without fanfare, Robert sneezed on one of the birds. And as everyone watched, Robert sneezed twice more. After his sneezes he wiped the bird and commented, “That pepper made me sneeze, Mr. Palmer Weeks.” Palmer Weeks restrained himself. Sighing, he smiled and said, “Lets just all wash our hands, boys.” Jackson and the others were not so filled with equanimity. “Robert Michael, what are you sneezing on the chicken for? What’s wrong with you?” Jackson asked. Mr. Z gently explained. “Robert, the germs that come out of your mouth and nose when you sneeze,” here he mimed germs coming out of his own mouth and nose, “these germs travel at two-thousand miles an hour.” “Hot diggity dog,” Robert exclaimed, He then clapped his hands, and with his right hand made a shooting motion from the tip of his nose, accompanying this gesture with an improvised rocket sound. Something like, “Peeeeeeeeeoooooowwwww!” From the tip of his nose to Robert’s full arm extension, like the trajectory of his sneeze rocket.. “I want to sneeze some more,” Chester commented excitedly. “Robert, you and Chester should never sneeze on peoples’ food and you must always cover your mouth. You know better,” Brayfield fussed. “Chester’s white, so he probably don’t know any better. And Robert must have some white blood somewhere,” Mr. Brown observed from his side of the kitchen. “Yeah, Robert, you must be part cracker,” Jackson considered. Palmer Weeks was not unprepared for this setback. He had been a cooking teacher for quite 363


awhile and a chef before that, and he’d brought several backup birds. While both his helpers were washing their hands in the rest room, he washed up in the kitchen and then split, pounded and flattened another chicken, seasoned it and had it and the other fowl in the pans browning by the time his helpers returned. Meanwhile, Mr. Brown was stuffing his buttered poultry with lemon slices and whole garlic cloves. As he did so, Deareo seasoned the birds with sea salt and regular black pepper. Mr. Brown sent Marty to the oven to pre-heat it at 350, and when he was nearly done stuffing the birds, he told Deareo to heat the oil in the skillet. Mr. Brown and Palmer Weeks were browning their respective chickens at about the same pace, Weeks maybe two minutes ahead in the browning of the birds. The room filled with the good smell of seasoned chickens in their skillets, and when they were browned sufficiently, the chefs quickly transferred their dishes to the ovens. Mr. Brown put cans of chicken broth over his birds in their roasting pans, covered them and closed the oven door. Palmer Weeks further flattened the now browned chickens by putting heavy Dutch ovens directly on top of the meat, skin side down, and he put all that in the oven.

In the next fifty minutes, Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown got their side dishes ready and tended to the poultry roasting in the ovens. After twenty-five minutes had passed, Palmer Weeks pulled the chickens out and placed a bed of sliced small red potatoes on the bottom of the roasting pans in the schmaltz. He seasoned the chickens and potatoes with thyme, parsley, and lemon juice, returned them to their pans, skin side up, put the Dutch ovens back on top of them and threw it all back in the oven. The rest of his meal consisted of a fresh salad and a side dish of oven roasted asparagus and tomatoes with basil, pine nuts and melted feta cheese. Mr. Browns’ side dishes 364


were black eyed peas, greens and candied yams. Monitored and encouraged by both teachers and judges, Chester, Deareo, Marty and Robert chopped and sliced the chefs’ raw materials, leaving the arrangements, the sequence and timing of the dishes being cooked to their teachers. The musk of Brown’s caramelized butter and brown sugar flew in the air to mix with the aromas of garlic, the steaming clouds of roasting chicken, thyme and lemon.

The phone in the kitchen rang. Jackson answered. She hung up. “Judges, we gotta go. The motherfucking assholes from the Chicago Board of Education are in the building.” Mr. Z put his hand to his heart, his face a mask of grief. He said, “Does this mean we are not to partake of this magnificent repast?” “Fuck! Didn’t you hear me, Z?” Jackson said bitterly. “We have got go back to our rooms and our posts. That was Mrs. Porrtage. She said that Mrs. Berring is taking the people from the board on a tour of the school and that she’s taking them to Holly’s room for five minutes, long enough for us to get to where we need to be. Mrs. Berring wants Mr. Brown and Palmer Weeks and the kids here to finish up the cook-off and serve it to her and the board of ed assholes.” As Jackson loudly lamented the situation, everyone, including Mr. Brown and Palmer Weeks, was paying attention to her. For the moment, all eyes were focused on Jackson, including Chester’s, who was intently focusing on Mrs. Jackson as he absently reached down the back of his elastic waistband and scratched his ass. Pricilla was shaking her head. “Please try to save us a little something, would you?” “Well of course we will,” Mr. Brown assured Pricilla. “Don’t promise anything. Look, I cater the meals here when these pigs come to feed, and I guarantee you that what they don’t eat, they’ll take with them. They are worse than the Mongrel 365


hordes or the Vikings or, you know.” “Come on, people. We’ve got to go, dammit; I won’t be able to finish taping my soap,” Jackson said, and the judges broke camp. Caleb was bitterly disappointed too. He watched both cooks tend to their meals, and the smell of the lemon chicken as Mr. Brown brought them out of the oven called to Caleb. He uncovered the poultry, and with a large spoon scooped the lemons and garlic out of the chickens’ cavities and into the broth. Caleb trudged back to his room. “I cannot believe this. Why we’re having the food taken out of our mouths,” Brayfield protested.

Mr. Brown poured the broth, stuffing and cooking juices into a sauce pan. Palmer Weeks said, “Brownie, we better start making these kids do more for when Mrs. Berring and those people from the board come in. The buggers.” “What’s a bugger, Mr. Weeks?” Robert asked as his teacher handed him a bowl and a sliced clove of garlic. “A bugger? Why a bugger is just a bug,” Palmer Weeks informed him. “You washed your hands right?” “Yessss, faaaather.” “Good, now rub the inside of the salad bowl with the garlic clove, the cut side against the bowl.” “Yes, sir.” Mr. Brown had Marty stir the broth to a reduced sauce consistency. He had Deareo slice the chickens and arrange the parts on the bottoms of the roasting pans. Mr. Brown turned the 366


broiler on and had Deareo place them on the bottom rung of the oven. Chester raised his hand as if he were in class. “What can I do Weeks?” he demanded smiling lazily and looking at the floor. “Did you wash your hands?” Palmer Weeks asked. Chester saluted and said, Randy Macho Man style, “Oh yeah.” Palmer Weeks handed Chester a small few shallots. “You can chop these if you will promise not to cut yourself. Remember knife rules,” he told Chester, who, as soon as he touched the shallots, contaminated the food with his ass scratching fingers. “Hey, Chester, you’re a bugger. It means you’re a little bug,” Robert teased his pal, who smiled, then frowned then smiled again. “Don’t call me no bug or I’ll have to open a can of whup ass on ya, Robert. Can’t you see I’m busy?” Everything was ready when the hot shots burst in the kitchen, Mrs. Berring at the lead. There were three people from the Board of Education with her. They and the principal nearly floated in the kitchen as if delicately hooked by the nose. The smell reeled them in and led them to the food like smiling bears. They were certainly laughing and happy as they entered. Besides Mrs. Berring, there was Jane, a large white woman who was originally from California. Sometimes Jane was a guest speaker at their after school meetings, and she was always the bearer of bad news. Her pronouncements usually concerned more paperwork they’d have to do. She was wearing one of her many formal, business type muu-muus. And there was Simon, an African American gentleman in his forties who was one of the boards chief book keepers. A handsome, dapper man was Simon, a man whose examinations and recommendations were generally to cut positions he deemed unnecessary. He was wearing a dark blue suit with crimson detail. The final 367


member of this trio was Dana, a brassy blonde woman who had a law degree and worked for the board. She too often came to their meetings and told them awful things; for instance, in the future they would have to forego any semblance of a family life in order to continue taking classes at night so they could continue teaching. She didn’t say it like that, but those are the kinds of things she presented to them after they had spent the entire day teaching. “I hope we aren’t too late,” Mrs. Berring trumpeted as she led them to the cabinet where Palmer Weeks kept his dishes, silver and glasses. “You’re all right on time, I’d say,” Chester piped up, and the people whom the entire staff despised began their gluttonous orgy with huge cereal bowls of fresh green salad, prepared by the loving hands of Chester, who proudly informed them, “I made the salad.” With the smug aplomb of Roman emperors, Mrs. Berring, Jane, Dana and Simon wolfed down all the food that Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown had prepared. Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown ended up serving the five of them every morsel they had cooked, easily enough for twice or even three times that many people. Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown had intended to not only feed the judges and Mr. Berring and Mr. Porrtage, but to provide as many of the staff as possible with a taste. But the people from the Chicago Board of Education ate everything as if it were their due. And while each of them as well as Mrs. Berring had eaten enough to make anyone sick, it was the salad that actually got each and every one of them incredibly sick later that night. In their respective homes, at nearly the same time, each of them became queasy, then hot, then violently ill. Jane, Simon, Dana and Mrs. Berring all had to go to the various emergency rooms in their neighborhoods with severe food poisoning. The next day, Mrs. Berring wasn’t at school. Sitting around the table at lunch, Jackson was gleeful. “Serves them right. I’d pay good money to see them puking their guts up. Which one of 368


you did it? Fess up.” Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown were not feeling Jackson’s revolutionary joie d’ vie, but were figuring that it was just a matter of time before they were called on the carpet. In fact, it was during their lunch period that they were called over the intercom to Mrs. Porrtage’s office. “Aw, fuck,” Mr. Brown said. “Here’s where we get our ass chewed out,” Palmer Weeks sighed. “You mean here’s where you get your ass chewed out, white boy. This is where I’ll be fired,” Mr. Brown said. “How you figure they’re going to do that?” Brayfield asked. “Cause I’m not assigned. I’m a full time temporary substitute. It’s been nice knowing you all.” Mr. Z stood at attention and extended his hand. “Courage, Mr. Brown. May I say that I personally would not jump to conclusions regarding your future employment, but if in the event of your unfair and untimely dismissal, which I do not believe will come to pass, allow me to pledge my eternal friendship and brotherhood to you, sir.” Mr. Brown said, “You lost me, Z, but I’m with you whatever you said.” He shook hands with Z. Pricilla said, “What about your teachers’ union? Surely they won’t stand for you being dismissed over an accident.” Mr. Brown uttered, “Teachers’ union? This is no time to joke around, Pricilla.” Palmer Weeks said, “Who knows, they might just bump both of us.” “They’d love to fire your big gay ass, Weeks” Jackson concurred. Brayfield made this observation. “They might keep you here and make you suffer.” 369


“Aw fuck,” Mr. Brown muttered as if he’d really stepped in it. Caleb said, “You’ll be okay.” They made their way out of the teachers’ lunch room to the sounds of their colleagues well wishes, and Mr. Jones and Palmer Weeks were prepared for an unpleasant interlude.

What happened during the meeting surprised both Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown. Mrs. Porrtage’s office was very dark and furnished in heavy oak, black oak desk of immense proportions, throne chair, windows encased in oak, heavy mediaeval shelves filled with thick leather bound books. The orange shades were pulled, and a desk lamp on Mrs. Porrtage’s desk was the only light in the room. When the two men entered, Mrs. Porrtage was seated in her throne chair. She was smiling. “Have a seat,” she told them, indicating the uncomfortable clunky antiques in front of her desk. Shadows played on the sand colored walls in the dimness of the office. When Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown were seated, Mrs. Porrtage said, “Mr. Brown, Mr. Weeks, what happened yesterday was certainly an unfortunate occurrence.” Why was she smiling? “I know it was an accident and that trying to trace where it came from is useless. I called you both down here to tell you that I understand.” She looked at them in a meaningful way that, along with her shark smile, made both of them uncomfortable. Then Mrs. Porrtage delivered the stunning news to them. “Mrs. Berring won’t be back. She’ll be cleaning out her office as soon as she’s well. That’s the word from downtown.” Downtown meant the Chicago Board of Education. “Oh my gosh. You mean...Mrs. Berring got in trouble because of what happened?” Palmer 370


Weeks sputtered. “Oh my goodness,” Mr. Brown added. Still with the smile of a Medici, Mrs. Porrtage said, “Yes and no. Jane, Dana and Simon pulled some strings to have her fired from being principal here, but Mrs. Berring pulled some strings of her own and is filling a position at the board starting next week. She’ll be over the people who got her fired.” Mrs. Porrtage spoke of Mrs. Berring’s coup wistfully and even a bit enviously. Then she abruptly laughed, her laughter a tumbling cynical thunder, and she got up to remove a beveled glass decanter of old brandy from a large cabinet. Wordlessly, she poured the three of them a snifter. It wasn’t yet noon. And out came a humidor from which Mrs. Porrtage removed three expensive cigars. “To destiny,” she said raising her glass. Palmer Weeks and Mr. Brown went along, rather stunned at the Machiavellian turn of events. The next day at lunch when they related how they got tipsy on fine brandy and blew smoke rings with the boss, it would be the first time that Caleb ever heard of an administrator like Mrs. Berring falling in disgrace and ending up with a better job.

Though when in public, Herbie was generally the object of pity, fear or scorn, in the context of Ridle as well as the group home where he lived, he could go unnoticed to the point of invisibility. Caleb wondered how Herbie felt about the unwanted attention he encountered from perfect strangers as opposed to the benign indifference he received from his friends and the people who were supposed to care for him. Of all the students in the school, Herbie was one of the most immobile. Even Jose had more use of his arms and hands than did Herbie, whose own hands were drawn, like poor pale claws that were of little use to him. He could move his electric chair using his wrist. He could do that much. 371


The identity of the beloved girl in Herbie’s essay became apparent to Caleb pretty soon after the journal entry. Herbie couldn’t speak or even flirt. His smile and frown were both slight variations of his melancholy grimace. And because of the isolated horror that had been his life, he did not try to communicate much beyond a minor, tortured smile or a disapproving frown. It was his eyes that told Caleb who it was. Whereas Herbie had endured an entire life of paralysis, physical anguish and unimaginable solitude, Sheena was relatively new to it. Herbie could move very little, but Sheena never stopped shaking, shaking, shaking in a way that was painful to watch. She struggled to maintain the limited mobility that she still had by using a walker. Sheena wore beautiful dresses everyday, and her hair was always styled. She was thin, and because of her partial paralysis, her attempts to speak were garbled and unintelligible, yet she struggled to speak, would wave her palsied arm wildly to be called upon to read aloud, and would do so when Caleb would call upon her. She had not always been like this. Up until the life changing accident where she had been hit by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle during the summer between her eighth grade year and high school, she had been an able bodied, smart, popular, pretty girl. She’d lived with both her parents in a large home on a green expanse of five acres. Hers had been a life of friends, clothes, cheerleading and young infatuations. Perhaps because of this, she couldn’t see Herbie’s eyes like the sorrowful waters of Jesus’s eyes seeking hers, or just as likely, she saw but wasn’t interested. Possibly, when she thought of Herbie, she resented him for reminding her of what people saw when they looked at her. Caleb found out about her past life one day when she brought a photo album to school. As he was helping Herbie with a multiple choice test on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Sheena jerkily 372


pushed the album onto Caleb’s desk. He opened it. Sheena scooted her chair closer to show and explain the photographs to him. Herbie looked longingly at the photo album, and Caleb said, “I think Herbie would like to see the shots of you and your family too. Is that okay?” As best she could, Sheena nodded and said yes, and Caleb opened the album. There were pictures of her with her family and friends in large, high ceilinged rooms of eggshell tones and expensive furniture. She was sitting on a white couch with her Mom, Dad and sister. The girl in the pictures had Sheena’s face and her deep, black, exquisite skin. It was her, but it was also someone else. Someone gone. Sheena smiled, tried to say, “This is me. And here’s my Mom, Dad and my sister Bobbi.” A group of girls posing in their cheerleader uniforms were identified as her best friends, her beautiful popular girl clique. Their names were Lashawn, Tanetta, Veronica and Denise. In other pictures they were clowning in their regular clothes, eating pizza and watching movies. In some of the pictures there were some young men, also identified as friends. Their names were Mark and Josh. In Caleb’s mind, they were probably the smartest and best looking kids from the wealthiest families in their neighborhood. The house was filled with light. And there were pictures taken outside as well. In these, there were the same friends posing around expensive cars, beneath shady trees and poolside at her family’s below ground pool. And in each picture Sheena was right in the middle of everyone, and everyone was smiling. Sheena pointed to a picture of a handsome young African American boy of about thirteen. “My boyfriend, Tiger,” she garbled. There he was in several of the photographs with his arm around Sheena’s shoulder, always in the sunshine.

Looking at Tiger’s picture made her start to sob. Caleb put his arms around her convulsing 373


spindly shoulders and held her as her classmates came up to console her. Abbey asked what was wrong, and Sheena said something that Caleb couldn’t understand but that Ferrell did. He said, “Sheena told me that none of the people in that book except her parents have anything to do with her since that car hit her. She said her friends came by once, and her boyfriend never came by. She said that even her sister avoids her all the time now.” While Sheena was crying and shaking on Caleb’s shoulder, Herbie spoke. With great effort, in a voiceless whisper, He said, “It’s their loss.” Sheena said something that only Abbey understood. In her nursery rhyme cadence, Abbey translated, “Sheena said, ‘It’s my loss too.’” Abbey put her arms around Sheena’s quaking shoulders. “We love you, Sheena,” she told her in her sing song voice. “Yeah, don’t worry about those punks,” Ferrell advised her. She looked at them and cried harder, not because she didn’t realize that the people in her new classroom would make truer friends, regardless of where they fell in the range of cognitive or motor abilities. No, she knew the mettle of their character was finer than the beautiful friends who had vanished from her life when she most needed them. Nevertheless, she cried because she still missed those beautiful and faithless childhood friends. She also wept at the loss of her old life and the cruel promise of pain, increasing immobility and unimaginable solitude in the upcoming years. There would be no more Lashawns, Veronicas, Tannettas or Denises, or any beautiful, athletic guy friends, and worst of all, no more Tigers in her life. She couldn’t even see Herbie’s eyes searching hers, or she didn’t want to see because she wasn’t interested in Herbie. The bell rang, and Sheena pulled away from Caleb and Abbey. A strand of snot hung from her nose, and Caleb wiped it on his sleeve. She grabbed the handles of her walker and savagely launched her shaking bones out of the chair. Caleb put her photo album in her book bag, and he 374


helped her sling it on the handle bars of her walker. He said, “Thank you for letting me see your pictures. You have a beautiful home and family.” Sheena said something that sounded sad and apologetic, and she clomped her walker out of the room. Caleb thought that the girl in the photos never would have worn the too young party type dresses of chiffons and pastels, more appropriate for a little girl of nine or ten. Those clothes were the mother’s doing. The girl in the pictures would have balked and probably would have dressed in hip hop fashion or more grown up dresses, but that person was gone. From Herbie came that choked voice without aspiration. Caleb heard him whisper “I love herrrrr, Jonessss.” No one else heard but Caleb.

Before that first school year ended, Mrs. Porrtage had wasted no time in moving her heavy furniture to the third floor, using movers she paid for with school funds, though no one knew that at the time. In her new office, she could look out the bay window and see the treetops, the skyline and Ashland Avenue. Beyond that to the east were the downtown buildings. It was to this new office that Mrs. Porrtage summoned Caleb one afternoon when classes had ended. Caleb was nervous. He neither trusted nor liked any of the principals he had worked for and reckoned that anything she had to say would either be outright bad or if it weren’t completely bad would have a catch which would make it nearly as undesirable as receiving a dressing down. Caleb figured she was going to tell him that he was being bumped as part of the fallout from the board members having been poisoned. Maybe Simon had managed to have a few programs cut from the school. Those type things were always passed down to the teachers with the least seniority. From the grim expression on Mrs. Porrtage’s visage, things did not bode well as Caleb 375


entered her lofty office. Without being asked, he sat in one of the uncomfortable oak chairs. Mrs. Porrtage looked up from the papers and fixed Caleb with a cold contemptuous glare. She thrust several papers toward him. I’m literally getting my papers, Caleb thought. He took the papers from here. They were inscrutable forms from the Chicago Board of Education. “Take those downtown today,” she spat. “I see that you were at Brandywine for a year. We’re going to have a wild population come next year, so I’ve decided to make you an FTB. I’ve got something in mind for you and this new group.” Caleb didn’t know whether to be filled with gratitude that he was being asked back as an FTB or horrified at the prospect of having to deal with roomfulls of troublemakers everyday. Caleb thanked her. She looked at him as if instead of thanking her he’d asked her to suck his dick, and then in a dismissive gesture, she waved him away as if he were a pesky fly. All that was missing was her saying, “Begone, knave!” The bus ride to the board from Spalding wasn’t as long as the ride from Caleb’s home in Lakeview, but it was still long. Threatening clouds that were the colors of bruises banked in the western horizon. The walk from the Ashland stop on Pershing wasn’t as long as the walk from the Halsted stop, but approaching the forbidding monolith was still depressing, even when holding the papers which would allow him a step back upward to where he was when he first entered the Chicago School System.

