Friday, December 21, 2012

In Search Of A New Cold War

A thought just now occurred to me.
Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, the GOP has been desperately searching for a new enemy in their hopes to recreate a modern-day Cold War state, which is the ideal environment for them. The Cold War allowed them to build up the military industrial state. Trillions were spent on defense and assorted weaponry. That glut of spending made many private citizens, as well as many politicians, very very wealthy. But that cannot continue without an enemy to shove in the face of America in order to justify their spending binges.
Iran turned out to be something of a bust.
The government of Afghanistan is too chaotic and backwards to be a major threat.
China? More friend than foe nowadays. And possibly more powerful.
North Korea? As far as security threats go, they are more of a petulant child who might act out by taking a pair of scissors to your leather couch.
Terrorists? Yes, but they don't necessarily belong to a country, and that's what the GOP needs ~ a physical country to be against. Terrorism as an idea is too abstract for their purposes.
No, they need an enemy that is more concrete. I believe the average GOP voter has become a little too jaded about the idea of terrorism. Fear of one particular enemy has a limited shelf-life, and once you approach the expiration date, you need to find a new product to scare your constituents, or the money supply starts to run out.
So, why not make the country to fear America itself?
And who within America are we afraid of? The mentally ill. Those crazy people who's main goal is to kill other Americans, while in the process, scaring liberals into thinking that all guns should be eliminated from society.
What can be scarier than that phone call telling you not to go in the basement?
So, Mr. and Mrs. America (subtle same-sex marriage shout-out), you are not safe! The idea of the mentally ill trying to kill you is not just a creeping specter ~ it's a chilling reality! And even if they don't get you, they WILL get your guns! So, one way or another, you are in dire trouble! Save yourself! Save America! Buy guns and vote Republican!


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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Review of "Get Happy"

A new review was just written today for "Get Happy", and I wanted to share it with everyone:

Marie DaBlond rated it 5 of 5 stars
Daryl Gleason has hit rock bottom. In fact, he’s chiseled a hole in the rock bottom and has fallen through that. He can’t remember the last time he was -if he ever was- happy.
Daryl and his loquacious canine sidekick, Steve, embark on a fantastic cross-country journey to find the cure for Daryl’s perpetual morose apathy. Chancing upon a horde of unique and sometimes wacky characters along the way, Daryl takes away some new change in perspective from each encounter, even as his dilemma touches the lives of those he meets.
Love, loss, learning to accept gifts and reject pain, and finding your own voice are concepts beautifully and hilariously explored in “Get Happy”.


Available at Amazon and Barnes&Noble


Please visit the page and read the sample chapters, then download a copy today!

Monday, October 15, 2012

On Race

I'm a little worried.

Not about the slight shift in the polls after the Presidential debate, although there is reason enough to be concerned about that matter. No, what worries me more is where we are as a country. How did we get to this point? Why did we get to this point? And more importantly, where do we go from here?

Hate, in all it's virulent manifestations, has always existed, whether we admit to personally witnessing it or not. To hide your head in the white sands of ignorance and pretend that it does not exist because some right-leaning talking head once proclaimed that we now live in a "post-racial society" is more than naive. It is enabling the culture to grow unchecked by your unwillingness to face the truth that lives all around you. Perhaps though, the problem is less not wanting to look, but more not knowing how to see.

The neighborhood where I grew up in the 70's was, at the time, the last unintegrated area of  Chicago, and the white inhabitants intended to keep it that way. Being a kid, 7, 8, 9 years old, I really didn't know any better. I didn't watch the news, and if I did happen to catch a glimpse of a story about a race riot, it meant very little to me. Those activities were nothing I could personally relate to, since I never viewed them on any level with my own eyes.

That's not in any way meant to suggest that I was unaware of "them". Blacks. Although, blacks wasn't the word of choice around my house. The N-word was tossed around with such casual frequency by my father and other family members that I wouldn't be surprised to open my baby book and read that it was one of the first words I uttered.