Back on the sixth floor, Caleb again saw the fellow who had been a full time temporary substitute at Brandywine when he’d been there. He was standing in a long winding line of teachers being processed or licensed or certified or recertified or, like Caleb, changing status at a school or bringing necessary transcripts or insurance forms or letters of recommendation or 376


official...It was the line that Caleb had to join at the very end. When the teacher from Brandywine saw Caleb, they waved to each other. When the line brought them close to each other, the teacher said, “Hey, I never did learn your name. I’m Sam.” “Caleb.” Sam said, “Caleb, did you hear about the principal at Brandywine?” “The guy no one ever saw?” “Yeah. No one had seen him or talked to him in months, and his door was always locked. The locksmith and then the police had to break in, and they found him living there. He’d furnished his office with everything, including a king sized canopy bed, a grand piano and a full bathroom with a Jacuzzi, a separate shower and toilet that had real gold fixtures. He’d sneak in and out of there through that broken study hall window that opened on Madison and Kedzee I heard. That one nasty bitch that was responsible for all of us losing our positions is the principal now.” About then the line shifted, and Sam and Caleb had to go in opposite directions. “I’m at Ridle now. You should try to go there some time if you’re still subbing,” Caleb called. “I’m at Orr. It’s okay. I’m becoming a cadre. They’ve been using me as a history and science teacher all year, paying me as a daily sub. But I’m moving forward. Good to see you.” Sam disappeared in the moving coiled ribbon of people constituted of teachers being treated like the dispensable objects that they are. Caleb got the same old headache that he always got when he had anything to do with the Board of Ed, and he settled in for a long standing wait, which was exactly what he got.

377


Caleb waited and waited, his temples throbbing, his legs getting tired and his feet hurting from standing and standing. It would be better if he could sit somewhere and they could call out names. Why didn’t they do that? Some of the teachers in the lines had conversations with the teachers around them, but most of them seemed to want to be left alone. Caleb wondered if the same taut stress was animating his face like it was theirs. No matter if they smiled, frowned or tried to look noncommittal, the facial muscles were flexed. His own face felt as if he were either frowning or trying not to frown. Caleb spent an hour an a half like that. The line didn’t end when he began to get processed. The only difference was that he would now wait in line awhile and then come to a station where some nameless employee would ask for a piece of documentation, or a transcript or a special letter. It kept occurring to Caleb that he was going to a great deal of trouble to pursue something that he hated doing. Standing in the line, giving this bit of paper to one bureaucrat and that piece of paper to the next, Caleb realized that behind the fear he’d felt from the very first day was a sincere aversion to working with people. But what else was he going to do? What did he have the energy to even try? Nothing, that’s what. So it took two and a half hours, but Caleb got the paperwork done. As he walked out of The Chicago Board of Education, it was raining hard. The clouds that had been in the west now stretched from horizon to horizon. Caleb walked to the Halsted bus stop. He was drenched.

MOONLIGHT SERENADE

When he told his Mom about his having been remade a full time temporary etc,.she congratulated him. He told her how much he was dreading the upcoming school year with the 378


promised “lively” group of kids. “That sounds just awful. You can always come home if you think you’re going to have a nervous breakdown. I mean it would be cheaper than for you to crack up there. Jed Bellums was in the bank, and he said that if you wanted to come back down here there would be some teachers retiring at the end of this year. But you’d have to send your resume down now.” “Naw, I like the city, Mom. It’s just teaching I’m not too crazy about,” Caleb told her. Changing the subject, he asked about Nadine. Caleb’s Mom related a tale beginning with Nadine’s having written in Matlock’s name for a drawing at the mall. “She’d been getting him a chew toy, and when she was paying, and the clerk asked her if she wanted to enter the drawing, she thought it would be cute to write his name with her address and phone number. And he won. Nadine told me that it was the first time she’d ever won anything, and it wasn’t even her. Next thing she knew she got a call from the mall asking if Matlock was there, and that he’d won a full day’s pampering at the Egyptian Spa on the outskirts of town. She told them what had happened, how she’d put his name down as a joke, and they asked if they could have a television crew to film him getting a full treatment at the spa and use it for a local commercial. And, Caleb, it was on t.v. Not only on the commercial, Matlock was on the 5 o’clock news.” “Have you seen the commercial?” Caleb asked. “Oh yes. They have Matlock in the back of a limosine. He’s got a little faux fur coat on and little sunglasses. I don’t know how they did it, but he was sitting like a man and drinking a martini. And there was a little Chow bitch named Butch in a strappy little black gown doing the same thing. It was cute.” “That doesn’t sound possible,” Caleb pointed out. 379


“You’d have to see it. Anyway, when they get to the Egyptian spa, they have all these paparazzo clicking cameras at him and Butch. Then it showed them in the spa getting little mud treatments and in the steam room with little dishrags wrapped around their lower parts, and both of them still wearing the sunglasses.” “What about the bitch. Did they hit it off?” Caleb asked. “Nadine was hoping so, but no. Nadine’s so upset about Matlock’s unnatural love.” “What are you talking about, Ma? Matlock’s a dog. Unnatural? is he in love with a sock?” “It’s worse than that. Matlock’s in love with his sister, Winky Lee. Nadine says he won’t go anywhere without her. I don’t know how many times Nadine has caught them en flaggrante delicto.” “Winky Lee is a cat. She isn’t Matlock’s sister.” “Emotionally, that’s what she is to him. That’s why Nadine bought her, so that Matlock could have a cute little kitty cat sissy to play with and innocently cuddle with. Not...And it’s not just regular sex either. It’s kinky.” Caleb pictured Matlock and Winky Lee in full bondage gear. “Nadine says that she’s caught them going at it under the table, behind the couch, in the space between her tub and toilet. On the kitchen table. She still can’t figure out how Matlock got up there. Nadine says they’re in love, but I say they’re just being ornery.” “Um, I’m going to work for my pal Sandy at his antique store again this summer,” Caleb said. A pause. “Is he married?” “No.” “Is he gay?” “Nope. He has a girlfriend. I’ll be making eighty dollars a day under the table,” Caleb 380


said. Of that his Mom heartily approved. “My Boy, my boy,” she told him.

And Caleb’s summer revolved around his light three to four day work schedule. On his days off, Caleb would walk to the Oak street beach and lay on a towel reading light beach fare, magazines and celebrity gossip mostly, and he would do much the same when at work at Sandy’s antique store, only rather than reading and dozing on a beach towel, he read and dozed in his favorite chair by the window. He did smoke weed in the store too, which he didn’t do on the beach because of all the people. About three of four times a week, he would have to call Irv about some esoteric piece about which a customer inquired. With Irv, everything was always mashuggie. Sandy, the customers, the government, life in principal, it was all mashuggie. Of course he was right. One day Sandy surprised Caleb at the store. Caleb was asleep. The air had a back odor of weed. Caleb opened his eyes to the sight of Sandy standing in front of him. “Wake up, sleepy dreamer. I need you to help me take a table in the back of the store to my place.” He looked at the little case of weed. “Put that away,” he said, “I’ve got a joint.” As Caleb put the antique box and hitter away, Sandy locked the door to his shop and lit the joint. Halfway through the joint, some customers tried to enter the store. “Oh shit,” muttered Sandy. “Hide.” Caleb hid behind the counter, and his boss hid behind a grandfather clock until the dreaded customers left. When they finished the joint, Sandy said, “Closed for the day,” and put up the proper sign. The table was for the top floor of his condo. It was carved from whole trunks of Farriswood and was over two hundred years old. The wood was very dark and had an almost malleable texture. After muscling it out of the back of the store, they got it into Sandy’s van. 381


They had to be very careful when moving it because of its age and value, and the effort had Caleb sweating profusely, almost as if he’d been in a workout. In the van as they headed toward Sandy’s abode, he said to Caleb, “Don’t worry. Joey, Stevie and Liz will be there to help us when we get to my house.” They were there too. Sari too. It was immediately apparent that Liz had started partaking of Sandy’s endless supply of cocaine. Her eyes were red and glassy. Her hair looked coarse of texture, and her complexion was suffering. Nevertheless, she, Stevie and Joey and the dog were all ready to help. Liz stood at the top of the spiral staircase and bounced on the balls of her feet squealing with excited anticipation. That was very helpful. Joey used his cigarette free hand to delicately grasp the edge of the table until he was distracted by Sari, who was barking and getting underfoot. At that point he let go, ducked under Caleb’s arm and led Sari away from the carriers. Stevie declared that he would be unable to get through and released the weak grasp he had on one of the legs in order to hold open the door. Essentially, Sandy and Caleb carried the heavy table up three flights to Sandy’s unit, and then another floor up to his top floor. Still, Stevie, Joey and Liz were more winded and sweating than Sandy and Caleb. When the chore was finished, the three helpers snorted lines off Sandy’s marble kitchen counter. They then resumed the discussion that had been raging all afternoon, shortly after Liz had let Joey and Stevie in. The three of them kept arguing as Caleb looked on nonplused and Sandy pointedly ignored them to position his beautiful dark Ferriswood table in his spacious, light filled, white penthouse atop his modern fortress. Liz and Stevie were of one opinion, and Joey of another. There was much pacing back and forth, arm waving, gesturing, teeth grinding and in Joey’s case teeth clacking as they debated, each of them constructing elaborate logic systems to prove what was achingly obvious to each of them. 382


The string of reasoning was tenuous and kept being broken by the inevitable call for another line, another bump. Joey and Stevie were paying for theirs. Liz wasn’t. In his Popeye voice with his teeth chattering as if he were freezing, Joey yelled, “You two do not understand the obvious. It’s everywhere in our atmosphere. You can’t escape it so it would be in the device de facto. How could it not be there. Do you think the detonator is in some kind of vacuum, and even if that were your position, then I would have to ask you why do they call it the-“ Stevie could not allow his dear friend to continue to make a fool of himself. He couldn’t wait until Joey stopped talking about the subject. If he did that, he would have to do several more lines until Joey would do a line. And Stevie couldn’t wait that long to explain the faulty thinking. He blurted, “Joey, how can you simplify this issue like you have? We’re talking about nuclear physics, my friend. Fission. Frission. Neutrons, electrons, foutons and boo-trons and the isolation, Joey, the isolation of the hydrogen atom and the...the velocity so that it collides. That’s roughly-” “Stevie you are describing what they do at that university where they split atoms. They don’t have a big underground track to do that. It’s a bomb. Of course it’s self contained, and the hydrogen is isolated and set to detonate in a chemical chain reaction when the hydrogen and the plutonium collide on impact with whatever the missile was aimed at. How can you and Liz not understand?” Joey pleaded. Liz set the record straight. “Listen, I work in the air industry, so I know a little about how these things are.” Joey protested, “You’re a flight attendant, Liz. How are you going to know more about whether or not there’s hydrogen in a hydrogen bomb than me? Huh?” “I know a lot about it,” Liz asserted. 383


To Sandy, Caleb said, “How long has this been going on?” “I don’t want to know, but I’m putting a stop to it. I’m gonna have Joey give you a ride home,” Sandy said, not wanting to listen to a continuation of the ‘hydrogen in the hydrogen bomb issue’. So after he measured eight-balls for his grade school pals, Stevie walked home, which was two blocks away, and Joey gave Caleb a ride.

Joey was wheezing from snorting so much cocaine, and he was barely able to drive at first. His eyes bugged, and he was white knuckling the steering wheel, Joey slowly maneuvered his boat sized Continental out of the driveway and onto the road, threading his car toward Clark and Belmont, where he would drop Caleb off. Once they were on the road, Joey relaxed and began talking about his heritage. “Now the Spartans, they were the bravest and best soldiers in the world. Died. Died rather than give up, Caleb. And what they mostly lived on was meat. Lots of meat, exercise and dance for those Spartans. And Alexander the Great, the greatest soldier ever. Took over the world while he was still a young man. Died too young. You know what killed Alexander the Great? They say it was fever, but what it really was, was he died of depression, Caleb, it’s the Greek curse.” “I didn’t know that. Depression is the Greek curse?” “My Aunt has been in and out of the hospital all her life. My Dad said his Pop wouldn’t be able to get out of bed sometimes. Hell I’ve been on lithium myself. That’s no picnic. I’ve suffered from clinical depression all my life. I’ve always been functional,” Joey croaked cheerfully, then sighed shakily. “My Gramps was a great guy, I tell you, Caleb. When he was a kid, he used to play pool for Al Capone. He was a pool prodigy. Capone saw him and became his patron. He’d have my Grandpa play in tournaments. Gramps had nothing bad to say about Al 384


Capone. But the Greek curse, it’s a motherfucker, my friend.” Caleb liked Joey. He didn’t know whether depression was more prevalent among people of Grecian heritage, whether Alexander the Great died of it or how much of a genetic predilection Joey had for it, but it did occur to Caleb that Joey’s depression might be linked to his cocaine use. He didn’t say that to him. Instead, he said, “My stop is up here, Joey. Man, thanks for the ride.” There was a sheen of sweat on Joeys’ forehead, and he was pale. Poor Joey was wired and anxious, but he tried to play it off, smiling and saying, “You’re one of the good guys, my friend.” “You are too, Joey. Thanks again.” Caleb shut the door and watched Joey timidly rejoin traffic to turn right and head west on Belmont.

This summer passed quickly, and during August, Caleb went back to Chase to visit his Mom for a week. On the day of his trip home, he purchased his ticket in Union station and went to the departure gate. In line for the same train as his, the Illini, Caleb saw two familiar faces, Palmetto Bug and his pal Viking. Caleb gave up his spot ahead of them to join them. The Viking had driven Palmetto Bug to Union Station and was seeing him off. As they waited in line, and Palmetto fussed with his cardboard suitcase, Viking sneakily slipped a hit of ecstasy in Caleb’s hand, and mouthed the words, “It’s ecstasy, take it now,” so that Palmetto Bug would not hear. Caleb did as he was advised, and when they got to the train, he as well as Palmetto Bug bid the Viking adieu.

From the time they took their seats together, Palmetto Bug talked. He told Caleb his life story; actually, he made up a bunch of stuff that he said happened to him. Taking out his wallet he took out an i.d. picture of himself in a security guard uniform and wearing a policeman type hat 385


with a badge on it. “This was from the time I spent as an undercover F.B.I. agent in Chase. I was studying the...”

It was about then that the ecstasy hit Caleb’s system in an initially jarring physically unpleasant sick feeling that lasted about five minutes as Palmetto Bug told a tale of climbing into the truck bed of one of a Mafia hit man. He was hoping that the man would drive to the “...spider’s lair of killers and thieves, and he did exactly that.” Caleb was wondering how long he would feel as bad as he was feeling, dreading the upcoming bad trip. He’d never taken ecstasy before, and now, if he didn’t have to be removed from the train to be hospitalized at some stop along the way, he resolved that he would never take it again. He hoped he wouldn’t puke as he looked through Palmetto Bug, who was describing the cages of white slaves in an underground cave that he found after the Mafia guy went in his house. It was while Palmetto Bug was recounting the violent altercation between himself and the Mafia guy that the disphoria lifted like clouds shifting over meadows of cornfields. Caleb got off on the ecstacy about twenty minutes after the train had left Union Station. It is difficult to describe the wondrous delight that Caleb felt at Palmetto Bug’s grisly narrative. The words were like effervescent drops of morning dew. “So Mario thought he had me, Caleb, and it was only by tearing his trigger finger off did I prevent him from shooting me.” ‘What a delightful tale’, Caleb thought. ‘Palmetto Bug is compassionate in the exact same way that the warrior is kind to his enemy when killing him and thereby liberating his spirit’. Palmetto Bug stopped his fanciful tale to look carefully at Caleb. “Are you alright?” he asked solicitously. “Oh yeah,” Caleb managed to say. “I’ll bet,” he continued, “that you’re the most valuable 386


agent that the F.B.I. has ever had.” Pausing a beat to make sure that the white boy wasn’t putting him on, Palmetto Bug, decided Caleb was a simple minded harelip rather than a blisteringly sarcastic smart ass. He leaned nearer to Caleb and in a conspiratorial voice, said, “You’d think that, but they didn’t treat me like they should have.” “No?” “They hung me out to dry. I was studying a possible case in the Carbondale mall where I was taking undercover pictures of suspects in a retail thievery ring. You know, keeping tabs on these possible thieves, trying to catch them thieving. Your basic private investigation type shit, and, and you know how federal funding is. I had to use my old, outmoded camera.” Palmetto Bugs words sounded watery, and the walls of the train were breathing in womblike rhythm with Caleb’s own heartbeat. “Federal funding. Yeah,” he concurred, delighted with the sound of his own voice vibrating in his throat and expanding into the benign space of the train’s interior. “Yeah, cool, Mr. Bug.” Palmetto Bug wasn’t looking at Caleb, but was staring at the back of the seat in front of him. He muttered darkly, “I told the boss that I needed one of them miniature, hidden type cameras. Anyway, Caleb, the long and the short of it is that the mall security said that I was bothering people, just by taking their pictures. I said if they weren’t hiding something they’d be glad to have their picture taken. It was too much for my nerves.” “Is that why you went on to become a blues singer?” “Naw. After I quit the Bureau in disgust, I went back to my first love, doctoring.” “You’re a doctor? Wow” Palmetto Bug fished in his wallet and pulled out a picture of a Chase Hospital employee 387


i.d.. He didn’t hold it out very long, just long enough to show that it was an i.d. from a hospital and that in the i.d. picture, Palmetto Bug was dressed in a white lab coat. He didn’t hold it out long enough for Caleb to read anything off the i.d. In Caleb’s condition, Palmetto Bug would have had to have held the i.d. for about five minutes. Palmetto announced, “I was that type of doctor that Quincy was. Doing the autopsies at night. Interesting work.” “Oh my gosh,” Caleb enthused, “This is too much for me to deal with.” Caleb closed his eyes and had a double vision. In one eye, there was Palmetto Bug as Kali, while in the other eye was the sight of Palmetto Bug healing the sick. He had to open his eyes, and when he did, Caleb thought he might weep in awe at the warrior/healer’s presence. Palmetto Bug said, “I told them right at the start that all I wanted to do was deliver the babies, but they told me that they needed me in the pathology lab to help the police solve their cases. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get away from the police work. They just kept pulling me back in. Still,” he opined, “I know I did work that I was proud of. I was most proud of solving the case that almost put away the head of the Klu Klux Klan, who also happened to be one of the state police officers down in Southern Illinois. It was bittersweet, I tell you.” It was as if Caleb could see the pure benevolent spirit of Palmetto Bug’s inner being emanating from the man’s pores as he told the story of some honky taking pot shots at the African American folk who were living in the village of Burton. Burton was a small town that was about four miles southwest of Chase. Palmetto said, “I started collecting bullet casings from the shooting range where all the crackers practiced to see if I could find a match with the shells left behind from the random shootings in Burton. You dig?” 388


The ecstacy was roiling through Caleb’s brain like pleasure bees stinging joy into the gelatin flowers inside of his skull. “I dig,” Caleb replied dazedly. “Well,” continued Palmetto Bug, “I traced the bullets to guess who?” Caleb shrugged, overwhelmed by the sheer generosity he felt at having been asked whom he thought Palmetto Bug had traced to the shootings. Eager to include others into his world, that’s how this Palmetto Bug was. Caleb was certain that whoever the culprit was would be a fabulous person in the way that even the worst among us share the common flame of our humanity. Being capable of loving and being loved. Caleb felt like singing that old Dean Martin hit, Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime, and he might have gone ahead and done it but for his hummingbird length attention span. And Palmetto Bug forged on with his story of police criminality. “It was this state trooper who had booked time at the firing range. All I needed was the smoking gun,” Palmetto Bug divulged. “What?” Caleb murmured, though Palmetto Bug seemed to hear what Caleb had said as being, “What did you do then?” Palmetto Bug leaned even closer to Caleb and whispered loudly, “I broke into his house and went looking for the gun.” It was an incredibly powerful and brave thing to have done, and it sounded so beautiful that Caleb could only repeat in a mumbling voice what the great man had said. “Broke into his house; went looking for his gun. You...you should write that down. It’s like, like a song. Oh Jesus.” Again, Palmetto Bug looked at Caleb with concern, and he said, “You sure you’re alright. You’re kind of, um, panting like you’re out of breath.” “Yeah, I feel great. So, uh, did you break into his house and, uh...” Again, giving Caleb the benefit of a doubt that he was a noodle head rather than yet another 389


treacherous and crazy white person, Palmetto went on. “I broke in the man’s house,” Palmetto Bug admitted. “And I got the gun. But to make them think that it had been a robbery instead of an investigation, I stole all the man’s guns. Damn his brilliant mind, him and them other state patrolmen. They found out that I’d broken into his house from one of the fools I’d sold one of the guns to.” “Wow,” Caleb commented, at one with the universe. Palmetto Bug quickly assured Caleb, “They couldn’t make anything stick. It was all circumstantial, and when they came looking around my place, I’d already gotten rid of all the rest of the guns but the one linked to the crime.” When Caleb, who was entranced with the hand rest, didn’t say anything, Palmetto Bug continued. “That particular firearm, I put it in a lock box for safe keeping, and I told that officer that if the charges weren’t dropped and if anything happened to me that the note and the gun would prove to be very embarrassing for him and the police department.” “Man, you are sooo coool,” Caleb muttered, his eyes rolling back in his head and his neck lolling to the side. “It ruined doctoring for me. I just didn’t want to be a part of any of it anymore. My nerves were frazzled,” Palmetto Bug admitted. “I figured then,” he continued, “that I should give back to the community, and I got back into a more hands on role in my Youth Ministry.” “Whoa!” “You didn’t know that I was a licensed reverend?” “Nuh-uh.” Again, Palmetto But fished out his wallet, went through it and produced a picture i.d. identifying him as a registered minister. The Logo said, Mid-South-Eastern Wyoming Seminary, 390


and the picture had Palmetto Bug decked out in priestly garb. Caleb marveled at the nimbus of light around the picture. Palmetto Bug said, “I can perform marriages, baptisms, divorces and funerals as well as council folks. So’s after the thing with the trooper, I got more into helping the young folks. But of course, no one understands. “They all have the wrong idea of a black man trying to help the community through helping teens.” Troubled anger furrowed his brow, and he declared, “ I took those gals across the state line into Kentucky so we could attend a prayer service! And them acting like I was transporting those girls into Las Vegas to be hookers. “I didn’t do anything, and nothing happened, so the girl whose parents stirred up all the trouble wouldn’t lie and testify that I had acted improperly, so they had to settle with me for defamation of character. Paid me one hundred fifty thousand dollars for my trouble. So after that, Caleb, I just threw my hands up and did what I started out doing naturally when I was a child, singing.” “God bless you.” Palmetto Bug again studied the simple white boy in front of him, a friend of the Viking, this Caleb was. He clearly had some sort of mental condition. “Uh, I think I’m going to get a bite to eat in the dining car,” he said. Palmetto Bug got out of the seat and added, “I’ll see you in awhile.” “Okay.”

Palmetto spent the rest of the trip in the dining car chatting up a woman he met in line for orders. Caleb continued to melt into his seat and experience the inner universe expanding in his brain, atoms colliding and nebulas emerging from black space into new dimensions. You know. 391


At the train station was his Mom and Nadine. Caleb hugged and gave his Mom a kiss on the cheek and, uncharacteristically, gave Nadine a big hug and kiss too. He then effusively thanked them for coming to pick him up and told both of them that he loved them. “Well well,” Nadine said rather pleased at Caleb’s unusual show of affection and good will. His Mom was more skeptical, looked in his eyes and said, “Have you been smoking?” “No. I’m just glad to see the both of you, and it’s probably not a good idea for me to drive back.” Matlock, and Winky Lee the kitty cat were waiting in the car. Matlock was in a ridiculous Chihuahua sized black speedo that had a loose elastic hole for the end of his wiener to poke through for easy pissing, and he wore shopping network zirconium diamond studs in his ears. Winkie Lee was au natural, Nadine commenting on how the kitty refused to wear the cute outfits that she had made for her. Winkie Lee did have one accessory of sorts, a red cloth mouse, armless, legless and stuffed with catnip. Mousie she kept with her, chewing it, batting it happily back and forth between her paws or simply keeping it clutched in her front paws as she perched above Caleb and Matlock. Caleb felt his consciousness recede as he watched Winkie Lee work the catnip mouse, flexing her paws into it and then rubbing her entire face on it. He was engrossed in watching this when Matlock leapt into his arms and bussed him on the cheek. “That’s a European form of greeting that he’s picked up from my hairdresser, Pierre, or Pete as I call him,” Nadine explained. Then she said, “Fact is, tomorrow I’ve got an appointment. It’s not my usual time, but I’m having to go because Pete’s leaving on his vacation. He’s going to his homeland.” 392


“Paris France?” Caleb’s Mom offered. “Nope. Rockford. But what’s bad is that Matlock and Winkie Lee got their appointments at the vets. I ain’t sure what to do,” Nadine admitted. Caleb’s Mom jumped right in. “Don’t worry. Caleb will take them to the vet for you.” “What a great idea. I just love this dog. I feel like he’s more than a dog. And this kitty. I love her too. Can you hear her back here purring?” Caleb gushed. “She sounds just like an engine don’t she?” Nadine observed. “Yes. Oh, God,” Caleb sighed, happy to be home, and happily coasting on the dose of ecstacy. As they pulled out of the train station, Nadine, who was driving because Caleb’s Mom didn’t like to drive at night, turned on the radio to the a.m. station broadcast out of West Frankfort. It usually played oldie musical formats disc jockeyed by syndicated gentleman like Peter Marshall and Wink Martindale, but it wasn’t a musical program this time. Not at first. It was Confessional, a call in show. Nadine revealed that if Matlock didn’t get to listen to Confessional, he brooded for days. The disc jockeys, Sqwatch and Tiffany, greeted their first caller after the commercial break. The caller, a woman, confessed, “This ain’t easy for me to say, but I have to get it off my chest.” “That is what we are here for,” Sqwatch assured the woman. “Please tell us your confession,” Tiffany encouraged. “Ah, see, me an my brother have the same Pa and different Ma’s, so’s I don’t know if that makes him my half brother or full-blood kin. But anyway, we was partyin’ about two weeks ago on a Saturday night, and things kind of got extreme, y’ know?” There was silence at Sqwatch and Tiffany’s end until, after about twenty seconds of dead 393


air, Tiffany said, “Whoops, hold er right there, gal. Do you mean by extreme, uh...” “Yes, I do. We ended up doi-“ The passionate sibling was cut off. ”Ah ha ha ha, hey now we don’t want to hear about all that betwixt you and your brother or your half-brother. We not that kind of show,” Sqwatch explained. “I say they’re full kin,” Tiffany said. “I kind of think they might be half brother and sister.” “Naw. They got the same father. Now if they had the same Ma and different Dads, they’d be full kin. So it works the opposite way too. They got the same Dad. They’re full blooded brother and sister, Sqwatch.” “If’n you say so, Tiff.” “I say so, and also, I don’t know how many times we’ve asked folks not to call up confessin’ about love situations in they immediate family. Whew! Once again, people, this show is called Confessional, not The Horny Time Let’s Jump Our Kins’ Bones Show. Laws have mercy, next caller please,” Tiffany said. “Hey there Tiffy. Love the show, and especially you, baby.” “And we love you too, baby,” Tiffany cooed. “Hey what about me?” Sqwatch yelled. “Aw, you too, Sqwatch. I said ‘the show’, what do ya want?” the caller said. “Why I want to hear your confession,” Sqwatch said. “That’s right, baby, lay it on us. Tell us your confession,” Tiffany said in a teasing voice, which caused the caller to chortle like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “See, it’s like this, y’all. I got the sister -in-law from hell. I’m telling you, Tiffy and 394


Sqwatch. Can y’all relate?” the caller asked. “Preachin’ to the choir. My ex-wife’s brothers and sisters were like an abomination on God’s Earth,” Sqwatch shuddered. “Abomneration, I like that, Sqwatch. My sister-in-law is an abomer-ration. Yeah, this gal for no reason called DCFS on me an’ my wife and got our damn kids took away.” “For no reason?” Tiffany asked playfully. “For no reason! So’s you can imagine how pi- I mean how mad I was.” “Well I hope you called the police on her for makin’ a false report,” Sqwatch, the voice of reason, asserted hopefully. “Better ‘n that, Sqwatch. I waited till I knew that bi- I mean that gal and her no account boy friend was in bed asleep and I got my gasoline can and my Bic lighter and went over to their trailer and I-” They cut off the caller, and an exasperated Sqwatch informed his listening audience, “Y’all ain’t going to confess to no damn felonies on Confessional. We’re not that kind of Confessions. Whoo, Tiffany, what’s with folks?” “I shore don’t know, Mr. Sqwatch, but we’ve been getting some wacky confessions tonight,” Tiffany replied. “Are you ready for the next caller?” “I don’t know if my heart can tolerate another such caller,” Sqwatch confessed, adding, “But that’s what we’re here being paid for, so’s I’m game if you are, girl.” “Turn it on, Daddy. Next caller. This is Confessional. What’s your confession?” “Ah’m out here in the woods in my ride. Got y’all on my cell phone.” Tiffany said teasingly, “Are you behavin’ yerself out there in yer ride?” The caller dissolved in giggles, gave a rebel whoop and said, “Hell, no! What y’all think? 395


I’m a crazy American.” “Oh oh, Miss Tiffany. I think we got a cheater on the line,” Sqwatch said hopefully. Tiffany sexily and hopefully opined, “I think he might be a cheater too. A guy out cheating on his girlfriend or even his wife. Maybe even cheating with someone else’s girl or wife. Are we on the right track?” “Not even.” The timbre in the voice rode the cusp between hysteria and panic. “Who you out there in your ride with, dawg?” Sqwatch said. “I ain’t out here with nobody,” the caller said, an edge of bewilderment in his voice as if he couldn’t understand why Sqwatch would ask if he were with someone when he was in his car in the middle of the woods at night. Tiffany didn’t sound so hopeful now, but she did sound more apprehensive. “Uh, so you’re out in your automobile in the middle of the woods doing something you feel moved to call us and confess about, but you’re alone?” “This ain’t something weird that we don’t need to be hearing about is it?” Sqwatch, now uneasy too, asked. “Y’all Confessional ain’t cha?” “Yeah, but maybe if you by yourself in the middle of the woods you need to call a sex-line instead of Confessions,” Sqwatch suggested. “Aw hell it ain’t like that at all,” the caller protested. “I ain’t like them other perverts that call y’all.” “That’s a relief. Well, tell us your confession then. Fire away. Say anything. Anything,” Tiffany said “Okay, I’m...I’m a cook. I’m cooking in my car right now as we’s talkin’,” the caller 396


revealed. “Well, there’s nothing scandalous about being a cook. But I never heard of anyone cooking in their car,” Tiffany pondered. “Are you cookin’ a romantic dinner for your married girlfriend?” Tiffany wheedled. Emitting a cackle that sounded as if the caller were channeling Earnest T. Bass, he answered, “Y’all sure are fired on extry-maritime affairs; no, I ain’t cooking no romantic dinner fer m’ married girl friend. She home anyway. I’ll give you a hint what I’se cookin’ I been up for a week. You know the name Tina? Hee hee hee hee hee.” “You been up for a-“ Tiffany mused. Sqwatch put together the equation and hastily disconnected the caller. You could hear him sigh on the air. Tiffany said, “Who is this Tina that feller was askin’ if we knew? Is that his married girlfriend’s name?” “Let’s jest cut to commercial, Tiffany, and I’ll tell you,” Sqwatch suggested. And while the commercials played, Matlock perched on the armrest next to Caleb and looked at him as if to say, ‘what’s up, buddy?’ Next to Caleb’s head, Winkie Lee was purring, purring, purring. Evidently Sqwatch and Tiffany had given up on taking calls because after the commercials, someone put on Moonlight Serenade. It was a cover version that Caleb had never heard and was supernaturally beautiful. It was played on celesta. Caleb was filled with the deep comfort of coming home, except he was plateauing on ecstacy so the feeling was amped, racheted to an insanely happy degree. Caleb’s Mom drove home after dropping off Nadine, Matlock and Winkie Lee, and Caleb soon thereafter crashed. He lay in bed still basking in the seotonin bath released by 397


the drug, the darkness of his old room painted with happiness. Home and ecstasy.

The next day he felt a want of the depleted serotonin from the previous evenings dosing. While he didn’t feel one one-hundredth the soul corruption of a cocaine hang-over nor the physical pain of your garden variety booze hangover, he felt down, like he’d been on a hard drug. After several hours of being awake, the mist of post ecstasy clouds cleared and Caleb felt some better. Because it was Friday, his Mom had to work, and Caleb spent his day the way he used to. Up early, getting high, fishing, breakfast, getting high, running, preparing lunch for him and his Mom. After lunch, as he had promised the night before, he went to Nadine’s house to pick up Matlock and Winkie Lee for their visit to the veterinarian. Matlock was dressed in a tiny sweater that was a pastel shade between pink and tan. Winkie had her catnip Mousie and was in her carrying case, since Nadine was afraid that if Caleb tried to carry Winkie, her feline unpredictability would cause her to mischievously run away from Caleb and possibly climb a tree or otherwise playfully make a break and get lost. Matlock sat by the front grill of the cage and tried to comfort his girlfriend by promptly falling asleep. On the ride over, Winkie pensively chewed Mousie, as Nadine referred to Winkie Lee’s talisman. Matlock’s little snores sounded like a tea kettle whistling. The receptionist at the veterinarian’s office was Eva, who observed, “Hollywood’s cousin,” when Caleb entered with Nadine’s animals. “Eva? Gosh. How you been? How’s...uh, Jake?” Eva frowned with her eyes. “I’m fine. Jake is Jake.” Caleb faked a merry chuckle at the thought of irrepressible Jake, and Eva rolled her eyes. Eva said, “ I heard Bertie and Maze got married.” 398


“Yeah, they moved to New Mexico. They’re doing well.” Caleb wanted to ask her what was happening between her and Jake although he could just about guess. Eva went ahead and signed in Matlock and Winkie Lee. She ruefully smiled at Caleb, and her smile said, ‘you can figure out everything you need to about what’s happening between me and Jake. Drugs and sex with the wrong people. He’s a full blown drug addict, and we’re both sex addicts.’ Instead she said, “You can take...Matlock and Winkie Lee in room three. Hey it’s been good to see you. If you talk to Bertie and Maze, tell them hello.” Matlock trembled uncontrollably and piteously while looking at Caleb, who put his hand reassuringly on the dog’s head until the doctor was finished with the dreadful probing thermometer. A check here, a look there, a feeling of the glands, and everything was okay. Matlock was fine. The vet suggested that Caleb take Matlock out of the room as he examined Winkie Lee, who could be a problematic patient. Caleb left Winkie Lee and the vet together and went back into the waiting room where Eva was busy at her computer screen. Caleb could hear the kitty snarling and spitting from the examination room. Matlock perked his ears in curiosity as Winkie Lee squalled like she was being skinned alive. By then the fierce howling had ceased, and the vet emerged from the examination room with the caged and seemingly tranquil Winkie Lee purring and worrying her Mousie. The doctor, who had bright red kitty scratches on his wrists, neck and face, handed Caleb a prescription for Winkie Lee’s Prozac.

399


HERE COME THE REGULARS

When the new school year started, everything was different because of the regular, able bodied kids. The teachers who had taught only physically and mentally handicapped students for decades were sometimes at a loss as to how to deal with the new challenge. Other veteran teachers took the new population in stride and adapted effortlessly. Caleb fell somewhere between the two camps. The able bodied LD (learning disabled) kids were the hardest to integrate. That group benefitted most from a very high teacher to student ratio, particularly when behavioral difficulties were figured in. Many of the LD students should have been in BD, (behaviorally disordered) classes. When mixed with the regular students, they would compensate for not being as adept at reading or math by being disruptive and acting like clowns. When grouped with the EMH students, they would often act like assholes and behave with cruelty or indifference or contempt. Caleb taught three classes of mostly regular, able bodied kids and two classes of primarily the EMH and PH students he’d taught last year. In each class there would be a sprinkling of students that didn’t really belong with the larger group, hence the mainstreaming idea in action. Nearly all of the new students were African American.

On the first day of the school year, during the first period, Caleb entered his regular freshman English class and took row. His students were composed of sweet faced youngsters, for the most part able bodied, with the exception of one wheelchair bound young man whose aide had not been yet assigned to him. His name was Karl. He was much like Herbie, probably less healthy, more heavily medicated, his spirit farther away. Also, whereas Herbie had a state and federally 400


under-funded institution as his family, Karl had a real, loving, overly protective, flesh and blood family that was slowly suffocating him in the name of advocacy. When Caleb read Karl’s name, the poor young fellow indicated that it was his name by moving his head and opening his mouth. To the other names that Caleb read off his attendance list, he got the expected responses of “Here,” and “Yes, sir,” until he came to Martell Love. “Martell Love,” Caleb said, even the mention of the name eliciting giggles from students unfamiliar with Martell. “Martell Love?” Caleb called again. “Guess he’s absent,” Caleb said. Not all of the students were unfamiliar with Martell. One tall, self assured young woman, Samala Reeves, said, “Wait’ll you get a load of Martell, Mr. Jones. I was with that little boy in eighth grade, and he drove our teacher crazy. He’s just a big mouth shrimp and you can’t shut him up,” she offered. At that, the door of an upper storage cabinet high on the wall flew open, and out popped Martell Love, all four feet eleven and ninety eight pounds of clowning pride. He jumped literally out of the wall to the floor between the second and third row of students. As his feet touched the ground, he assumed a fantastic kung fu stance, then straightened to a pimp posture, one arm straight down at his side and the other bent at forty five degrees at the elbow and wrist. Or maybe it was a Bugs Bunny posture. He then broke into a rotating moonwalk, at least that’s how it ran in his mind ever after when he would remember it. In reality, he truly did spring out of the wall after kicking open the door, but rather than the devil may care, debonaire, cat landing, martial arts and pimp poses and instead of the suave dance, he’d really merely fallen to the floor like a sack of potatoes and had hurt his knee. He forgot that. He also forgot saying, “Ow,” getting up, and holding his knee. He did remember saying with much panache, “Martell Love at your service. Making the scene. Esquire.” Then to Samala, 401


“Samala, you know you want me, but you can never have me cause you a ho.” The next thing Caleb knew was that he was chasing Martell around the room with the intention of...I don’t know. Does the dog know why it chases its tail, or why it runs after a car? Does the chicken know why it crosses the road? Anyway, Caleb couldn’t catch young agile Martell, who even with a sore knee was much too spry to be caught by an old white guy like Caleb, in shape though he was. Though having his teacher pursue him with blood in his eye seemed to make Martell slightly ill at ease, his and Caleb’s antics delighted almost everyone else in the room, including Karl, who silently chuckled and waved his arms in tiny movements. Only Samala wasn’t impressed. Her arms were folded and she rolled her eyes. “Martell, my baby acts better than you,” she remarked. “He’s young yet,” Martell replied on one of his passes by her desk. “Give him time,” he called from across the room.” “Stop Martell, I’ve got something for you,” Caleb said as persuasively as he could, which wasn’t much since his wheedling voice was belied by his fierce aspect. They were at opposite corners of the room. Martell said, “Mr. Jones, this is what you’d call a Mexican standoff.” “Not really, Martell. Not till I- give you your present.” “Mr. Jones, I just wanted to surprise you, and make a good first impression. Just let me sit down, and I’ll be good for the rest of the year,” he promised, and he certainly looked contrite. Samala laughed derisively. Caleb considered telling him everything was cool, waiting until Martell got to his seat and then diving over the kid in front of him to get to him. Instead, he counted to ten and resumed his attendance. “Janice Moore,” Caleb said. 402


Rather than allow Janice to answer for himself, Martell volunteered to answer for her. He answered with an impromptu rap, singing out, “Janice Moore a nasty whore. Her big assed Mama got stuck in the door.” The first thing he saw on his desk that he could throw was his stapler, but that would hurt his young charge, so what could he use? Caleb peeled a thick rubber band off his wrist, aimed it at Martell’s forehead, pulled back and popped him smack on target. Young Martell grabbed his forehead and fell out of his seat. Caleb got another rubber band at the ready. “If you know what’s good for you, Martell, you’ll sit down and stop making a fuss.” Martell scooted in his seat. “Yes Mr. Jones,” he said. “And I want my rubber band back.” “I don’t have it.” “He does, Mr. Jones,” cried about a half dozen students. Caleb aimed again. Martell held up his hands. “Okay,” he said, reached in his pocket and tossed a rubber band on his teacher’s desk. “Can I continue now?” “Yes sir.”