In my defense, I did not know any better. If you're told as a child that Vic Damone is the greatest singer in the world, then you believe in the lone magnificence that is Vic Damone, because that is what your parents told you. For a long stretch of your early life, especially back in the days that preceded the internet and satellite television, your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and family friends were your only credible news source. They informed you of a worldview that was not broadcast anywhere else. You learned of subjects that your school neglected to teach. What to eat, what to wear, pet or no pet, Pepsi or Coke, etc. And weighing even heavier than the subject matter was the commentary on the subjects themselves. What to think. Until the time when you are exposed to a wider range of ideas, and become sophisticated enough to make a valued decision on your own, your parents opinions are your opinions, too.

I'm ashamed to admit that I lived in a shadow of ignorance for as long as I did. I heard all of the jokes and thought nothing of them. They were as prevalent as the standard issue Polish/Italian/Irish jokes of the day ~ to an 8 year old, nothing more and nothing less. When they were repeated around home, school, or elsewhere, no one intervened to enlighten our under-developed minds of the inherent ugliness and hatred that clung to every punchline, or to warn us that with each laugh, we were laying the foundation to a possible future of blind hatred and corroded morals. We would stand under the flag as it waved proudly over the school's door, and cruelly dismiss and marginalize a segment of the country's population by repeating the crude jokes that were overheard, and in some cases, told to us directly, by the adults in our lives, without ever knowing just how wrong and unintentionally hateful we were.

If you've ever seen the original "Blues Brothers", then you are familiar with the scene in the park where they encounter members of the Illinois Nazi party. That idea did not randomly form in the imagination of Dan Aykroyd. It was all too true. The park was Marquette Park, on the southwest side, and the Nazis were an actual hate group with an office in the neighborhood. They would boastfully strut around town wearing Nazi uniforms, not just at parades or events, either ~ I remember seeing a man in full regalia shopping at a nearby grocery store. They were considered so commonplace in the area, that I recall being handed fliers, while in the playground during school hours, warning us of the Black Menace that was plaguing the city. The missives were as racist as you could imagine, but filled with cartoons and jokes to attract interest from us stupid kids. Why pass up the chance to cultivate a future generation of hatemongers?

One of the biggest purveyors of these sick notions was my own father. But as much as he so willingly proclaimed to anyone who would listen about how much he hated, hated, blacks, (again, I use a placeholder word here), I slowly began to notice a disconnect between his words and his actions ~ he would watch, and seemingly enjoy, black people on television. Sammy Davis Jr., Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson, and Nipsey Russell would all make him laugh, while Walter Payton and other black athletes made him cheer. Something in my young mind found this puzzling, so I asked him why he didn't seem to dislike these black people as much as the other ones I constantly heard him complaining about. What made them so different?

He replied without a moments deliberation. "There are good ones and bad ones. These are the good ones."

The response was so swift and effortless, as if he was absently answering to the question of "Fries or baked potato?", to finish out his dinner order.

For quite some time I struggled with the concept of good ones and bad ones, because as a white boy, I had heard, read, and seen my fair share of bad ones who wore the same color skin that covered my body. And if it's true that there are good ones and bad one within a race, is that in itself enough to cripple and destroy the entire race? Are we all to be judged by the worst examples of people our own color? If so, then the entire white race was just as guilty of everything we accused the black race of being. My father and his sublime bigotry provided me with an unintentional lesson in race relations.

Even though my thoughts were reaching in new directions, the neighborhood was still all white, and my friends were all white. Certainly not their fault ~ you can't blame someone for being white, just for acting white, and at this ripe age, that's really all many of us knew how to do. I was not yet old enough to drive, so that impaired me from experiencing any interactive diversity on my own. City buses were available as a mode of transportation, but you couldn't step on to one without hearing the words of your parents ringing through your head ~ "Be careful. Don't go too far away from the neighborhood. It's dangerous." As open-minded as I was, or rather, wanted to be, a fear persisted inside, one that was implanted in me as a child and could not easily be shaken off. You tried to see the world with a new set of eyes, but were continually haunted by those foundational teachings, as repulsive and wrong as they were. If the adults were attempting to create a human Pavlov's Dogs of Intolerance, they succeeded.