Like many of the new students, Chris Jerelds came from the nearby Henry Horner housing projects. Chris was labeled LD, and in fact could not read a lick. Despite his illiteracy, Chris was very bright, but he had been brought up in a household that didn’t hold education to be as important as, say, crack. Still, though bouncing from one dysfunctional relative or family friend to another, Chris had survived and in some ways thrived, at least if all you took into account were appearances. 403


Chris had grown into a remarkably handsome and strong young man. Though it is true that he couldn’t read, his intelligence was manifest in his street savvy, his ability to access peoples’ weak points, his talent for manipulation and his ability to fight. As a matter of course, he had joined his local gang, some faction of...ah, let’s not say, and Chris enjoyed representing his nation by turning his cap to the side, throwing up the proper handsign at every opportunity and wearing his ‘colors’. Like many children, Chris was desensitized to others’ pain, and he was as casually cruel to those he deemed weaker than himself as he was charming to those whom he considered on equal footing or more powerful than he. Although he could neither read nor comprehend what was read to him as well as most of his EMH and PH classmates, he was ashamed of being grouped with people he considered to be freakish or ‘retarded’, and Chris tried to make his physically handicapped classmates feel inferior whenever possible. Chris would never have considered himself to be cruel, and when teachers would point out to him the hurtful nature of his jibes, Chris would smile winningly, say that he was only trying to “play,” and, if pressed, smilingly apologize to the person he’d insulted. Calling someone a name, or mimicking a person’s physical or mental challenge or even verbally threatening someone was all in good fun. Of course if he felt someone had challenged his dignity, he was swift to take offense, quick to anger, quick to fight. When it came to himself, Chris didn’t like to ‘play’. Most of the physically and mentally challenged students had met dozens if not hundreds or thousands of people who were like Chris to varying degrees. In fact, society was like Chris, whereas the challenged students were usually more like Jesus in that they were sensitive to others’ well being to heightened degrees and when teased would not take their tormentors awful barbs to heart. So when Chris would limp alongside Deareo and hold his hand as she did, she would smile, 404


perhaps even chuckle with him and observe, “You kidder.” And when Chris would imitate Jose’s breathy, labored and heavily accented phrases or loll his head to the side and allow a line of drool to leak from the corner of his mouth, Jose would rakishly grin as if he considered Chris’ mean spirited imitation of him to be the sort of homage one might expect at a celebrity roast. Jose would turn his chair and say to Ramiro, “He’s doing me. Can you believe it, Ramiro?” Ramiro, when taken to task about his bulbous, hairy nose, would smile and shrug. When Chris would give the control stick of Herbie’s mechanized chair a thump, sending him in a half circle to crash against whatever was in his way, Herbie would roll his eyes and grimace in a good natured way, as if he were thinking, ‘That, Chris, what a character’. Once or twice, Chris would encounter Abbey in the hallways and limp beside her, or mimic her sing song voice or get her attention by calling her Helmet Head. He stopped because when he would ridicule her, she would react as if he were outrageously flirting with her. She’s get a huge grin on her face, clasp her shaking hands to her mouth and giggle uncontrollably. She would bat her eyes at him and cast him sidelong glances. This unnerved him, so he stopped bothering her. Chester unabashedly admired Chris, despite the fact the Chis had dubbed him, “The Fat White Baby,” and, “Waddle Bottom.” Whenever Chris would address him thus, Chester would crack up and say, “Wha’ choo talking bout, Willis?” in the manner of Gary Coleman. Or he would delightedly shake his good fist at Chris and shriek, “I’ma open a can of whoop ass on you, Chris,” before trying to hug him. To Chris’s greeting of , “Look out, here comes Cock Eyed Fag Boy,” Marty would get right in Chris’ space, causing him to back up, and Marty would would beg him to “Play second lead role in my new student film. You’ll be my race team partner Roy, and we race a big boat together, me 405


driving and you tucked in close behind me navigating.” or, “Chris, listen to me. You are perfect for the villain in my student film. His name is Big Daddy Gun, and you and your boys catch me after the big boat race and you tie me up and slap me around!” Although normally the second scenario of being a powerful hood who had a hand in racing boats and beating up people would have appealed to Chris’ sense of aesthetics, somehow he was always thrown off by Marty’s offers and would slink away in frustration at not having been able to make Marty feel bad. It later occurred to him that perhaps he wanted to play these rolls, minus the close physical contact with Marty. No matter what he said to Virginia, her smile would deepen. When He teased her about not having legs by naming her, “Legless McGee,” or when he commented about her weight, likening her to a sea lion, or when he’d say that she smelled like a dead rat’s ass cheese or observed the resemblance of her unwashed hair to the seaweed one might find on the shores of Lake Michigan, she smiled as if in rapt, secret appreciation as a comedy afficionado might when viewing some rare newly discovered tapes by Lenny Bruce. Indeed, she did enjoy every taunt out of Chris’ mouth, whether directed at her or at someone else, and she hadn’t been as happy now as when Faith had been there. All withering degradations about his helmet and wheelchair were responded to by Robert as if instead of insulting him, Chris had really asked him about Deareo’s ass. No matter what the insult was, whether a timely chestnut like, ‘Scarface,’ or a sneering remark about not being able to walk, Robert would answer by rolling up to Chris and saying in a conspiratorial tone, “I am in love with Deareo’s butt! It’s big! I’d loooove to live up there.” Chris thought to cause embarrassment by encouraging Robert to call out to Deareo and tell her what he’d told him. And Robert gladly complied with one twist. In the hallway, Chris kneeled 406


beside Robert and had his arm slung around Robert’s shoulder as Deareo approached. The young men mischievously smiled together as Robert said, “Deeeeearrrriooooo, Chrisssss looooooves yo assssssssss.” To which both she and Robert broke out laughing, Deareo gamely giving her poor big uneven hips a tiny shake for their benefit, to which Robert added, “Chris says he’ll gives you a nickel if he can kiss your butt, Deareo!” For that, Deareo replied, she would have to hold out at least for five dollars. By now all the students from the gifted to the low EMH, were all looking at Robert, Chris and Deareo. So Chris didn’t try to embarrass Robert anymore. Omar and Zuzandra were likewise unfazed. When Chris would call Omar, “Egg Boy,” or “Tattoo,” or when he would inquire about the status of Omar’s adult diaper, which sometimes stuck out of the top of his trousers, Omar would grin goofily. He would affectionately chuck Chris on the arm and say, “You remind me of my dear old Dad, God rest his soul.” Zuzandra’s response to his calling her, “Scarey Witch,” was to send her church’s welcome wagon to Chris’ apartment in the projects one evening. On Zuzandra’s behalf and per her request, they tried for over three hours to welcome Chris and his Aunt Kari to their church, The Forever Christian Tabernacle. Their six church members’ persuasive techniques ranged from impassioned pleas for Chris and his aunt to change their ways, to graphic descriptions of the fires of hell awaiting them if they remain unsaved. They also periodically ‘got the Holy Spirit’ and gave in to spontaneous, unbridled and indecipherable praise. They almost got to Chris’s Aunt Kari, or maybe it was simply her desire to get high that caused her to break out in tears three times during the holy brothers and sisters good efforts. When Kari finally got rid of the holy folk, she decided to also banish Chris for having been responsible for bringing them around and thereby casting a pall and causing an unexpected hitch in Kari’s plans to 407


cop some crack and have a party with her man, George. After that night, Chris was afraid to even speak to Zuzandra.

The only one who didn’t have whatever defenses the others’ possessed was Sheena. Although there were many differences between Chris and her vanished boyfriend, Tiger, there were also some fundamental similarities. To Sheena, Chris represented able bodied vitality and beauty. Like Tiger, Chris was handsome, and his presence was a reminder that young, physically beautiful men would never look at her with the desire or interest that they had shown toward her until her accident. And Sheena missed that. Chris was like Tiger in that they both caused her a great deal of pain. The source of her sorrow regarding Tiger was his abandonment. That was a deep gut wrenching pain that visited her daily and tied into the abandonment of her friends and her sister. Besides reminding her of Tiger, Chris caused her pain in a much less complicated manner. He was mean to her. He called her, “Sticks,” “Bones,” and “Shaky Crack Ho”. When he would see her in the hallway or in class when the teacher wasn’t looking, he would skillfully mimic her tremors or her garbled speech. One of his favorite pranks was lifting her pastel skirts and exposing her poor thin lower body. She would wilt inside and her spirit would cave in. And like pirana tasting blood in the water, certain other students who were either like Chris or who had similar esteem issues started tormenting her, not all the students all the time, or even most of the students, but enough to make all the difference in the world to Sheena. Still, she didn’t outwardly show her pain and kept her dignity by ignoring Chris and her other torturers so that neither Caleb nor any of her other teachers or her fellow students including Herbie knew what she was enduring.

Eddie Tuffs was nothing like his name, but was a big soft looking mixed boy who had 408


moved to Chicago from Detroit. He had moved To Chicago with his African American Grandma on his Dad’s side of the family because his white Mom was addicted to crack and had covered Eddie’s arms, neck and back with cigarette burns that had left ugly red whorls of scar tissue. His Mom was in jail for doing that. His Dad was in already in jail for drugs. Eddie was a moderate EMH student. He always had a sunny smile on his face. That was probably because his chief delight in life was annoying people. His primary role models were The Three Stooges. He possessed the vocal mannerisms and rhythms of Bill Cosby’s beloved Fat Albert character. Although he was EMH, Eddie was mainstreamed into Caleb’s regular class. His presence made teaching a huge challenge. Though he was at a disadvantage among the regular students and seldom understood what Caleb or they were talking about, he was genuinely delighted to be there, and he reasoned that if he did his best and made sure to shine in the classroom, he’d eventually ‘get it’. It might take longer than it did the other kids, but he knew that if he simply did his best each and every day, he’d be fine. The teachers were there to help him, so he had to let them help. Eddie’s doing his best and trying to shine in the classroom were accomplished by his constant yammering out of turn, his continuous interruptions of others and his ceaseless hand waving. All days with Eddie were the same, but let’s look at a typical day. Let’s say, nouns being people places or things was the lesson. Standing in front of his class, Caleb mentioned the word “horse” and asked if horse was a noun or not. Now, Eddie didn’t know then and doesn’t know now what part of speech horse is. And when Caleb asked if horse were a noun, Eddie didn’t have the foggiest notion, but that didn’t stop him from raising his hand. He had to share the fact that one of his cousin’s friends owned a barn where he kept a horse that Eddie himself had ridden. 409


Caleb smiled. “Good Eddie, but is a horse a person? Can horses talk?” Through a sinus full of snot, Eddie suggested that, yes, horses could indeed talk. “They talk to other horses through their horse sounds and the ways they look at each other,” he clarified. Caleb tried again, “But can they speak like you and I do? Not to other horses in horse language but plain everyday English?” “Mr. Ed on Nick at Night talks good,” Eddie said. “Uh, Mr. Ed couldn’t really talk. That was an actor’s voice. Horses can’t talk. They’re not really people, Eddie.” Eddie replied by smiling without comprehension. Caleb tried again. “A horse isn’t a person. Is it a place? Can you go to horse? Is there a country of horse or a town called horse? Can you go to horse? Is it a place?” “This horse at my cousin’s friend’s house had a great big peenie. Granny said, ‘Look!’” Eddie was proud that he was answering so many questions in the regular class. He’d have a lot to tell Granny that night. “Very good, Eddie. Uh, Olga? Horse?” “It’s a thing, Mr. Jones. And it’s a noun.” “That’s right. Thank you, Olga.” “Horse is a thing cause they things is so big,” Eddie further explained without raising his hand, just to make sure everyone had it right. ‘There Are No Children Here’ was a good book out at the time about two young brothers who lived in the Henry Horner Housing Complex, and Caleb had his classes read the it. Many of his students knew the kids and the family who were the main subjects because so many of them lived in that particular project themselves. There was also a made for t.v. movie adaptation of the 410


book, and Eddie volunteered his Granny’s copy for the class’s viewing pleasure. Caleb didn’t much like showing movies in class because there were always a few kids who couldn’t be quiet, but he felt that this particular film might engage the class, especially since they knew the main characters and would recognize the places where the filming took place as well as some of the extras. He prepared a back up lesson plan in the event that Eddie didn’t bring the movie. But he did. He came through, and Caleb set the television at an angle in the furthest corner of the room so that all the students could see. He was at an angle and distance where he could neither see nor hear the made for t.v. film, which was fine since it gave Caleb the opportunity to catch up on his grading. Fortunately, the film had the attention of the entire class, and Caleb was able to concentrate on the student compositions. Here was one by Martell. I LOVE SCHOOL Some love school cause they can wear their best clothes. Others love school so they can impress the girls. Some love school so they can act cool. Others love school so they can fight. Some love school cause their familys suck. Others love school cause of the food. Some love school so they can act bad. Others love school cause they don’t have nothing else to do. I love school for the education. I love school so I can graduate. I love school to be a good boy. The best in the school. And there on the day that I leave. It will be Martell at the podium making a speech. And Mr. Jones standing right there next to me. And we’ll be the champs.

Caleb was charmed by Martell’s mention of him, though he figured it was a blatant example of brown nosing. As he wrote a note praising the poetic cadences of the redundantly structured 411


sentences and sentence fragments, Caleb noticed...what? It was his class. They were quiet, intently watching the movie, more than intently. They were more than...They were the quietest, most focused class he had ever seen. How their eyes were glued to the television screen, soaking up every nuance of cinematic craft. Caleb wondered if they were comparing the movie to the book. He’d seen the movie awhile back. Oh what a discussion they would have! And even Eddie might be able to participate; after all, since it was his movie, he’d probably seen it dozens of times, probably knew it backwards and forwards. Caleb wondered what scene they were watching. He rolled his chair a couple of feet so that he could see the screen. His dear students were so into the movie that no one even noticed him move or looked in his direction at all. It seems that they were watching the scene where the interracial couple were performing an enthusiastic sixty-nine in a crummy looking motel room. It took several seconds of dumb shock to prevail upon Caleb before what he was seeing sunk in. The first thought, “I don’t remember that,” broke to the nearly immediate recognition that not only wasn’t what he was seeing part of the film, it was porno. Sex. Inappropriate for teens. He fairly sailed over the tops of his students’ heads getting to the television and VCR. When he turned it off, he looked at smiling Eddie, who said, “You can fast forward it back to the movie. Granny taped our movie over one of hers.”

How did Caleb deal with this teaching stress, the Eddie Tuffs as well as the addition of the new regular students like Martell? He upped his marijuana intake further, started drinking a couple of glasses of wine every evening and worked out even harder. And there was more eating like a pig. When he would get to school, he would have the breakfast crew load him a bowl of grits, 412


sausage and gravy. He’d eat two lunches, astonishing his lunch mates with his heroic feats of consumption, and in the evening, he would eat whatever he wanted. With pizza, chilli, thai, Mexican and Middle Eastern food all within two blocks, he might gorge himself twice in an evening. His diet prevented him from having a truly ripped, zero body fat physique. Nevertheless, Caleb was proud of his little muscles. He continued to crush on Dakota. In case anyone has at this point any thoughts that Caleb and Dakota will get together Beauty and the Beast style, that reader can now rest assured that they won’t. The dynamic between Caleb and Dakota will remain translucent, him the crushing but respectful student and her the good instructor. There will be no fleshing out of their relationship. At one point, Dakota asked Caleb what he did with his leisure time. Rather than say anything that might have engaged her, he mumbled that he liked to read, and her reaction was much like most people’s are to such information. Something like, ‘How nice. See you later’, And, after asking him to repeat himself twice, she said exactly that. “How nice. See you later,” were her words before they both went their separate ways, Caleb figuring she must really like him to ask him such a personal question. Maybe he would buy that chartreuse spandex work out gear he’d seen in the window display of Later My Gator, a trendy work out ware store in the heart of boys’ town. That would really impress her. During that year, Johnny moved in with Irene. They found a big house on the west side of the city, and Caleb moved into his pal’s old apartment on Briar Street. His new apartment was within spitting distance of Halsted, Broadway, Clark and Belmont Street. Now Caleb was closer to his gym, to the bookstores, closer to everything. It was a garden apartment, and it was in a beautiful grey stone building like his place on George Street, but it was a better place. Caleb didn’t have to go through an alley to get to his home. There was a proper front entrance. There was water 413


pressure, and better heat. And because it did bridge Clark and Broadway, there was a constant parade of fascinating people walking by. On temperate days, Caleb would sit on his front steps, smoke pot, drink beer and play his harmonicas. Furthermore, Briar street itself was lovely, festooned with large old trees that provided an expansive green canopy during the summer that allowed both shade and shifting columns of golden light down on the street and the grey stones. Also like his old place on George, the landlord and his family lived upstairs, and there was a laundry room in back of Caleb’s apartment that was off limits. But his new apartment was made of sturdier stuff, and the walls separating his apartment from the laundry room were substantial. His new landlord, Mr. Finn, lived with Mrs. Finn and their troubled but mathmatically gifted teen daughter Gabby Finn. Mr. Finn was gifted too. Aside from he and his wife having a gift for real estate, Mr. Finn was a self taught painter. At first he started shyly storing his canvases in the laundry room. They were huge epic works involving fantastic characters on backdrops both inscrutable, lush and overabundant with image and detail. There were deserts overshadowed by mountains both snow capped and jungled, sprinkled with dozens of stereotypic Asian peasant villagers. There were ghostly town squares inhabited by yellow suited Blue Boys, American Indians and old Joe Stalin in a kelly green suit. In particular, Mr. Finn would use the figure of the Blue Boy in several paintings, always changing his clothes from blue to some other color. When Caleb expressed admiration for Mr. Finn’s artistic triumphs, he confided to Caleb that his wife and daughter laughed at his efforts. His wife wanted him to throw some of his canvases out to have more storage room. He lamented that he didn’t have a studio or at least a place to put the paintings for awhile. And that is how Caleb acquired a gallery’s worth of Mr. Finn’s paintings for his apartment. In the back hall next to the second bedroom, there was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and Mr. Finn 414


himself eating ice cream cones and roller blading in the park. On the dining room table was a painting that went to the ceiling of the apartment. It was a truly magnificent rendering of dozens of flying cupids frolicking beneath what appeared to be the northern lights. The landscape was arctic blue with pink and green undertones. In the living room was Mr. Finn’s triptych of three blue boys in different ornate settings. The scarlet blue boy stood on an Italian piazza on tiled floors of yellow and mauve. The golden blue boy was in a sunlit medieval church in the nave back of the main room and the alter. The silvery lavender blue boy was in a roman theater among columns and under a night lit sky. Caleb suggested that Mr. Finn photograph his pictures and try to get a gallery show somewhere. Mr. Finn’s wife and daughter were thankful to have the extra room, but were amused at both Mr. Finn’s efforts and Caleb’s enthusiasm and support.