It wasn't until 1979 when I was 16 and working at a movie theater in the local shopping mall that I came into daily contact with African Americans. I know, sad, isn't it? Slowly, that inner fear which would unexpectedly grip me from time to time began to erode, because guess what? I realized that black people weren't any different from the white people I knew ~ some very nice, some not so nice, and a whole lot more residing between the two extremes. How could my father, and so many others like him, hate this entire group of people? Why did they hate them? It was making less and less sense to me, and I began to see my fellow white people in a new light. A light that was exposing flaws I had not previously seen. Or chosen to see.

The turning point for me occurred one day while working at the cinema. For the first time, an African American had recently been hired as an usher ~ not because of a sudden desire to compensate for years of inequality, but rather because our theater had a weekend softball team, and in his lust for wanting to crush teams from other theaters, our assistant manager tried to hire as many burly guys who applied for summer jobs as he could. Enter this African American teen, who, for the sake of this story, I will call Dave. Dave was a nice guy, kind of funny, but for the most part, kept to himself.

One day, after walking out of the theater where I just made my rounds, I entered the lobby where Dave was working as the ticket taker. For the sake of clarity, the cinema had three theaters, each with its own separate entrance, not like now, where a moviegoer would find one entrance that funnels into twelve or more separate theaters. What I found though, when walking into the lobby, was not Dave standing at the door, but rather backed into the concession counter by five white kids, all his age, but half his size. They were threatening him, throwing out the N-word, and telling him he didn't belong there. I don't know what the hell came over me, because I had never considered taking a stand against racial prejudice at any point previously in my life, but the next thing I knew, I was standing in front of Dave, telling those five white kids to get the fuck out of my theater, or I'd personally kick all of their asses. The truth is, I wasn't a big guy, and would have undoubtedly lost miserably. But there was something in my fury that spoke to them, and they left without further incident, other than calling me a n**r lover and kicking the glass entry doors, that is. I felt good about what had just happened, but then Dave opened his mouth and ruined all my self-satisfaction.

He said, "Thank you."

I was suddenly struck with a horrifying epiphany. The reason Dave kept to himself wasn't because of his personality, it was because of his geography. The mall was on the outskirts of the still all-white neighborhood in which I lived, so even though people his color came regularly to shop at the mall, he was fully aware that he was outnumbered and unwanted. Looking back on this, it was incredibly brave of him, given the time and place, to even submit an application. I can't think of one white kid who would have done the same in an all-black neighborhood. In that instant, all of the comments, all of the behaviors, I encountered over years manifested into this single moment, and I saw the world differently for the first time. There wasn't black and white. There weren't good ones and bad ones. There were just people. People who wanted to live normal lives like everyone else, but were at times scared to death by the inescapable clamps of racism. Dave was as big as any two of them, and could have knocked them senseless with exerting very little effort, but because of where he was in space and time, he was unable to stand up for himself. He needed the help of a skinny white kid with a  big mouth, and that made me feel sick inside.

That was over thirty years ago, and I've never forgotten it. I wonder how many other Daves there are in the world ~ nice normal people who are weighed down by fear, and the invisible anchor of a diseased and antiquated philosophy. I thought we had progressed beyond that point in those subsequent years. Perhaps I was too hopeful, or gullible, but I actually believed that, at the very least, the success of "The Cosby Show", Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and other African Americans in the mainstream of America might relax some old prejudices and open even more eyes, but the truth is, it was always there, boiling just below the surface like a toxic oil, bubbling up from the ground occasionally, but usually plugged up in time to make any real mess.

Pardon the cliche, but 9/11 changed all that. After we were attacked, a group of powerful people realized that they could advance their own personal agendas as long as they continued exploiting our fear. Initially it was the fear of being attacked again, but it soon morphed into a fear of "others". People who weren't like "us". Once that sentiment was allowed to grow, the earth opened up and all of that lingering racism exploded, finally culminated with the extremism of the Tea Party.