Through the school year, Martell continued to annoy. No one liked to be around him, nor did Caleb, but he could never forget Martell’s essay and the unlikely image of the two of them standing at the podium at Martell’s graduation. Both of them champs. So in an ambivalent, strange teacherly way that involved aversion and anger, Caleb grew to love Martell. His classmates, on the other hand, expressed their ambiguity more openly. If they didn’t actually love Martell, they certainly loved hitting him. It was because of his smart mouth. Thinking himself to be droll, and hoping to win Samala’s heart with his wit, he said, “Samala, why’re your skinny legs so bowed. You been fucking that horse dick again?” Samala, exercising admirable restraint, replied, “Better a horse dick than a needle dick, little boy.” Martell, always surprised by the absence of appreciative chuckles at his clever jokes, still continued to try and win his girl’s heart by wryly observing, “I guess that’s why your baby’s got a 415


dent in his head from when you were fucking old Mr. Horse Dick when you were pregnant. That’s why your baby’s retarded like all these motherfuckers around here.” Having offended everyone in the hallway within earshot, few were sympathetic when Samala, a bit piqued, stated, “My child ain’t got no damn dent in his head, but soon I’m going to put one in yours, bitch.” “I feel sorry for your baby having a young crack ho for a mother.” “I ain’t on crack and I’m no ho, and I might be young, but at least my baby ain’t got to worry about driving me away like you did to your poor Mom.” Appealing to her classmates in the hall, Samala rhetorically asked, “How bad do you have to be to drive your Mom away?” This would be the remark that Martell considered unfair, undeserved, malicious and unwarranted, true though it was. Fighting words, and it would be then that Samala, or some other student would handily smack the shit out of Martell.

Martell’s taunting attempts to bond with the regular students who were also gang members went over like a lead balloon, and his safety became an issue. Since Caleb and Martell both rode the same train downtown, Mrs. Porrtage poked her head in the door of his class and told Caleb to wait and walk with Martell after school. When that blessed time of day came, Caleb and his young charge hadn’t gotten one hundred feet from the building when three boys from the Horner projects, only one of whom went to the school, came running at Caleb and Martell. What they did, there on that sunny day on Ashland Avenue, was to have one of the boys engage Caleb while the other two would work on kicking Martell’s ass. Caleb would push away from whoever was nonviolently trying to keep him from Martell’s ass whipping, and he would then 416


get to Martell and throw the other two attackers off the much smaller boy until it started again, one blocking Caleb as the other two would resume kicking his ass. It was a dance that spun itself into Ashland Avenue, and cars honked and braked to avoid them. On and on they went. Caleb pushed one boy after another into traffic and dodged cars himself while trying to protect Martell. Though it seemed like an experience suspended in time, it only took about five minutes of struggle through traffic for Caleb to get Martell to the stairs of the L station. Caleb was at the entrance of the stairwell and was preventing the boys from chasing Martell up the stairs and possibly throwing him off the platform. Caleb, strangely exhilarated, didn’t know how they’d managed to make it, but there they were, nearly home free. Martell was four steps up when he turned to face the boys who had been so soundly thrashing him only moments before. Adopting the ninja stance he always assumed before getting his ass kicked, Martell delicately kicked the air, proclaiming, “Now it’s on!”

Ultimately, good things can happen when different types of people mix. Sometimes what happens may not seem good at the time, may not in fact be good at all, or may be both good and bad. In the freshman class that contained Eddie Tuffs, there were two students who developed a touching romance. Mary was a physically handicapped student of gifted intellect, and her beau, Ronald, was a member in good standing of his local gang. Mary was wheelchair bound, a lovely dark girl with beautiful, nearly Asian eyes of green. Ronald was built like a fire hydrant, short and powerful. It was impossible to read what he was thinking by looking into his grey eyes. He was not much interested in school, but Mary was a good influence on him. He accompanied her everywhere, carrying her books, kissing her when they had to go to different classes. It was wonderful. Once he even allowed her to put lipstick on his mouth, which made them both giggle in 417


the lunch room. No one else dared to laugh though. It wasn’t his size that was intimidating but a combination of other factors. The position he held in his gang was enough to scare anybody with any sense. Even without his fearsome rank, there was Ronald himself to take into account. The young man possessed an unnerving, calm willingness to fight when provoked, and when it came to violent assault, Ronald was extraordinarily gifted. When in fighting mode, he would enter a blind rage which made the whites of his eyes turn pink and bloodshot. Finally, plenty of people had seen him in action. Caleb had been one of three teachers, two security guards and a male aide or two that had tried to restrain Ronald when he had gotten in a fight with a much bigger boy who was also tough. Ronald was well on the way to unceremoniously crippling him with his bare hands. The boy, James, was a big tough Irish kid who had a temper too. And even though he hadn’t had his ultimate growth spurt, which would put him at well over six and a half feet tall, he was great big even as a freshman. Still, Ronald took him apart, first with punches and kicks, and then with all out mayhem. The teacher who taught next door to Caleb, Mr. Wesley, threw his back out during the melee and had to take four sick days to recuperate. Once Ronald started dating Mary, he became gentle, which Caleb noticed when Ronald was in his class. Whereas most of the student couples showed their affection in an openly adversarial manner that often involved teasing and hitting, Ronald and Mary always acted in a loving manner toward each other, even when disagreeing. Caleb prayed that they would not break up during his watch.

The other thing that happened was that some of the students, (well, Marty), began to try to imitate the more negative characteristics of some of the able bodied population. In other words, 418


Marty tried to be a bad boy. Did he take to gang life? Sadly, no one would have had him. Would you like Jerry Lewis in your crew? Did he start selling or taking drugs? Nope. Instead, he did two things. Marty began dressing hip hop style. He took to wearing excessively baggy clothing, fake Kangol hats and a dookie chain of such obvious cheesiness that not even the most deluded crackhead would have picked it off the ground, let alone robbed Marty for it. In fact it was an unintentional sign that said of Marty, don’t bother robbing me. I have nothing. Look at the ridiculous plastic dookie chain I wear. Someone who had any money would never wear such a thing. Perhaps a five year old who might don a bath towel for a cape would wear this piece with conviction, but certainly no one else. The first day that Marty came to class wearing his ridiculous dookie chain and dressed in sagging pants that revealed his infantile clown and balloon print boxer shorts, Jose announced to the class in his breathy voice, “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Rico Suave.” Omar added, “The next thing you know, he’s going to start smoking cigarettes.” Marty’s delicate frame and pale skin seemed especially unsuited for baggie style. The other students didn’t accept his transformation, and it became a harmless pass time to give a gentle tug on his size forty-six pants and watch them fall to his ankles. This joke was capped off when he would then stumble and drop his books. His trousers were so big that all it took to make them fall was to brush against them. They fell of their own accord often enough, and you could see him going from class to class holding his pants up. Even Robert in his wheelchair took delight in pulling Marty’s pants down, his weak hand merely grazing the heavy fabric to make it sag upon its folds to reveal Marty’s extra babyfied boxers that had I LOVE MY MOMMY written all over them. “Robert! Man! That’s not cool!” the blushing Marty protested. Robert pointed at Marty’s lower half and crowed, “Your legs are skinnier than mine, and I 419


haven’t been able to use mine since I was...uh, younger. Do a dance with your skinny white leg, Marty. Please.” The other negative way that Marty tried to imitate boys like Chris was to play pranks. Not being sarcastic or confrontational, his pranking was more old fashioned, though still painful and cruel. For instance, one fine day, Caleb entered his classroom, greeted everyone and sat down at his desk. And as soon as he sat down, he shot back up, there being literally a pain in his ass. “Fuck!” It was a tack. Which stupid motherfucker, Caleb thought, put a damn tack in my seat? He didn’t have to wonder too long. While most of the class were shocked and startled by Caleb’s leap from his chair and the bad word that came from his mouth, one person was rolling on the floor laughing. It was Marty. “Did you put a tack in my chair?” an angry Caleb demanded. “No,” Marty said when he was finally able to speak. “Wasn’t me.”

The Dawgs were not a gang, although a few of them did have neighborhood affiliations that had to be respected. The Dawgs were primarily members of Mr. Smith’s home room class, which was located in the Home Economics room. There were Dawgs outside of Mr. Smith’s Home Room, but his room was where they first gathered and named themselves. At school, they had some classes together, and they had lunch together. Occasionally on weekends they would meet at The Brickyard Mall. Because each of their neighborhoods was dangerous as well as the fact that a couple of them had gang ties, they didn’t visit each other’s homes very often. The Dawgs were Rodrick, Eric, Marky, Rondy, older jherri curled brother Bobby and younger jherried brother Fester, Cliffy, Katrell, Able, Jacob, Charlie, D. Brown, and Andre. There was only one girl in The Dawgs, the formidable Canisha K., a very large, sleepy eyed young woman who said little but 420


harbored no shit whatsoever from anyone. Wonderful, wonderful kids. They liked girls, except for Canisha K who liked boys. And they liked sports, clothes, hip hop culture, raps, weed and cars. Marky had been practicing classical piano since he’d been nine. He’d already had several recitals. In the last year, Eric had been in a porn video where, despite his status as a minor, he was fucking two women from his neighborhood. In the adult sections of certain video rental stores, on the box of a movie titled ‘Hoodratz Gettin’ Boned’, you could see his gleeful visage beaming from behind one of the Hoodratz who was in the process of ‘gettin’ boned’ by him. Rodrick was a hard worker who had a job at his parents warehouse. He was saving his money to open a club with Rondy, an accomplished d.j. who regularly worked the city’s dance clubs. Despite their gang affiliations, Bobby and Fester’s mother was a tough Chicago Policewoman. They loved and were terrified of her in equal measures. Cliffy was aiming for college and was constantly studying. Jacob wanted to sing although his pitch was frequently off, and his thin voice tended to an overabundance of vibrato. Charlie and D. Brown liked to smoke weed all day and were laid back and wise. Or if not wise at least circumspect. Katrell and Andre were young fuck ups. And Canisha K intended to start her own house of design. She practiced by constructing gowns and dresses on the industrial machines in the room. To varying degrees, The Dawgs loved arguing and horseplay. Among the loudest arguers, the most hyper and ready to scuffle were Katrell and Andre. They were usually in the middle of whatever loud difficulty there was. If they hadn’t started it, they tried to blow it up. Yes, they were chronic instigators. Ironically, they were both very good natured, happy fellows, but they simply loved discord, and often as not were laughing as they worked themselves up to...play fighting. Katrell was always out of his chair, and Andre would pepper his conversation with the yelled phrase, “Stop lying!” He’d seen some character employ the phrase on a television show and had 421


found it to be eternally funny ever after. The rest of the kids could be induced to get into these semi-serious verbal and physical battles from the most infantile like Katrell and Andre, who were always ready to scrap, to the most mature, who could hardly be bothered but would, if called upon, get loud and wild. Cliffy, Charlie and D. Brown were the ones least likely to act up. Still, it was too much drama for Mr. Smith. Every day after second period, for twenty five minutes, his home room sorely tried his nerves. As a young man, Mr. Smith had gone to school at Ridle, and after graduating college, he had begun his teaching career at his alma mater. He was in his late fifties when reverse mainstreaming came to be, and it was not agreeing with him. He was white, and physically challenged, a bout of childhood polio having left him with a limp. He walked with the use of a cane, and he was used to his students being physically or mentally challenged. He felt as if his life was out of control with the new kids and their lively ways. He was also a highly religious Christian man, and he was horrified at The Dawgs fondness of profanity and vulgarity in general and the f word specifically. When he would try to take attendance and tend to different class business, Katrell or Andre, or one of the others would get into arguments and fights or would jump on the tables or try to sneak out of the room. If he yelled, they would laugh at him. When he complained to Mrs. Porrtage, she had told him that he was being paid well to take care of his students, and he’d better learn how to do it or get out. She’d told him that he and the other teachers had been spoiled. She told him that she had heard the loud cursing voices coming from his classroom several times, and that it was unacceptable. The prospect of having Mrs. Porrtage coming into his room at any time made a nervous wreck of Mr. Smith. This wasn’t good at all, and he’d ineffectually bellow at them and limp around the room, much to their amusement. It was two incidents that caused Mrs. Porrtage to put Caleb in 422


the room with Mr. Smith. The first was that she spied Mr. Smith several times standing outside the building and having a cigarette to calm down when The Dawgs antics had become too much. That was a big problem. The other incident happened on a Tuesday during the homeroom when The Dawgs were being their irrepressible selves. Rather than yell at them and stomp around or abandon them entirely for a relaxing smoke, Mr. Smith chose his third teaching strategy, studiously ignoring them. He was burying his head on his desk, feeling the warp and wolf of time blending into an eternity of slowly, exquisitely slowly passing milliseconds when Mrs. Porrtage, as she had promised, stuck her head inside the door. She’d looked at The Dawgs, who for once were silenced, and at the embarrassed Mr. Smith, and she’d then fixed them all with a deadly eye and had intoned in a serious and accusatory manner, “It is too loud in this room, and I’m just not going to have it.” To which Andre riposted, “Stop lying!”

Mrs. Porrtage put Caleb in the room with them, and Caleb found himself in the unenviable position of mediating between Mr. Smith, his colleague who was losing it, and the students in the home room, who picked up on Mr. Smith’s latent racism coming out of its dormancy. The second day that Caleb was to be co-teacher for the home room, as soon as he entered, he saw Mr. Smith spraying Lysol disinfectant around Charlie, who with eyebrow arched was observing the elderly gentleman. The aging teacher was scurrying around and spraying at the lad with the forbearance of a bug exterminator. To Caleb, Mr. Smith said, “Every morning this boy stinks like...like a burned sweet roll or something.” 423


‘You shouldn’t call any male of African American heritage a boy, Mr. Smith. It shows a lack of sensitivity’ was what linguists would call the embedded message of Charlie’s comment. What he actually said was, “Best not call me boy, you crippled, old motherfucker.” Caleb had gently taken the can of Lysol from Mr. Smith and escorted him to his desk, where he told him to simply relax, he would take care of attendance and discipline. To Charlie, Caleb said, “Ever hear of a one hitter?” Charlie blinked his glassy, red eyes and admitted that, no, he never had, and Caleb explained what it was, how it was used and the benefits of not smelling like a burnt joint at the top of the morning. “You can get them up north at The Alley, my friend,” he advised. “Oh Mr. Jones, I never get up that way. Is there any way you could get me one. I’ll give you the money.” Charlie pulled out a huge roll of bills. Caleb considered doing it for Charlie, but if he did it for him, he’d have to do it for all of The Dawgs, and that would probably not be a very good idea. Caleb envisioned having to buy over a dozen hitters for his students. He could almost hear them bragging that Mr. Jones hadn’t thrown his home room any dumb pizza party; why, he’d bought them all one-hitters! ”No, Charlie. You’ll have to make the trip yourself.” Charlie shifted from one foot to the other, thinking. “It sounds like the kind of stem a crackhead uses. I could probably make my own from either a piece of copper tube or a cut piece of car antennae.” “Now you’re using your noodle,” Caleb enthused. Charlie put his arm around Mr. Caleb’s shoulder, and he said, “Gee, thanks for the helpful idea, Mr. Jones. I’m glad you’re with us, sir.”

424


Three quarters of the way through the year, Mrs. Porrtage asked Caleb to be part of an after school program. Taking him into her newly and more expensively appointed office, she had him sit in a chair of leather and chrome. She told him that everything he did this year would be remembered and appreciated when it was time to fill positions. Caleb agreed and figured that finally he might be given full time status. He would be assisting a health care worker hired by the Chicago Board of Education to conduct sex education seminars to whomever volunteered to stay after school and be a part of the program, which promoted abstinence. The able bodied and otherwise regular students didn’t sign up for the program for varying reasons. Many were sexually active and felt they knew everything anyway. Others were opposed to after school programs on general principal. Some had chores or jobs that kept them busy. The group of students who volunteered consisted of Abbey, Robert, Jose, Ramiro, Zuzandra, Omar, Deareo, Marty, Lishy and Chester. The health care worker, Clarice, was a young woman in her early thirties who was unused to speaking to cognitively challenged students. Her friendly, engaging manner toward them was met with friendly, uncomprehending silence, occasionally broken by giggling, eye rolling and mouth covering. Some of her statements elicited soft moaning and breathy expressions of, “Whoa,” and “Oh my God,” from Jose. Robert and Chester took turns delightedly repeating some of the key words that she said during her lecture like ‘sex, vagina, penis, breast’. As the minutes passed, Clarice became increasingly uncomfortable, awkwardly gazing at the kids when they didn’t respond to her questions and looking nonplused at Robert and Chester’s remarks. When Clarice spoke of a young woman’s maturation and mentioned that upon entering puberty, girls could expect their breasts to begin developing, Robert crowed, “Breasticles.” and cupped his hands in front of his chest mimicking breasts. He then informed everyone that he 425


preferred butts. At Clarice’s mention of pubic hair, Chester said, “I have hair on my ding dong. I don’t like it either!” This unexpected announcement from Chester prompted Robert to assert, “I’ve got hair on my peedie too!” “I’m gonna have my Mom shave mine off like she does my face. Clean as a whistle,” Chester further confided to all. To this, Robert indulgently chuckled and corrected his friend, explaining, “Chester, only ladies shave their ding dongs.” To these comments Caleb would shush Robert and Chester, and the other students would roll their eyes and shake their heads until Clarice would again gather her wits and try once more to communicate. She asked them the type of questions that she asked in other schools. Queries such as, “How many of you think it’s okay to have sex before marriage?” and “What’s the best way to avoid contacting STD’s” were met with the same wall of smiling, well intentioned non-response. Clarice went to her film. It promoted abstinence and was a kind of cautionary parable set at a rural country fair. Its target audience was the white middle school to early high school student living in the late 1980's. The intro music was brash studio synth and the opening shot was taken at the grounds of what appeared to be the county fair of a sparsely populated county. Christmas lights were strewn from tents to wagons to trucks. There were rides and booths. The camera was following a blonde couple as they entered the fair grounds, and the name of the movie spun onto the screen. In bold letters came the pulsating title, MIRRORS OF CHOICES. 426


Deareo read the title. “Mirrors of choices? What’s that supposed to mean?” As if he had heard Deareo, the movie narrator gently but seriously began to speak. “Fred and Jane are two young folks who are growing up, and the world is opening up for them.” There was a shot of Fred, resplendant in his Bugle Boy pants and respectable mullet, buying Jane, who had big, big hair, some cotton candy. The narrator continued. “Growing up in the world of today isn’t easy for modern teenagers.” Eating their cotton candy, Jane and Fred passed by a group of loitering teens who were smoking cigarettes, laughing and drinking from a paper bag. “Even teens who resist the temptations of ‘life in the fast lane’ are vulnerable to perfectly normal feelings that every teen from the dawn of time to the distant future has had,” the narrator explained. There was footage of Fred and Jane holding hands and getting into a small gondola for a ride through the tunnel of love. “Oooeee,” commented Jose, who then sighed and mewled, “They’re going into the tunnel of love. I wonder if they’ll kiss.” “For many a modern teen, love is in the air,” the narrator informed them as the gondola disappeared into the tunnel of love. The narrator went on to say, “But what many teens, indeed many adults do not take into account is that strong feelings may not be true feelings, and might not last forever, especially at a teen’s stage of the game.” During the shot of Fred and Jane emerging from the tunnel of love and getting out of the gondola, Jane made flirtatious eye contact with a young carnival worker at the ticket booth, and Fred laughingly waved and winked at a pretty girl standing with a group of pretty gals by a cake walk. The narrator spoke as the couple walked hand in hand. “As a teen’s feelings for another deepen, he or she might want to express those feelings through sexual intimacy-“ ”Sex-u-al inimacy,” Robert drawled laciviously. 427


On the screen, the boy put his arm around the girl. “A boy might tell a girl that he loves her,” the narrator indicated. Lishy sighed. “Love,” she mused. “A boy might tell a girl he loves her. That’s romantic.” Marty, sitting two rows back and one to the left of Lishy, leaned as far forward as he could and gushed to his lady, “I know a boy who would like to tell a girl that.” Then, having tipped himself too far forward, Marty’s desk buckled under him and he toppled to the floor causing everyone to jump.