So this is where we are, in an America where racism is once again the accepted norm. A place where people openly ridicule our President's skin color, a land where chairs representing Obama are hung from trees. A country where influential people claim he was not born in America and demand to see his birth certificate. (John McCain was born in the Panama Canal, but I don't remember one Democrat of any color making an equal fuss.) The most powerful country in the world, but one where a chunk of society is willing to pretend they believe the lies of the rich, white, male candidate simply so they can vote the black male candidate out of office.

Right now, the country is similar to a relapsing alcoholic ~ sober for a long time, but now binge drinking with no intention to stop. So, where do we go from here? The good news is that I don't believe it's entirely hopeless, but we are in desperate need of an intervention. We need leaders, people of authority to step in show us our disgusting behavior. Not leaders like politicians and celebrities, but community leaders, people we know personally who have actual influence over our lives. It needs to start small. Do not look the other way when someone you know behaves inappropriately. Show them how they are wrong. Humanize the issue. How would they like it if they, or someone they loved, were treated in the same manner? And if they once were, then they should know better than to repeat the cycle of hate. It will take more than just seeing the problem, the offenders will need to establish better habits. It's one thing to accept the problem, you have to want to repair it. Since it's our collective problem as a country, are were willing to take it on?

It's not easy. There's a lot to be fixed, and that's what has me worried. For better or worse, we all have to live together for as long as we're alive. Why live in hate and fear? If you say you are a Christian, then act like it. If you say you are a patriotic American, then act like that. But whatever you do, do not pretend it doesn't exist and look the other way, because eventually, the other way will circle around back to you. Apathy kills. Take a stand, for yourself and everyone else.

Thank you.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Rolled by the Right About the Role of Government

One of the most important aspects of our country is that we allocate and spend money on taking care of the less fortunate, whether they are in that position terminally, or temporarily. I am willing to bet that there are very few poor people who wish to remain that way, and regardless of the fantasies that the right wing tries to proliferate, no one is getting rich, or basking in a life of luxury, from receiving Federal aid. The numbers vary, depending on the program, but the average annual amount of Federal aid received by a person living in poverty is nominal at best. In many cases, it's barely enough to scrape by. For the most part, the poor want to work, but have trouble finding jobs, because of the economy, lack of training, etc. Even when they do find work, they must negotiate and pay for day care, work clothes, transportation, and every other expense that comes with having a job.

Sure, there are a number of welfare cheats in the world, but compare the amount of money taken from the government by those people to the amount of money siphoned off by big business each year through tax breaks and incentives ~ billions that have led to no trickle down in jobs, but rather, a huge off-shore cash hoard in the trillions that don't earn a dime for American banks. And that's not even accounting for the no-accounts like Romney and his buddies that pay less than their fair share of taxes, or no taxes at all.

Blaming the poor is just another straw man, another distraction, designed to keep us from realizing their main objective, that they are they are the ones who are really robbing us blind. And with our full permission!

It's standard bagger/winger subterfuge ~ falsely blame someone else for behaving in the exact same manner that you are in order to take away focus and diminish the severity of your actions.

As a country, as a society, we can't turn our backs on people in need. But we can stop the perpetuation of greed by those who don't need any more of our money.

Don't sacrifice the needs of the less fortunate for the fortunes of those who don't need it.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Get Happy - The Novel Idea



It all started with a barking dog, and ended with a self-published novel.

Everything in the middle is kind of a blur.

I have a neighbor who keeps her dog in the backyard, (several neighbors actually, but let's stick to the topic), and this poor thing barks all day, every day. Talking to the neighbor about it didn't help. Neither did complaining to Animal Control. It seemed that no matter what steps were being taken, this dog insisted on barking. And one day I wondered if perhaps there was a reason for it. Was the dog trying to say something? And even if it was, what would it matter? No one could understand it, given the obvious language gap.

At the time, I was slogging through an unfulfilling career of writing screenplays for a couple of small budget production companies. The drill was as follows:
They would tell me what kind of film they wanted.
I would pitch a story idea.
They would LOVE it.
I would write it.
They would suggest changes to it.
I would rewrite it.
They would LOVE it.
I would get hopeful.
They would then take a pass (Hollywood lingo for, "No, thanks").
A week later, we'd go back to the beginning and start all over again.

I was increasingly becoming more and more fed up with the process as time wore on, and was not in the least bit shy about expressing my displeasure with my friends and family. Then, within a two day span, and independent of each other, two different people told me I should write a novel. I wrote one once, a long time ago, but didn't go out of my way to sell it. I'm not even sure why ~ it was pretty good, seeing that it was my first attempt at such an endeavor. But at the time, I didn't think of myself as a novelist, and let the manuscript lie dormant in a drawer.

But the more I thought about this recent suggestion, the more it made sense ~ I could write what I wanted, and have complete control. If people didn't like what they read, it would be because of me, and only me, and not because of fifty random changes made by ten random producers. This would be wholly and solely MY work. I fell in love with the idea, and saw it as a creative challenge to myself.

But what to write? My first novel was too dated by now, so I couldn't pull it out of mothballs and rework it. Besides, I wanted to write something new. I looked at some of the ideas I had collected for possible screenplays, but none of them appealed to me in this new format.

Then while I was brainstorming, that damn dog started to bark. And don't ask me how, but something clicked. A brand new story popped into my head, and I started writing. Now, a few years later, I have a finished novel.

Please check it out if you have a chance. Currently, it's available as an e-book on Amazon, and there are a few sample chapters on the site for you to browse through.

While it's fun, and personally satisfying, being a self-published author, it's tough getting the word out about your work. For that I require the help of as many friends, both new and old, that I can get.

Thanks for your support, and most of all, I hope you like the book.

Here's the link:

http://www.amazon.com/Get-Happy-ebook/dp/B008RFKIZC/ref=pd_ybh_1

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hump Days and Bump Days

It doesn't matter how positive your outlook usually is. It doesn't matter how hopeful you are for your future. And please, don't tell me how you've successfully embraced your inner chi and can clearly picture yourself achieving your stated goal some time in the near future, because that too, is insignificant to a plain and simple fact of human nature: Every once in a while, you will feel defeated. Regardless of how long you've had a run of "happy vibe days", you will, suddenly and without warning, have a bad day. Encounter a problem. Hit a bump in the road. Get a snag in your mental nylons. (Yes, you have mental nylons. Everybody does. Hope that didn't bum you out.)

You could be zooming through your week, experiencing nothing but happiness after amazing happiness ~ kicking ass at work and charming the hell out of everyone you meet. Maybe you even found a twenty dollar bill in that old pair of pants you finally just fit back into for the first time in over two years! What's that? You're up for a promotion? And that annoying neighbor who was throwing loud parties every other night just sold his house to an old woman who likes to go to bed at 8:30 pm? Fantastic!

Then...

Well, there's always a "then...", isn't there? "Then..." could be anything. Something could have unexpectedly broken, either down, up, or out, (perhaps all three at once), and your immediate response is to blame yourself for not being prepared for it, and/or not being able to fix it.

Maybe you ran into or heard about an friend/acquaintance/co-worker who's had an even more impressive string of good days, and it depresses you ~ for a few reasons. One, that it's not happening to you. Two, that it COULD have been happening to you, but you chose to do something different. Three, it would be wrong to kill them.

These kind of bumps are part of the Human Experience, or at least they should be. If you walk away from this essay with only one lesson, let it be that it's best to avoid people who never experience self-doubt. Why? Because they are the type of people who will insist that they are always right, or, they are liars.

The bottom line is, it's okay to doubt ourselves, because when we do that, we are in essence questioning our choices, and that's a good thing. "Am I an idiot because I don't know how to fix our plumbing issues, or is it perfectly okay to hire someone else to do the job because I can't know everything, and am sort of good at other things that a plumber might not be?" (Full disclosure ~ we are currently having a minor plumbing issue at the house. Now, back to the story...)