It took a few moments for the students to calm down, and as Marty was assisted and his desk turned upright, the couple on the screen meandered hither and thither as the narrator blathered in flowery terms about confusing love with newly discovered hormonal urges and allowing your desires to make you either sexually predatory or easy. On the screen, the boy pointed to a house of mirrors and led the girl toward the entrance ramp and ticket booth. On the wall around the open door were psychedelic swirls and the words, ‘House of Mirrors’ in melting letters. As the lad bought the tickets and led his reluctant girlfriend up the ramp, the narrator started alluding to STD’s. “For you might very well find yourself in an age old dilemma wherein your common sense, your religious upbringing, your sense of morality, your conscience, your sense of right and wrong tell you to do one thing, and your heart or your heart’s desire tell you to choose another path.” “What does it all mean?” Abbey chirped in her sing song voice. The couple in the movie entered the house of mirrors, and it was unlike any Fun-house that Caleb had ever seen. In addition to the mirror lined halls, there were also strobes and black lights, but the strangest thing was the presence of mannequins throughout the maze of flashing reflections. 428


Suddenly, the boy and girl were separated as the narrator said in words that resonated like doom, “Whatever choice you make now, while you’re a teen, know that you will have to LIVE WITH THE CONSEQUENCES FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.” As the strobes refracted off the mirrored surfaces, the girl and boy frantically looked for each other. Another odd thing was the absence of any other humans in the Fun-house, only the hero and heroine and the mannequins. The swirling, dancing lights made the mannequins seem to move, like glacial statues on the verge of becoming human. The girl, thinking she had found her boyfriend at the end of a seemingly endless hall, touched his arm, only to have a mannequins arm fall off its trunk into her hand. She dropped it and screamed, causing her boyfriend to run in the direction of her cry. The result of his attempt to come to her aid was his crashing face first into one of the mirrors, shattering it and knocking him out. The strobes panned from his prone figure, to her screaming, to the one armed mannequin. The strobes and lights did not agree with Zuzandra, who loudly made the observation, “Those people are going to go to hell. They need to go to The Forever Christian Tabernacle and get married. You can take me there while you’re at it.” She then had a mild epileptic seizure. As her eyes rolled and she wilted in her chair, Caleb rushed to her side and tended to her, having her rest on the floor as her mild seizure ran its course and the movie narrator began the more literal aspects of explaining STD’s. Gone were the couple and the carnival, replaced by graphic pictures of ulcerous genitalia and late stage AIDS patients. The students were distracted from Zuzandra by the gross footage. After about five minutes, Caleb was able to help Zuzandra get into an old wooden wheel chair, and he rolled her to the nurse’s office where she got a grape soda and rested. No more of this particular after school program for her today. Back in the class, Caleb found his students horrified by the pictures of STD’s gone untended 429


and people dying of Aids. Gone were their attempts at sly comments and the dreamy observations regarding love. Instead, the kids were wide eyed and open mouthed. Marty was covering his eyes. The movie ended. Clarice, clearly shaken, asked how Zuzandra was, and Caleb assured her that she was fine, just fine. The health care worker went to the head of the class and addressed the students. “Now the name of the film was Mirrors and Consequences. Can any of you tell me what the ‘consequences’ or the ‘results’ of having unprotected premarital sex are?” Chester’s arm shot up, and before Clarice could even call on him, he yelled, “You’ll run into the mirror and crash!” He then made an appropriate crashing sound. “No, no,” Robert impatiently corrected him. “If you have unprotected, pre-mar-i-tal sex,” he carefully explained, “your arm will fall off.” He winked at Clarice.

Jonathan Carlyle was a large, quiet freshman. He had grown up in a bad neighborhood where his family, which consisted of his Mom, Dad and a younger brother and sister, kept to themselves. As a little boy, Jonathan hadn’t been allowed to play outside unsupervised. He grew up studious, serious and unsmiling. He was gentle, and Caleb noticed on many, many occasions, that he would help out his physically challenged classmates. At the beginning of the year, he wasn’t in a gang, but that changed. It wasn’t his fault. Because of his size, his neighborhood set had been trying to recruit him since he’d been eleven. Despite the guarded attentions of his parents, Jonathan was still prey to the streets on his way to and from school. On the L, the buses and the bus stops, he was regularly called to represent. At first they asked him, then taunted him and finally, during his freshman year, they had taken to threatening him and their daily baiting became more personal. Their pitch was that Jonathan was 430


either with them or against them, and he would be better off with them. He quietly resisted, not bringing his problem to either his parents or anyone at the school. One day a young neophyte gangster stepped in Jonathan’s face, and Jonathan had to whip the boy and one of his friends. The threats continued. They wanted him in their gang and took it as an insult that he wouldn’t join. Another fight to get home. When his parents asked about his black eye and bruises, he told them he’d gotten hurt playing soccer. When his teachers and Mrs. Porrtage asked what had happened, he said he’d been playing football at home. A little after Christmas, Caleb taught parables in his class and asked for his students to create their own parables. Here is Jonathan Carlyle’s parable.

THE ELEPHANT AND THE LIONS In the kingdom of Shalama, there lived an African Elephant named Freddy. Freddy liked to live a peaceful life. His belief was to live and let live. Freddy liked to spend his days eating leaves and listening to raps. Sometimes he would help the other animals because when he put himself in their hoofs or paws or scales, he knew that he would want help too if he needed it. He was a big, strong elephant, and he felt happy to share his space with all the other animals. All the animals were his friend with one exception. The lions didn’t think like Jonathan, and they wanted him to join them. They liked excitement in their lives. They loved to eat meat and kill things and fight for the fun of it. The lions liked to hunt the other animals, or get them to fight each other for their lion fun. They weren’t as big or as strong as Jonathan, but they went with the belief that there was strength in numbers. In their hearts, they were afraid of not having anything, so they tried to claim everything as theirs and theirs alone. They said everything in Shamala belonged to them, but they couldn’t claim him. That 431


made them want to control him worse than ever. Everyday, they would see Jonathan and roar at him to join them. At first he ignored them, but then they started attacking him. Because they were smaller than him and because he had thick skin that was like armor, they weren’t able to kill him, and he was able to throw them in the trees and kick them in the bushes. He didn’t want to, but they were trying to scratch him and give him a black eye. One day he got tired of the fighting the lions and decided that since it was so important for them to own everything in Shamala, he would let them have it. That night Jonathan had a meeting with all the other animals in Shamala, and he told them that the lions were never going to change. That the lions would always be up to their trifling ways, sneaking around hunting and killing the other animals, trying to keep animals from going around freely wherever they want. Jonathan said, “Let the stupid lions have Shamala, and while they’re all sleeping off their blood orgy, let’s leave and find a better home where there aren’t any lions.” The deer and the rabbits didn’t want to leave. They said, “This is our home.” The fox and the snake said, “We live here too. Let the lions leave.” The porcupine said, “Maybe if we talk to the lions they’ll see things our way.” Jonathan said, “We live here and love this place, but it’s not our home. Not with the lions trying to kill us and tell us where to go and all. And as far as the lions leaving, believe me, they will never leave. The lions will never leave, and if you try to talk to them, they’ll laugh at you before they eat you. I’m going, and I want you all to go with me. We’ll go to the Land of Lawaila.” The frog said, “Why do you want to leave, Jonathan. The lions don’t want to hurt you. You’re big and strong, so they want you to join them. Why don’t you just do that. Wouldn’t that be easier?” 432


“I could do that, but I don’t want to because I’m not a jerk,” Jonathan said. So the animals took off that night and left Shamala to the lions. The next morning when the lions woke up and saw everyone gone, at first they were happy, cause they figured they’d totally gotten their way. But they got bored, and although they tried eating leaves, they liked meat. So without other animals to hunt and eat, they started fighting, hunting and killing each other. Jonathan and all the other animals lived good, quiet, peaceful lives in the land of Lawaila. One day, years later, the last lion appeared at the border of Lawaila. He’d spent his whole life hunting other lions, fighting, killing and eating his own kind. The other animals didn’t want him to come to their peaceful land and as he was standing there at the border line crying, they were throwing rocks and tree branches at him. Jonathan, who was listening to his favorite raps, heard the commotion and went to the border where he saw all the animals throwing stuff and yelling mean stuff at the broken lion, and Jonathan told them to all shut up. He asked the lion, “What do you want?” The lion said, ”I just want to be among other animals and live in peace for the rest of my life. If you let me come over, I promise I won’t hunt anybody. I’ll live on what the rest of you live on, and I’ll not hurt anyone.” “Well, okay,” Jonathan said. And the other animals let the lion join them. That night they had a kind of welcome party where they all ate a salad, and at the end of the celebration, the last lion laid down with the rest of the animals in the jungle, and they all had a very peaceful sleep. THE END

Jonathan didn’t live in Shamala, and there was no Land of Lawaila to provide an alternative 433


peaceful life. Jonathan lived where he lived, and he eventually caved in and joined his neighborhood’s crew. He hadn’t wanted to, and once he was initiated, Jonathan didn’t fool himself that the boys who had viciously worn him down were now his friends. He didn’t represent in school, didn’t walk the halls throwing up his own gang sign or insulting his rival gangs in disrespectful upside down hand gestures. He didn’t wear gang colors or indicate affiliation by his dress in any way. His grades continued to be good, and no one, including his parents, had an inkling that he would drop out about three weeks before the end of his freshman year. His parents, not knowing of Jonathan’s having joined, had continued to try to keep him inside at all times, and the strain had become too much so he left home and lived at various apartments his gang had access to. Later, Caleb would hear that Jonathan had joined the gang with the understanding that his younger brothers would be spared the recruitment that he had endured, and he’d left home so his family wouldn’t be harassed. Of course those were simply rumors. There were also stories that because of his heart and intelligence he’d rapidly risen in rank and was the equivalent of gang alderman over his part of the city. Caleb didn’t know. He did miss Jonathan though.

It was home room on the last Friday of Mr. Smith’s teaching career. The Dawgs were in effect as Caleb entered the large Home Ec area. Rodrick, Eric, Marky and Rondy were playing basketball using the trash can, perched on top of the far eastern cabinet, as the basket. Bobby, Fester and Cliffy were listening to a bootleg mix tape that Cliffy had bought in his neighborhood. Katrell, Andre, Able and Jacob were busy shooting craps in the corner. Charlie and D. Brown were playing chess on D. Brown’s little magnetic chess board, and Canisha K. was fashioning intricate 434


unseen pleats at the shoulder of a salmon saffron colored dress. Mr. Smith was busily doing a word jumble, his can of Lysol at the ready. Caleb was busy finishing his attendance and trying to hand out the daily announcements to his home room when over the intercom he was called to the office. “I’ll be right back,” Caleb assured everyone. The Dawgs pretty much ignored him, but Mr. Smith did look up in desperation from his word jumble as if to plead with Caleb not to leave him alone with their students. Caleb smiled reassuringly and nodded as he went to the office. It was no big deal. They wanted him to sign something for payroll. It was what happened while he was gone that was a bigger deal. While Caleb was gone, Martell came to his home room looking for him. He wanted to know why Mr. Jones was giving him a C for the quarter. Dramatically throwing open the door, the five foot dynamo stomped into the room Dolomite style, bellowing, “Where’s Mr. Jones? Where is that unfair teacher who gave me a C?” The Dawgs and Mr. Smith all stopped what they were doing and looked at the fuming Martell. He then went to where Caleb had put a stack of partially graded papers and said, ”Where’s his grade book?” He started going through Caleb’s papers. Mr. Smith said, “That’s not for students to touch!” Martell paid Mr. Smith no attention and kept looking for Caleg’s grade and attendance book, which weren’t there because he’d taken it with him to the office. Caleb never went anywhere without it, but Martell didn’t know that. As he rifled through the papers, the various Dawgs exchanged looks. Katrell said, “I don’t know whether to admire him or lead the way to kicking his ass.” Rodrick said, “I don’t think it’s cool. Stay out of Mr. Jones’ stuff, Martell.” “Yeah, stay out of Mr. Jones’ stuff,” agreed D. Brown. “You have no business in there.” That was the general consensus around the room, and even Canisha K chimed in with her 435


warning to Martell who was ignoring them all until she spoke. Then, as per usual, he blew his top, picked up a bunch of graded papers from the various classes and tossed them in the air. To this, he added, “Now what you motherfuckers think? Huh?” Canisha K said, “Martell, you better pick up all our teachers’ papers and put them back on that desk exactly the way you found them when you got in here. Then you best git.” Hands on hips and smirking, Martell sneered, “Pick ‘em up yourself you stupid, ugly, looklike-a-furniture-mover looking bitch.” Canisha K’s sleepy eyelids rose a fraction of an inch to take in the furious, doomed Martell. And seeing her reaction, he went on, saying, “What?” To Cliffy, who was closest to her, Canisha K said, “Cliffy please take my dress and put it over where it won’t get messed up would you?” “Yes, Mama,” Cliffy said taking the salmon saffron prom dress. Martell forced a nasty laugh and observed, “I guess all these motherfuckers in here your sons since they all The Dawgs, so’s it figure they mama got’s to be a beeeotch.” Martell kissed his hands in appreciation of his wit. To Katrell, Canisha K said, “Please look in that cupboard. There should be a great big bolt of linen.” Grinning, Katrell said, “What you gonna’ do, Canisha?” But when she shot him a dark and threatening look, he held up his hands and said, “Okay,” and he quickly complied with her request. Martell continued to behave badly as he watched Katrell bring out the largest bolt of fabric he had ever seen. It was over six feet long. In a scornful tone that had just a hint of unease, he asked, “What do you think you’re gonna do with that? Make me a suit?” Canisha K offered the world a rare smile, and she said, “Not exactly, Martell, but you’ll see. Mr. Smith, you might want to go smoke you a cigarette.” 436


“Good idea. I’m out of here,” Mr. Smith agreed getting up to leave. He hastily took his word jumble and his can of Lysol with him. As he passed by Martell, he gave him a spritz of the spray. “Hey, get out of here you prune faced white man before you get scalped,” Martell yelled after the disappearing teacher. Martell rolled his shoulders and tried to look tough. “Now what?” he demanded. “You want to suck my dick, Canisha K?” Looking around himself at the other Dawgs, Martell went on. “Nobody suck a dick like Canisha. The way she use the back of her tonsils to massage my cock like to make me come just standin’ here thinkin’ about it.” As if he were David Letterman delivering a much appreciated joke to his studio audience, The Dawgs, Martell beamed at them all as if waiting for their uncontrollable laughter to erupt. But something else erupted instead.

When Caleb returned from signing his payroll forms, he found things much the same as they’d been when he’d left. Basketball game. Craps game. Listening to raps. Chess. And Canisha K putting the finishing touches on her beautiful neo antebellum gown. Only Mr. Smith was gone. “Where’s Mr. Smith?” “He’s out smoking a cigarette,” Able said. “What did you guys do to drive him out of here?” Caleb asked. “Nothing, Mr. Jones. We’ve been good.” Caleb wasn’t satisfied, so he asked his most trusted guy students, Marky, Cliffy, D. Brown and Charlie, and they told him Mr. Smith had just had a nicotine fit. So Caleb asked Canisha K just to be sure, and she said as she nailed the last stitch, “Naw, Mr. Jones. Everything’s cool. How you 437


like my gown?” And she stood up and held it against her for all to admire. Like good friends, The Dawgs voiced their approval with woofs, whistles and more tasteful compliments from Cliffy, Eric, Marky, Rodrick and Rondy, who all said that she looked beautiful, stunning, was a knockout and a fox. Her sleepy eyes smiled, and Caleb said, “Who’s the lucky fellow who’ll be taking you to the prom?” The bell ending home room rang, and The Dawgs were hurrying out of the room. On her way out, Canisha K said, “Oh, I got my eye on your boy, Martell. I think he’s a stud.” Surprised, Caleb said, “I’ll tell Martell when I see him.” Canisha K turned in the doorway, smiled at her teacher and nodded.

It wasn’t until the last period of the day, seventh period, that one of the seamstresses, a lovely young woman named Marcella, in Home Economics class heard a faint voice whimpering from the furthest depths of the highest cupboard in the room. The young woman went to the Home Economics teacher, Mrs. Rios, and said, “Mrs. Rios, I think there’s someone in the cupboard.” Further examination revealed a giant caterpillar struggling to emerge from a sky blue linen cocoon. Both ends were delicately but sturdily fastened with rows of butterfly stitches. When the girls in the class dragged the cocoon to the middle of the floor, cut through the stitching at the ends and unraveled it, they found a not a monstrous butterfly, but a flustered Martell trying to play off his unusual ‘birth’ in the middle of the room. For moments he sat dazed in the heap of blue swaddling linen. Dizzily struggling to his feet, he smoothed his clothes and his box fade. “Whew, here you have to bother me while I was gettin’ my naps on.” Stiffly, as he was a bit numb from his shoulders to his toes, he pretended to stretch in the manner of a throughly relaxed sleeper having been awakened. He unconvincingly 438


groaned, “I really feel rested now.” Then he hurriedly pimp staggered out of the room to the astonishment of all gathered around him. When Mrs. Porrtage heard that Mr. Smith had left Martell to the mercy of his home room students, she fired him, and Caleb inherited The Dawgs full time.

Smokey Joe’s was the restaurant where the people who had lunch at Caleb’s table had their end of the year party. Holly Jeffes, who was another teacher at their school, and Jim Houseman,a councilor, also came to the fete. Jim was just arriving, and everyone else but Pricilla was there. They had pushed several tables together and were eating wings and drinking. Jim, who was the other gay staff member at Ridle, was a councilor. He was closeted though everyone knew he was gay. Palmer Weeks pretended to despise Jim Houseman openly, but that was Palmer Weeks way with certain of his friends. Leaning toward his friend/nemesis, Palmer said, “Jim, tell us about your beard, I mean your longtime girlfriend. Why aren’t cha’ married?” Jim blushed and smiled and replied, “You know why. It’s because Sharon and I each need and value our own space. Surely you can understand that, Palmer.” “Oh, I can understand plenty, compadre. Doesn’t it make your girl...I don’t know, kinda’ pissy that her man can’t commit?” “She and I have an understanding,” Jim said a mite defensively. Palmer Weeks pursed and puckered his lips as if he were bussing his Granny’s powdered cheek. He then rolled his eyes and dryly commented, “Jim and his girlfriend have an understanding all right. They understand that they both have penises!” Jim rolled his own eyes in turn and said to all, “Who besides myself needs a drink? Palmer, 439


I know you can always use a good stiff one.” “Tch.” In answer to his question, Mr. Z, who was sitting next to Jackson, played an abysmally loud note on the trumpet that he’d brought to the celebration. Though he was an excellent guitarist, Mr. Z was trying to learn how to play the trumpet. In response to the loud note surprising Jackson just behind her left ear, she jumped in her chair and gave a little startled scream. Turning to the beaming Z, Jackson said, “You do that again and you’ll be playing that damn thing every time you fart.” “Thank you kindly Mrs. Jackson. And does anyone have any requests that I may play for our assembled party of esteemed, indeed beloved colleagues?” Z asked tipsily. Dave, red of nose and displaying his prominent over bite by smiling devilishly, raised his hand and said to Jim, “I’ll have a glass of Miller Draft if you’re going up there please.” Caleb, Brayfield and Hilly all raised their hands. Z stood up in his chair, and Mr. Brown, who was sitting across from him, said, “Z, Cool it with the trumpet, bro.” “As you say, sir,” Z said rising from his chair and poising the trumpet to his lips. “For our wonderful friend, Mr. Brown I am now going to improvise some of what you call I believe, the playing cool of the jazz. Yes!” Mr. Brown buried his face in his hands, and Palmer Weeks shook his head sadly. Jackson and Brayfield glared fearsomely at Z. Dave smiled in a goofy way, as did Caleb. Just then Jim Houseman came back to the table precariously holding about six drinks. He was smiling merrily as he began to say something like, “Here are the drinks, kiddies.” Something like that. He’d only gotten his smiling mouth open to say something appropriate to an end of the year celebration when, 440


“BREEEEEEEEEEP!” sounded the powerful trumpet of Z. And the drinks went flying as Jim’s planned bon mot came out like the screech of a high strung girl. After clean up and after Jackson relieved Z of his trumpet, they ordered food. It was while they were ordering that Brayfield got a call. “Oh no,” she said, and looked as if she’d be sick.