The problems with bumps are that bigger problems often result as a consequence of the bumps. We doubt ourselves and then wind up doing something very stupid as a form of subconscious punishment. We give the bump of doubt more weight than all of the positives that have come and gone over a much longer span of time. At the risk of sounding like a speaker at a self-help seminar, don't let that happen to yourself. We're better than that. When you have a bump, when you are absorbed in self-deprecating doubt, realize that we all go through that every now and again. And most importantly, stand up for yourself. Be the defending attorney rather than the prosecutor.  

Even the very best baseball and basketball teams lose a few games every season. (Yes, I know about the '72 Dolphins, but unless you expect your lifespan to be the equivalent of a fourteen game football season, they do not adequately fit into my metaphor). We are all going to lose a few. We are all going to hit a slump. Part of the success of a person is measured in how they overcome their own personal hardships.

But you all knew that already, didn't you?

Excuse me while I go call a plumber.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

$20,000 x 1,000,000

(I originally posted this on Facebook, but thought I should include it here, as well.)

For those of you who are, or ever were, married, please consider for a moment how much money the total endeavor cost you and your spouse. From beginning to end. Just to touch on the highlights, there was:
The rings, (bride and groom, engagement and wedding). The invitations. The bridal gown. The tuxedo. The shoes! The flowers. The hair and makeup costs. The rehearsal dinner. Gifts for the bridal party. The limo. The church, (or other venue). The reception hall. The photographer. The DJ. The food and drinks. The hotel rooms. The honeymoon, (hotel, airfare, food, etc.). New clothes for the honeymoon....
Add to that the cost of gas, stamps, food and drinks during the planning, and the dozens of other things I missed, and it quickly adds up to often times astoundingly high numbers.
Now, take the estimated total cost of ONE wedding, (to be safe, let's lowball it at $20,000), and multiply it by hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions, over the course of a couple years. If your calculator works like mine, it will arrive at $20 BILLION! Isn't that amazing? And that's just the expenses of the couple getting married! Toss in the cost of the dresses and tuxedos for the people who stood up in the wedding, hotel and airfare for people coming in from out of town, along with all the money spent by all the other guests, and the numbers are astronomic!
That is the amount of money that could be added to our economy over the next few years if gay marriage were legalized.

Complain all you want about the sanctity of marriage being destroyed, (which I personally think to be bullshit), but while married heterosexual couples are out having affairs and getting divorced, (and thereby destroying the sanctity of marriage), the money generated from these loving people being allowed to marry each other could help many, many Americans in need.
It's that simple.


Now let's talk about pot...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Last Call

(Editor's Note: I found this story when I came across the three Roy Fleming pieces. It was written around the same time period, but, as you will soon see, it has nothing to do with Roy. Then again, his mother is a bartender, so if I was looking for a connection, it could be made, but at the time this was written, it wasn't in my plans.)

LAST CALL


     It seems like every week or so I'm pickin' some what you'd call arbitrary day in the future that I'm gonna change somethin' in my life. I'll be sittin' there in Flannigan's and there'll be Ray or Coots or Jimmy C. or anybody, all havin' a beer watchin' a game and I'll go, "Wednesday! Wednesday I'm gonna stop smokin'!" Or, "Mondays 'n Tuesdays I ain't gonna drink! Or at least cut back." And everyone that hears me laughs or smiles and calls me "Lyin' Pete". Most a the time no one hears me though, 'cause sometimes I maybe just mumble it ta myself 'cause I ain't so sure if the day I picked is a good one ta start just yet. And I tell 'ya, most a them ain't good 'cause it seems like something's always comin' up. But no one understands when I tell 'em that. 'Cept Wally. Wally knew. Wally knew. Great guy, Wally.

     Wally'd plan a lot, too. We'd sit next ta each other, sippin' our beers talkin' how we'd quit the smokes and the booze and blow outta the city and get jobs on a train, like be a porter or somethin', so we could go cross country 'n find the perfect place ta live. Only problem was at the end a the night, I always wanted ta live in the mountains, and Wally'd always want ta live in the desert. We'd get ta yellin' at each other, callin' each other the filthiest a names, all in fun mind you, it was all in fun, then Phil the bartender'd say somethin' like, "Look at you two here, Huey and Dewey, fighting' over where yer gonna live when 'yas can't even pick a day between 'ya ta stop smokin' 'n drinkin' ta start it all!" Then we'd all get ta laughin' and someone'd buy a shot for us.

     Well, the whole reason I'm bringin' this up is 'cause that was the first thing that I thought a when I walked inta Flannigan's 'n Sandy the day bartender told me Wally was dead. Really it was the second thing, 'cause the first thing I did was I looked over a couple a stools down where we'd usually sit and think it was a joke. There's a different crowd during the day, old-timers mostly, and it's a well known fact they don't like what we call the night crowd. I don't know why. Maybe we leave some sorta smell for them in the mornin' that they don't like, or like Coots once said, maybe they're jealous 'cause we're younger and can stay up later. Whatever it is, they got somethin' against us. I don't know what, 'cause no one's talkin'. You'd think they'd cut me a break though, 'cause even though I'm more of an official night crowder, I do get there early enough most days ta sip a couple with them before they leave. But, like I said, they don't like us, so I figured the Wally's dead thing ta be some sick joke. So I just smiled after a minute and said, "Right. What's the gag? I ain't payin' his tab, if that's what yer gettin' at." And I drop a twenty on the bar and order my usual draft.

     Only Sandy didn't move. And if she wasn't the old witch I thought her ta be, I'd swear she was gonna start cryin'.

     "I'm tellin' 'ya, he's dead. It's no gag. His Ma just called an hour ago. Wake's over at Greer's on Fifty-ninth."

     All of a sudden, I was, I don't know, groggy. I guess that's what you'd call it. Like, I don't know, hitting yer head not hard enough ta go out, but just hard enough ta not know where ya' are for a few minutes. Sandy poured me a Bud 'n a shot a Wild Turkey 'n whispered, "It's on me." If this was a joke, it was a pretty big one, 'cause she ain't never give me nothin' before, and believe me, Turkey's a pretty big deal.

     I didn't know what ta say. My arms started ta hurt like they was goin' numb, so I let go a the bar 'n sat down on my stool. But in my head, 'ya know, up in my head, I couldn't feel nothin'. It just felt empty. I didn't know what ta think or feel. I was, you know, what I said before. Groggy. Stunned. I don't know how long I stared at that shot before I grabbed it 'n threw it back, but it's when I tasted it that I started ta think a the mountains 'n the desert 'cause it was just last night that Wally 'n me closed the place with the same fight. He still wanted the desert 'n I still wanted the mountains. Man, the names we were callin' each other. We even picked next Thursday ta quit smokin' 'n cut back on the booze, 'cause there wasn't a game that night. That's what's hard about pickin' days in the summer. Baseball's on every night just about, 'n when we'd watch our team look like they're gonna blow another one, we'd get ta feelin' all tense and start yellin', and we'd smoke and drink even more than usual. That's why I couldn't believe it, 'cause a last night. It was fourteen hours ago we was together and he seemed fine. Drunk, but fine.

     So I says ta her, I says ta Sandy, "How'd he die?" I was all worried that she was gonna say somethin' like he had a heart attack, or it was his liver, or somethin'. 'Cause if it was 'cause we ain't never picked a day before, and it came back ta haunt him, I don't know what I'd do. And, he was my age, thirty-seven, maybe younger. That didn't sit right, either. But she didn't say any a that.

     "Hit by a truck. This mornin' on his way to the bank to cash his disability check."

     Then about ten stools down this bastard I can't stand Tom Harris starts laughin', so I look over at him.

     "Tell 'em what kinda truck!" he says. Sandy just give 'em a dirty look and turned away. There were only four other guys in there, like I said, all old-timers, George, Harry, Frank, and Mr. Mulrooney, and they all looked away, too.

     "You know what hit 'em?" Harris says.

     I just kept lookin' at him. "A truck. That's what Sandy says, right?"

     Sandy just sipped her gin 'n tonic 'n stayed shut up.

     "Not just any truck!" he says. "A Salvation Army truck! Ain't that a scream? A Salvation Army truck! You believe it?"