Pricilla had missed her get together with the lunch group because she had taken a sick day to look for her son, Paul, who also worked at Ridle. As mentioned earlier, poor Paul had a problem. He was addicted to crack. Mrs. Porttage kept him on as a favor to Pricilla. As he usually did when he got paid, he then missed work for several days, and when he’d been gone From Tuesday until Friday, Pricilla had taken a day off hoping to locate him and bring him home again. She found Paul, and that was what the call to Brayfield had been about. Pricilla’s son had died. She’d found him in an alley where the people he’d been getting high with had left him when he’d had a stroke.

They all went to the funeral on the south side of the city. Paul didn’t look quite as awful as he had during those last years of his life. Aside from his Mom and three brothers and two sisters, Paul didn’t have anyone. And during the years of his addiction, of his family, only Pricilla would have anything to do with him. There were no crack whores crying and throwing themselves on the casket claiming to be his soul mate. There were no crack head buddies here to mourn him, only his immediate family, who looked angry and hurt, and the extended family of his colleagues at Ridle, mostly friends of Pricilla. She was stoic. She’d lived this moment in her mind for years and years.

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On the last day of school, when the kids were gone and the teachers only had their record books left to turn in, Pricilla wasn’t there, but on the counter in the office was a stack of programs from Paul’s funeral. Since the day Caleb had known Paul, he’d looked like a dying man. His face had always looked like a melting, wax mask. His clothing had hung off him. His skin had been rusty. But the picture of him that they’d used for the program didn’t resemble the sorrowful Paul that Caleb had known. The young man in the picture was a handsome African American soldier in his dress uniform looking out at the world with pride and hope. He’d not yet disappointed and driven away the people he loved and who loved him. He’d not yet been broken and lost his dignity, pride and all everything else to crack. Not yet in that picture he hadn’t. Pricilla had been mighty proud of that young man. He’d been gone for a long time. Maybe in a way, he was back now.

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER

Caleb took up working for Sandy again as he had last summer, three to four days a week at eighty dollars a day under the table, mostly to watch cable, nap, eat, read and get high in the baroque appointments of Sandy’s Antiques. He’d just smoked three powerful one hits and was sitting in his favorite chair. The Weather Channel was offering up its soothing melange of tinkertoy music that the station played between far reaching and local weather broadcasts, and Caleb was resting his eyes to the enchanted ditties when the entrance bell tinkled. Some customers. Maybe they’d look around and leave without bothering him. Caleb didn’t bother to open his eyes. “Caleb, have you been smoking in here?” came the voice of his Mom. Unbelievable, and 442


even more unbelievably came the merry yip of Matlock. Caleb opened his eyes, and there was his Mom, Nadine, Matlock and inside her carrying case, Winkie Lee. “No, I haven’t” he automatically lied. “So this is where you work. Oh this is nice,” Nadine said. “It wasn’t at all hard to find,” his Mom added. Matlock was wearing a sort of space age pot holder with matching hat and man bag. Caleb was bewildered by their unexpected presence. “I knew you’d be surprised,” his Mom hooted, and Nadine laughed. Matlock danced on his hind legs and from inside her cage, Winkie Lee shook Mousie. “Your Ma wanted to call and let you know we were coming, but I convinced her into having us surprise you,” Nadine explained. “Well, this is a great surprise. Did you take the train?” “We drove up,” his Mom told him. Nadine threw her shoulders back and revealed, “I was invited to have some of the little things I’ve made for Matlock over the years displayed in a knitting conference and exhibition. It’s a big deal! And after that, we’re going to be in a big parade or something, I think.” Caleb had images of a gathering of like minded elderly women meeting in a church or rented hall or conference room in one of the Holiday Inns in the suburbs. He said, “Where’s it at?” “Oh, what was the name of the place...The...The Institute of Contemporary Art,” Nadine said remembering and further astonishing Caleb. So astonished was he that Caleb had her repeat herself and then slowly explain how it was that she was showing her doggie clothing at an exhibition in the Institute of Contemporary Art. “It all came from some art director from Art Forum being down in Southern Illinois visiting 443


her aunt and seeing Matlock’s second and third commercial for the spa. He was wearing several of his more outre fashions from the wardrobe I’d knitted for him that season. She called and asked to meet, and I showed her the things I’d designed for Matlock. She took notes and took pictures. Then she sent me an article she’d written about knitting and she mentioned me in her magazine. Then some people contacted me. Gosh, I had to take pictures of Matlock’s teeny outfits and send them to this panel of judges, and then the outfits won some sort of prize and I had some mysterious sounding man who said he was from the Institute of Contemporary Art calling me. I thought he was some sort of masher, but he invited me to take part in this exhibition. So I called your Mom and here we are.” Institute of Contemporary Art. Art Forum Magazine. Nadine. Caleb was dumbfound-ded. From her immense purse she produced the Art Forum and showed Caleb the paragraph where it mentioned her “...breathtaking explorations of caricatured twentieth century dress dovetailing with the ironic aplomb of kitsch, all sustained within a triumphant arc of post modernistic utilitarianism...” Caleb looked at his Mom, who shrugged her shoulders. “She said something about winning a contest for Matlock’s pretty frocks, but she didn’t really explain what it was about. I had no idea.” Nadine puffed with well deserved pride. “You know that I’m too modest to go on about my vision,” she confessed with pious humility. Caleb looked at the article in Art Forum. There was a picture of Matlock in his poncho and sombrero ensemble and looking shaky indeed. Again the quaint antique bells above the door rang as in came Sandy with his bag of dirty drug money in need of laundering. Always the charmer, Sandy quickly tossed his ill gotten gains behind his red marble counter and joined Caleb and company. Sandy smiled, eyed Matlock in his 444


futuristic pot holder garment and said, “I’ll bet my dog would like to meet you.” Caleb imagined such a meeting. Sari would treat Matlock like a sandwich. Even though she was in her seventies and Sandy was in his late thirties, Nadine immediately sensed the lustful masculine chemistry sparking from him. Sandy was uninformed about Nadine’s ideas regarding her imagined effect on men, so he innocently smiled. ‘He’s flirting,’ Nadine thought, and she said to him, “What kind of dog do you have?” Not picking up on the creepy vibe Nadine was giving off, Sandy said, “I have a Rhodesian, and she would love to play with this little guy. Hey, you’re pretty tough for such a little fellow, huh?” Sandy playfully poked his finger in Matlock’s general vicinity, causing the teacup Chihuahua to tuck his tail under his pot holder garment and cower. His little hat fell over his eyes, his man-bag slipped from his shoulder, and he finally puked before collapsing in a trembling bundle of rawly exposed nerves. “Is he having a seizure?” Sandy asked with concern. “Oh nooo, noooo. He’s just having pre-show jitters. He’s going to model some clothing this weekend,” Nadine said pulling a wad of Kleenex out of her purse. “I’m so sorry,” she crooned as she daubed at the little puddle of vomit. “No problem at all,” Sandy chivalrously said. “No harm done.” Caleb realized that Sandy still thought that his Mom and Nadine were customers, so he made the proper introductions. “Sandy, this is my Mom and her friend, Nadine. They’re up here on a surprise visit. Nadine’s got an exhibition at the knitting convention at the Institute of Contemporary Art.” “Well, it’s so nice to meet you, Mrs. Jones and Nadine. My goodness. You must be an acclaimed artist,” Sandy remarked. 445


“Well, as I was showing Caleb, I was mentioned in an Art Forum,” Nadine admitted, showing Sandy the article. “Wow,” Sandy said. “This is impressive, Nadine, and I see that your dog is wearing one of your creations.” By now, Nadine figured that Sandy, like mortal men everywhere, was hopelessly entranced with her. Sandy told Caleb that since his Mom and her friend were here, he was free to take the rest of the day off. “Don’t worry,” Sandy assured Caleb, “You go with your Mom and Nadine and take them to lunch somewhere on me.” Sandy handed Caleb three twenties in addition to his regular eighty dollars. “Wow, thanks, Sandy,” Caleb said. Sandy then noticed Winkie Lee. “Oh,” he observed, “So you have a cat in your carrier here. Do you make clothes for it too?” Batting her eyes and affecting a husky Lauren Bacall type of smokey vocal delivery, Nadine said, “I have tried to outfit Winkie Lee, but her spirit is too much like my own, untamed...” Although Caleb and his Mom were not taken aback by Nadine’s reaction to Sandy, Sandy finally noticed something about Nadine’s manner as she cast him the love eye. He didn’t know that was what she was doing, and if he had, he would have been...well, not turned on. As it was, a mist of unease passed over him for just a moment. He said, “Well, Caleb, you better be off. It was so nice to meet the both of you.” He shook hands with Caleb’s Mom and Nadine. “It was nice to meet you,” Caleb’s Mom said. “Very nice to meet you,” Nadine said. “Oh don’t call me, sir. Call me, Sandy.” “Okay, Sandy, nice to meet you,” Nadine said. Then, as if an afterthought, Nadine handed 446


Sandy two tickets to the exhibition and the pre-exhibit dinner and party. “For you and your wife if you’re not doing anything,” she purred. “Why I’m not married,” Sandy said. As if possessed by the spirit of Mae West, Nadine kind of wiggled her hips and gurgled something that sounded pleased and randy. Of what she burbled, Caleb was able to make out, “Well well. A hee hee ahh haa gurgle gurgle gurgle.” “I can bring my girlfriend,” Sandy said. “Ummmmm hmmmmmm,” Nadine said, her sea lion like moaning and groaning taking on a decidedly unhappier tone. “It’s tonight?” Caleb said. “The opening is tonight, but it will be going on all weekend,” Nadine clarified.

So Caleb did what Sandy had suggested. He left work early and took them to his apartment. Caleb’s Mom nearly jumped out of her shoes when they entered and she was confronted with two life sized portraits leaning against the foyer wall. One was of a grizzled and weathered John Wayne posing as Michelangelo’s David. The Duke was replete with sling, love handles and full infantile penis nudity. The other full scale portrait was also a nude, this one of his wife, Mrs. Finn, depicted as Aphrodite rising, not from the ocean, but from the frozen bread section of the local Dominick’s grocery. Nadine recognized a fellow artist’s vision and remarked that she would like to meet the painter. Caleb’s Mom was simply appalled that his landlord would impose like that, nor was she in the least impressed with Mr. Finn’s efforts. So after dropping off Matlock and Winkie Lee, who both gamboled and chased each other around Caleb’s garden apartment, Caleb took his Mom and Nadine somewhere safe for lunch, a Leona’s on Sheffield. Caleb did right. They enjoyed their 447


pasta/pizza combo plates.

That night, when getting ready for the opening at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Caleb asked his Mom and Nadine if either of them brought anything in black to wear? He was going to wear his pirate shirt and black jeans, and he figured they should also wear something black. They not only wouldn’t hear anything of what Caleb said, but campaigned for him to wear the J.C. Penny suit his Mom had bought him to teach in, which he’d never worn. If it had just been his Mom, he never would have capitulated, but Nadine had never asked him for anything. She told him that it meant so much to her for everything to be right and that she would so appreciate it if he would just go along. Fine. And so Caleb wore his bulky, ever shifting suit. His Mom wore her conservative plum colored business pants suit, and Nadine wore a polyester sausage casing of a watery yellow hue. In honor of the occasion, Winkie Lee, in her cage, had deigned to wear a small tiara of stones that Nadine had welded in gold and silver settings. Matlock, the best dressed of them, was sporting an au courant tuxedo Nadine had knitted especially for the occasion. Tomorrow night he would be sporting some of his outfits, but tonight he was to cut a classically dashing figure. Before they left, Caleb’s Mom once again criticized the gallery of artwork throughout the apartment. She said, “I think your landlord ought to give you a discount on your rent since he stores his stupid paintings here.” Caleb explained, “His wife and daughter want him to throw his paintings away.” “They’re onto something,” his Mom commented. Nadine studied an eight by five canvas of a gigantic baby water-skiing behind a boat that the infant dwarfed. The behemoth baby was smiling and waving with his big, free hand. ‘Good luck at 448


the exhibition,’ he seemed to say.

A valet parked Nadine’s orange Pinto, and they entered the Institute of Contemporary Art. The entire space was devoted to this conference/exhibition, and there were all sorts of pieces displayed on every floor. There were a few highly stylized archetypal knitted artifacts like knitted baby booties and woolly mittens, even a few Mr. Rogers type sweaters, but the majority of the pieces were far more challenging. There were knitted devil and skeleton puppets inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead. Winkie Lee was fascinated by the post modern interpretations of the ancient symbols. Caleb was carrying Winkie’s cage, and he had to linger for several minutes at that particular exhibit as each time he attempted to leave, Winkie Lee would growl with displeasure. Nadine and Caleb’s Mom, who didn’t want to get separated, sipped from glasses of white wine. Matlock, who had not completely recovered from having Sandy’s finger waved in his face, wouldn’t look at the frightening red and white faces leering at them. When Winkie Lee had gotten her fill, they moved to stroll among the other exhibits before going to Nadine’s. There were hanging knitted sculptures that looked like blobs of tightly colored and stitched asteroids and clouds, and there were also abstract wall hangings of oceanic textures as well as life sized realistic knitted statues of people. There was a knitted farmer, a knitted high school football player and a knitted Mrs. America, all meant to be interpreted ironically when taking into account the statement that the artist was making by using the organic medium of wool and the cultural connotations embedded in our collective ideas of “knitting”. Or at least that was what the placard describing the work suggested. There were also unconstructed works involving unwoven wool and even heaps of raw sheep 449


shavings, raw wool piled on the highly polished marble floors. This particular exhibit, entitled Circle Universe #8, excited Matlock to no end. It was the gamey smell of the raw wool. Nadine, who had been carrying him all that time, put him down and allowed him to enjoy the primitive expression depicting the ambiguity between the bucolic mind set and the beginning world of commerce and mankind’s quaint attempts to order the natural world. Matlock expressed his appreciation by cocking his leg and pissing in the wool, adding his own organic cry of the heart to the patina of the whole piece. Right around the corner was an immense exhibit of what can be best described as three tons of tangled yarn, part of it strewn on the floor and part of it suspended from the ceiling. It was green and pink yarn. Winkie Lee meowed piteously to be allowed out of her carrier so she could more fully experience this work of art by climbing inside of it. Nadine leaned down and said into the wire front of Winkie’s cage, “You poor baby. I’d love to let you out, but I can’t.” Instead, she tossed a liver snap covered prozac to Winkie Lee, who mewed a little thank you to Nadine. This piece bespoke its theme through its title, STRING THEORY, and it was driving Winkie Lee mad with feline inspiration. Again and again she mewed as if to say, “If only I could get out of this cage and climb into the middle of this magnificent sculpture. Surely there must be something living in this thing, a bug or a real mouse, something I can kill and eat.” Nadine’s own exhibit consisted of four dozen Matlock sized doggie manikins that were dressed in the creations in which she’d outfitted him throughout his life. There was Matlock’s smoking jacket, ascot and slippers ensemble flanked on one side by the ‘Hey There Georgie Boy’ mod Matlock and on the other side by Matlock’s motorcycle leatherman drag. It would be maybe funnier if Caleb, his Mom and Nadine, in their salt o’ the Earth couture, were the height of chic and everyone else there was also decked out olden-days style. That would 450


have surprised and humbled Caleb. How ironic that would have been, or if they’d sparked an immediate fashion trend. That might have been wry. It wasn’t like that though. No one else was dressed like them, not even in the ugly, cheesy vintage clothing that hipsters so treasure, not that it mattered. Only Caleb noticed, and though not surprised, he was feeling pretty humble there among the classically black clad cool people. Sandy and his girlfriend Liz came to the opening. Liz bussed Caleb on the cheek and shook hands with his Mom and Nadine. She was immediately enamored of Matlock and Winkie Lee, coaxing a modest kiss from Matlock and playing peek-a-boo with Winkie Lee. Nadine gave Sandy the twice over, but was regally reserved as she felt her position as one of the honored artists required her to be. They hadn’t been there five minutes when Liz whispered something to Sandy. Then to everybody else, she said, “Scuse me. I got to go to the ladies room.” Sandy’s expression betrayed slight exasperation. Nadine figured that it was Sandy’s inner self telling him that he was ready to cast aside young chippies in their twenties and thirties for the passion only to be found in the arms of a mature woman of artistic bent. Caleb reckoned it was something else altogether, and he was right. The music at the opening was a mixture of ambient, acid house, trance and good old house: 808 State; Frankie Knuckles; Jamie Principal; The Orb and The KLF. Caleb’s Mom was having none of it. At a cut from KLF’s Chill Out where the band simply use found sounds from a pasture, as in the cows mooing and the birds chirping, Caleb’s Mom said disdainfully, “If I’d known this was what would be playing, I’d have recorded the neighbor’s horse taking a shit and brought it.” Sandy, a jazz afficionado, agreed with her, adding, “Yeah, I think me and my dog Sari will start a band. Ha ha.” He then said to Nadine, “What do you say about you and Matlock joining our 451


band, Nadine? Ha ha.” Interpreting Sandy’s rather silly joke as a subtle but unmistakable come-on, Nadine laughed at his remark as if she thought it humourous. Later, whenever she would recount this experience, she would with each telling progressively exaggerate Sandy’s innocent remark into the insistent attentions of “...the much younger businessman I met in Chicago during my exhibition...cornering me so I couldn’t hardly get a word in to anyone else, and here I was the guest of honor...” What Nadine did say after she’d finished heartily laughing at Sandy’s proposition was, “What kind of music do you like, Sandy?” “I love jazz,” Sandy told them. “You mean like the big bands?” Nadine queried. “Sure. Duke Ellington. Benny Goodyman. The Dorseys. Woody Herman. Great great stuff.” “Now you’re talkin’” Caleb’s Mom said. She was on her second strawberry daiquiri, which possibly accounted for her crude remark earlier about The KLF. She was just about to wax nostalgic about “...good music...” when Liz returned, radiant from her bumps, and Caleb’s Mom greeted her like she was the daughter she’d never had. “There she is,” Caleb’s Mom said jovially. “How do you feel about this so called music?” If Caleb’s Mom’s inhibitions were loosened by the alcohol in the daiquiris, then Liz’s inhibitions were equally burning away under what is called ‘the kindling effect’, and her cocaine buzz met Caleb’s Mom’s alcohol buzz in an unholy recognition of trouble magnetizing trouble. Liz tossed her frazzled and coarse hair and said expansively, “This music is the bomb, Mrs. Jones.” She began dancing in place. When Sandy rolled his eyes, Nadine took note. Misunderstanding what Liz meant, and ignoring the fact that the girl was dancing to the 452


sounds of the morning meadow, Caleb’s Mom agreed with her, saying, “Yes, indeed, this music is a bomb. A big BOMB. Wow, Liz, you really can dance fast. How do you do it?” “C’mon,” Liz encouraged Caleb’s Mom, “Dance with me, Mrs. Jones. I’ll show you how to do this step. I’m so glad Sandy brought me here tonight. I’m having so much fun; he never takes me anywhere fun.” Attempting to shake a long unshaken leg to the sounds of goats bleating a capella in The KLF’s field ditty, Caleb’s Mom said, “Shame on you, Sandy. You need to take this young filly out to some fun places. Take her miniature golfing. You’d both like that.” Caleb’s Mom was doing the twist. She was holding her daiquiri while squashing an imaginary bug with her big toe. Matlock was having as much fun as he’d had when Caleb had taken him to the vets. The dog of the hour sat dutifully in the little director’s chair on a perch among the many Chihuahua mannequins bedecked in Nadine’s creations. He tried not to look at any of the overstimulating pieces in the exhibition. Even his legion of inanimate dopplegangers in their various suspended poses gave him the willies. In his little tux he trembled, too distracted to even pay attention to his love, Winkie Lee. Winkie Lee wasn’t paying any attention to nervous little Matlock either. She was hyperengaged in everything around her, and was having cat epiphany after cat epiphany. Oh to somehow escape...Much like those pets caught on videotape on America’s Funniest Videos, Winkie Lee was inspired to paw at the hinge clasp holding her cage door shut. The will to freedom impelled Winkie Lee to repeatedly paw the clasp, paw the clasp, paw the clasp. Matlock was the first to notice the open cage, and when he did, he gave out a series of alarm barks that went unnoticed by everyone. This was because in the immediate area, Liz and Caleb’s Mom were dancing and causing lots of people to stare. Caleb was busy pretending that he wasn’t 453


with them, as was Sandy. Nadine was keeping an eye on him, imagining him trying to communicate with her telepathically to tell him of his unstoppable attraction to her. It was only when Matlock’s little tweety barks became the unnerving universal howl of anguished loss that Nadine noticed him. When he had her attention, he looked at her piteously and a tear rolled out of abnormally oversized eyes. “What is it, Matlock?” Nadine asked, and all the cool people at the opening who had been looking at Caleb’s drunken Mom and Sandy’s coked up girlfriend do the hokey-pokey were now looking at Matlock. Matlock barked and pointed his muzzle at the open cage. “Oh my good heavens!” Nadine shrieked, and just before she fainted, she cried, “Catch me,” to Sandy, who was looking at Liz, didn’t hear Nadine and didn’t catch her. She fell full swoon to the floor, her head making a distinctive thunking sound as it hit the marble. There was a marble sized knot on Nadine’s head. Several doctors who happened to be attending the opening had a look at her after she’d come out of the swoon, which was pretty much as soon as her head hit the floor and she cried, “Ouch!” The curator of the exhibition brought her a chair and an ice pack. Nadine and Matlock were inconsolable. Caleb, Sandy and his Mom were standing by her. Liz had made another bathroom stop. In her future telling of these events, if Caleb’s Mom weren’t around, when Nadine described seeing Winkie Lee’s open cage and fainting, she had Sandy catching her in his arms and carrying her to safety, “...I don’t know how that strong man managed to carry me to the curator’s office, but he did...” In her later versions, he would not leave her side, angering his slutty girlfriend who kept going to the bathroom to cry with jealousy and frustration. “...and when she’d come back from the bathroom, each time she’d have been crying harder because her eyes were just redder and redder 454


and her nose more and more runny. She was jealous, even though taking her boyfriend was the farthest thing from my mind.”

Without making an announcement over a speaker, it got around that one of the artist’s beloved pets had escaped, and people looked for Winkie Lee. But they couldn’t find her.

Despite Winkie Lee’s having liberated herself to go on a spree, the show still had to go on, and Nadine bucked up as well as she could. Poor Matlock had a harder time of things. Feeling out of his depth anyway, he was now without his soul mate. It had been hoped, quite unrealistically on Nadine’s part, that she would be able to dress Matlock up in her outfits for the grand opening of the exhibition, and he would adorably prance, pose and strut his little stuff in the outfits like he did in the privacy of her living room for her and Winkie Lee. But Matlock was in grief. Nadine dressed his shaking, barely able to stand body in a little Bing Crosby outfit of blazer and plus fours. He lay on his little stage with his eyes closed as art lovers came by and petted him, thinking that his listless malaise was some peculiar part of the presentation. The artists working in the medium of wool ranged from self professed common folk to nihilistic artistes. The patrons who came to the exhibition were pretty much urbane sophisticates, but absolutely everyone there loved Nadine’s work, and despite the terrible tragedy, Nadine couldn’t help feeling bittersweet pride at the wonderful way she had been received. Now all that was left would be the parade Sunday. So Nadine’s sadness was tempered by some recognition of her creative vision, and Matlock was simply inconsolable. Leave Nadine to her dewy accolades and to prepare her and the grief stricken Matlock for their position on a Gay Pride float. She had been invited by the owner of the 455


dance club on Halsted and Belmont called Spin. He was a large contributor to The Museum of Contemporary Art and had been instrumental in bringing Nadine to the exhibitions attention. Nadine decided to make an outfit for Matlock especially for the parade and incorporate elements of Winkie Lee’s essence as inspiration to somehow aid him in his grieving process. She was unaware that the parade was celebrating Gay Pride, having heard of it referred to as The Pride Parade. To her it could have been The Courage Parade or The Kindness Parade or even The Up With People Parade, anything. But it’s tiring going on about Nadine and poor Matlock, so, for awhile anyway, enter the bedazzled eyes of la gata, Miss Winkie Lee let loose from her cage.

Where do you think she went? If you guessed the big formless sculpture entitled String Theory, you are correct. Slipping from her sprung cage into the corner shadows, beneath drapes and tables, she went to String Theory, and at the perfect, unobserved moment, she slipped into the vast network of yarn. For hours, she worked her way through the mass, tunneling in any direction as if she were either in free space or underground. It was during her travels that she came to a clearing in the wool. It was a secret place that the artist hadn’t intended for anyone to see. It’s unspoken presence was the real, the unknown reason for the entire sculpture. The clearing was somehow large enough to hold an enclosed kitty underground after hours club, surrounded by knotted and tangled wool as thick as an encircling wall of brambles. Miss Kitty Meow, a neutered male, was the d.j., and he was spinning a mix of cat trance and chilly mellow pussy house for the assorted kitties and feline mutations inhabiting String Theory, the after-club. What a heavy heavy scene it was. As Winkie Lee sashayed to the bar, she was hungrily yet distantly cruised by nearly every cat she went by, all of them dancing to the liquid lava breaks of 456


Miss Kitty Meow. Lots of the cats were actively engaged in a shrieking orgy right there on the dance floor, but the atmosphere held more than sex. There was blood in the air for sure, and not just from the mice that were sold, toyed with and consumed, but cat blood. ‘How delicious’, Winkie Lee thought, and she ordered a catnip drink and a line of K, the club name for katamine, which, after all, was first and foremost an animal anesthetic. As the disassociative drug faded Winkie Lee to the K hole, she unconsciously stood among her kitties and pulsed with the beat like a metronome, unaware of its machinations. The felines took on fantastic aspects, becoming cartoons, then golden idols. Unaware that she was going anywhere, Winkie Lee danced through the throng, most of whom were in their own private K holes right along with her, and she made her way to a smaller back room in the club. It seemed as if the yarn walls were sweating white smoke. This was where the cats were indulging in their decadent kitty perversions. Winkie observed kitties stretched out on racks, cats trussed helplessly and hanging upside down and kitties splayed in veterinary type harnesses. Kitty Doms in doggie masks. Kitties being clawed, sprayed upon, repeatedly bitten and savagely fucked. There was even a giant litter box where cats ripped to the tits on K or kittycaine or Excatsy or Methafeline were rolling around among the kitty-litter and crusty turds. Paws caressed Winkie Lee, and she allowed herself to be hoisted to some sort of alter where she was bound with strands of multi-colored yarn. Tiny nipple clamps were attached to her nine nipples, and through the clamps came intermittent shocks. Because she was so high, the electricity was relaxing and stimulating. Though she had been spayed, Winkie gave herself sexually to cat after cat. Scratchy tongues opened her furry box. Pink pronged cat dicks double penetrated her pussy and cat ass as many sharp teeth bit her neck, her ears and shoulders, her belly, ass and legs 457


time and time again. At some point a huge albino rat was brought up and forced to have sex with her. As the terrified rat crawled on her and pumped, the rest of the crowd yowled their approval in perfect syncopation to the bass & drum, and as the rat climaxed, a giant yellow one-eyed tabby ripped out its throat with a suave pass of his mitt like claw. ‘Matlock would love this; not so sure about Nadine’, thought Winkie Lee, as the rat’s scarlet life splashed hot on her stomach and his quivering death throes brought her as close to coming as you can get in a K hole if you’ve been spayed. She was at some point loosened from her yarn bonds, and after accepting a hit from a dirty glass stem of methafeline from some wizened, cross-eyed siamese, Winkie Lee felt her distanced animal spirits explode into boiling pleasure points that soared into that delicate fluffy netherworld of claws slowly ripping or suddenly clinching. Or letting go. And teeth, bites given and received with high drama, the pain much appreciated thank you. In her frenzy she tried to love/bite and claw to death dozens of animals in String Theory, and like a dimension warping fun-house mirror, the features of the other cats, the mice and rats and the occasional ferrets started mutating into infuriating mice-cat-ferret-rat-kitties that needed extreme and surgical mercy to keep Winkie Lee fucking. Fur flew and Jackson Pollack like streaks of blood dyed the wool dance floor and walls. The beasts shrieked their assaultive approval as they either ecstatically submitted or viciously fought to dominate and top the spun Winkie Lee. And there were more hits, more lines...Whoever she killed was ripped to pieces and eaten by the other patrons of String Theory. Winkie Lee didn’t care. She was off to the next conquest. She was the Belle of the Ball. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and as murderous drug and sex binges oft’ times do, it all somehow turned bad for Winkie Lee at some invisible point. In hindsight, she realized that while killing rats and mice was fine, and even killing another cat or two showed a 458


brash insouciance that never went out of style, killing everything, all the cats and all the rats, all the mice and the weird changling hybrid creatures that had melded characteristics of those several species together... killing absolutely everything in String Theory was considered over the top in a bad way, show-offy or something.

Winkie Lee didn’t even remember when she’d been 86'd from String Theory and how, in fact, she’d gotten out of the Museum of Contemporary Art and to the alley where she woke up to find herself digging through the guts of a long dead rat, looking for who knows what in the degraded remains of the rodent. She felt like shit. Anxious. Every inch of her body stiff and sore. And she felt so wired and jittery that she was afraid she’d have a heart attack if she didn’t scratch to paste the innards of the rotten rat she had in her paws. Nothing like mousie was this unfortunate rat, and suddenly Winkie Lee violently threw its carcass across the alley. She buried her kitty face in her bloody paws and wept, feeling suicidal. Still crying, she went to look at the reflection of herself in a nearby puddle of urine and was shocked. How much weight had she lost? And there were patches of fur missing where the orgy had gotten out of hand. She had also gotten a tattoo on her shoulder. It was OF A DOG THAT WASN’T MATLOCK. It said, Property of Rover. She only hoped that her fur would grow back to cover it up, and thinking of Matlock, Mousie and Nadine, she again started uncontrollably sobbing. Winkie Lee staggered out of the alley and fell in the gutter where she passed out. It was Sunday morning, the day of the Gay Pride Parade.

About half a mile away, where the floats were making their last preparations, Nadine and Matlock were at the one on which they would be riding, the Spin float. Nadine had made Matlock a 459


special uniform for the Pride Day Parade. He was rigged in a futuristic, form fitting military jump suit, complete with pilot’s cap and goggles as well as a working parachute. Nadine, unaware of the nature of the Pride Parade, had assumed it all had something to do with military and patriotic pride. Matlock’s outfit was perfect for the float, and they strapped him into one of the spinning swings that was at one end. At the other was a fountain of rainbow waters spraying red, blue, green and yellow streams high into the air. Nadine would be one of the throng standing between the spinning swings and the fountain of colors. There would be a d.j. where she was, and most of the people would be dancing. The other riders on the float were a mix of club kids and artists. Everyone had glasses that they could casually fill from a kegger of Dom. For a minute, the absence of wedding rings made Nadine consider that everyone at this parade was very chaste indeed, but before long she remembered her encounter during her first trip to the city where she had finished singing ‘Begin the Beguine’ and had looked up to see the two lithe devilish fellows engaged in a blow-job. And she figured out what was going on. Rather than be off in a huff, she downed the first of what would be many beers that afternoon. Matlock, on the other hand, was heartsick. Despite his anguish, he felt that he should put on a bold face and be brave, so once he was dressed up in his uniform and buckled into the little powder blue plane, he put on his best canine smile and cocked a sassy eyebrow at the people below. Everyone who was going on the float was on, and they started the generators. The music started pumping. The fountain spewed its many colored waters, and the pole began spinning, sending the people in swings, or cages or carousal horses or, as in Matlock’s case, in planes spinning around like a carnival ride. It was scarey for Matlock, but he put on a brave face, his tongue hanging roguishly from the side of his mouth. Flying to one side of him was a go-go boy dancing in a cage, and flying to the other wide of him were two leather dykes doubled up on a pink carousal race car. 460


The float eased into its position in the parade. They were behind a club of line-dancing gay men in identical cowboy attire and in front of a float sponsored by a flower shop, The Secret Garden. The Secret Garden’s float was a Carribean jungle complete with a live steel drum band. The parade commenced down the street. On both sides of Halsted tens of thousands of mostly gay men and women cheered, drank, smoked and danced. It was a beautiful spring day. Caleb and his Mom walked the long block and a half east to Broadway and waited for the parade, and specifically for Nadine and Matlock to come by. He had assumed that Nadine knew that The Pride Parade was The GAY Pride Parade, but when you assume...He drank beer, and his Mom drank Bartle & James Mango/Kiwi Coolers to anaesthetize her sensibilities to the sight of so many gay people. Whereas Caleb normally had to nudge her and quietly beg her not to stare and giggle at the gay couples in his neighborhood, here on Gay Pride Day, everywhere she looked there were gays gone wild, the marginalized letting their collective freak flag fly. Gays, gays and more gays. For her, it was a sensory and cultural overload.

The revelers stepped over and around the unconscious Winkie Lee, who was still gutterside, her nearly road-kill status body having possibly expended most of her nine lives. She was lying near Broadway and Berry. Nadine was having a blast. After seven or eight glasses of beer, she was dancing with a bull dagger to the bendy house anthems and kitschy show tunes. Nadine wondered why this fellow dressed like a handyman when all the other men were ultra-fashionable or macho in a sexy buff way. And, she thought, his man-boobs are almost as large as my breasts. She concluded that he was like that because he was a straight man. Probably another artist like herself, she concluded. Oh well, at least he was a great dancer and had a cute baby face. They did the Lambada, the forbidden 461


dance, to Jamie Principle’s ‘Don’t Go’. The rainbow fountain cascaded at one end, while at the other, her beloved Matlock was going around and around in his little airplane. Matlock was taking in the brilliant blue sky, the crowds below that were cheering, laughing, and waving when they saw him. He couldn’t help smelling the restaurants and street food vendors. It made no impression. He might as well have been in a dungeon. In fact, dungeon is an apt metaphor for how Matlock felt about life. Then he picked something up, smelled what he first thought was a hallucination, but sniffing the air, he was sure of it. It was Winkie Lee’s ass. Matlock knew she was in the vicinity. He used his paws and teeth to undertake the dangerous operation of unfastening his seat belt, and as soon as he did, Matlock shot out of the airplane into the air, causing the thousand or so people standing alongside Broadway in that particular area to gasp at the flying Chihuahua. Nadine screamed and the entire parade ground to a halt, anticipating the worst. Matlock cannily released the rip cord to his parachute with his teeth and the chute popped open to the oohs and ahhs of the crowd. From less than half a block away, Caleb and his Mom also saw Matlock’s ejection from the plane and subsequent graceful skydive. They made their way through the crowd toward him. When Matlock’s paws touched the street, he scampered toward her, dragging the parachute through the mob, dodging his way around the people who were cheering like crazy. By then, Nadine had leapt off the float and was running after Matlock. He found Winkie Lee, and immediately started kissing her, licking her face, trying to waken her. Her eyes popped open, and there was Matlock, in his paratrooper uniform, tenderly kissing the claw marks on her cheek. She felt reborn. Immediately behind Matlock was Nadine, and peeking from the top of her purse, Mousie. Unmindful of Winkie Lee’s state, Nadine held the kitty and Matlock close. A minute later, Caleb and his Mom showed up. A couple of the party people in the 462


crowd were veterinarians, and they kindly offered assistance. Nadine left the parade and her new ‘boyfriend’ and they got Winkie to an Animal Hospital toot suite. The exhausted kitty, still crashing, went back to her drugged-out fever sleep. The Pride Parade, its heart momentarily warmed, cranked back up and continued without Nadine and Matlock.

Winkie would remain in the Animal Hospital for two days, and when she was released, it was time for the Chase contingent to go back home. Before they left, Nadine did meet Mr. Finn, who was pleased to meet someone who had figured in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. He was also an animal lover and took to Matlock and Winkie Lee. Nadine reckoned that Mr. Finn was in love with her, just as she figured that Sandy was, and she gave Mr. Finn the telephone numbers of several gallery owners she had met and in fact called three or four on his behalf to set up meetings. Though she wasn’t interested in Mr. Finn, she wanted to help a fellow artist. Mr. Finn was so happy that he made the mistake of hugging Nadine when she told him. In her mind, and when she would tell the tale in the future, this gesture was to become Mr. Finn’s passionate declaration of love, which, in future embellishments, she would spurn on moral grounds; after all, artist or not, he was a married man. Winkie was transported in her carrying case, now equipped with a heavy duty padlock. She had her Mousie back, and he was newly stuffed with fresh catnip. As Caleb’s Mom, Nadine and Matlock said goodbye, Winkie Lee lay listlessly in her little cage and held her mousie. She was back on the Prozac, and it helped some with the post binge depression and disconcerting yen to repeat the cycle. No chance of that happening though, what with never being let outside the confines of Nadine’s home or the carrying case. Winkie Lee batted Mousie and remembered her time in String Theory as Nadine loaded her 463


in the back seat.

Late in the summer, Caleb went to visit his Mom for two weeks. This time there was no Viking at the train to turn him on to Ecstacy nor any Palmetto Bug to tell tall lies on the trip down to Southern Illinois. There were just the same familiar plains, now an ocean of corn and soybean and the farms far away from Caleb’s window, way out in the middle of the endless fields. There were still the same little towns that the Amtrak train, The Illini, passed through on its afternoon to evening journey. And the highway was as it always was. It mostly ran alongside the train tracks, but sometimes the road and the tracks met at deeply rural cross-points. There to meet Caleb at the station were his Mom, Nadine and Matlock, who was dressed for summer in a crew necked tee shirt and Bermuda shorts. Winkie Lee had come along too and was waiting in the car. She was resting in her carrying cage with Mousie. On the ride home, Nadine ‘indifferently’ asked about Sandy. Did he ever mention the opening? Was he still with that dizzy slut, Liz? “He really thought that he was something,” Nadine told them, adding, “Such an insistent flirt,” causing even Mousie’s eyes to roll. As they drove down new Route 13 toward Chase, Caleb’s Mom said, “Oh, I know what I was going to tell you. Bertie and his girlfriend moved to New Mexico. Aunt Vee Vee said that they live in a real nice house on a mountain. Bertie and Maze are selling expensive commercial real estate or something, I think it was Uncle Pal telling me. And your Aunt said that Bertie and Maze have two sports cars and two dogs.” Caleb thought of Bertie’s old apartment where they’d gotten fucked up so often and where dear old Bertie had grown weed indoors. All gone now.

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The tragedy of entropy I  
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