     Like I said, I don't like this guy Harris. A real clown. Thinks he's Jay Leno, or somethin', which he ain't 'cause I ain't never laughed at anything he said even though some people do. But I thought this was too much, even for him, to be makin' jokes about Wally after bein' dead for just half a day.

     Sandy musta known what I was thinkin', 'cause she looked at me all sorry-eyed and nodded, so I guess it was true, but Harris kept laughin' anyway.

     "They said they had ta hit 'em! Stock was runnin' low, 'n they needed some a their old clothes back!"

     Mr. Mulrooney mumbled at him to shut up, and "You're not funny, Harris," is what I told him.

     "Like I said, I'm just quotin' fact," is what he says back. And he's got that kinda grin, the kind that as soon as you see it, you want ta smack it off his face. And I woulda too, and he knows it, if it wasn't for my bum leg. I've been on disability myself for over a year with the city since I fell off the side a the garbage truck during my route. She hit a pothole in an alley 'n I lost my grip 'n fell underneath 'n got smashed by a tire. If one a the guys hadn't yelled ta Carlos the driver ta stop, it woulda ran tight over the whole leg the way i was layin', and I'll give 'ya odds I woulda lost it. So now, no lie, my left knee and ankle will just flare up on me, sometimes when I'm just goin' to the bathroom. My lawyer says I'm not s'posed to be doin' anything what you call strenuous until 'til after the lawsuit. He says, he says after his cut, I'll be comfortable for life. Money-wise, that is. Who knows if my leg'll ever feel comfortable again. Well, that money's what was gonna set me up in the mountains. Or the desert. Whenever the hell it comes.

     Disability's another thing Wally 'n me had in common. He was shot by a cop. While he was sleeping. Who ever heard a anything like that? He was in his own apartment, passed out in bed, when about five in the morning or so, the cops bust in the door of his next door neighbor. I don't know what the guy did, Wally said he only met him a few times, never much of a talker, but the cops say he pulled a gun on them, so they shot at him. 'Cept, one a the cops missed, and missed bad. Two bullets went through the wall and hit Wally. One went in his right hip, the other tore completely through his upper arm and went inta his chest. Just missed his heart by an inch, is what they say. It was in the papers. He was gonna have the story framed, but he never got around to it. Some big shot in the department tried ta say it was just friendly fire. Wally'd say, "Nothing friendly 'bout nearly gettin' shot ta death while yer sleepin'!" I tell 'ya, sometimes he'd play up that shoulder 'n hip like they was gonna fall off when he'd see the doctor, which didn't really make any difference, 'cause he was set-up for life after the settlement. His lawyer got him a big lump payment, plus a check every week for the rest of his life. Which I guess, stopped today. I don't know.

     Sandy poured me another shot 'n a beer, then took my twenty and give me back twenty in change. That was her way a givin' me a freebie without lettin' on ta everyone what she's doin'.  But, believe me, it was no secret. Everyone knew. Both Mr. Mulrooney and Frank said more than once that they was real sorry 'cause they knew how much we got along. Harris just kept up with his wise mouth stuff. "Remember that green striped short sleeved shirt he had? I liked that. Maybe tomorrow I'll go pick it up for half a buck." They'd tell him ta shut his mouth, but he wouldn't listen. We got a couple reasons why he's the way he is. He usta be a night guy like us, then his hours changed, and now he hasta come in drinkin' durin' the day. That might be one thing, him havin' ta sit with all the old guys. The other is, he hasta work and we don't, so he's kinda spiteful. And if either one were really the case, he'd be mad at more than half a the people who hang out here. Why he's all over us is beyond me.

     He was still layin' inta Wally when the regular night crew started comin' in. None a them knew and Phil, who took over for Sandy, told 'em when they came in. They'd look over at me first thing when they heard, and they'd set me up with a couple drinks. I couldn't down 'em fast enough. No matter how much I drank, there'd always be about another fifteen white chips sittin' in front a me waitin' to be cashed in. By now, Harris is half in the bag, and says somethin' else about Wally. Something like, "It certainly was salvation for me!", whatever the hell that means, when Big Steve Brady stands up 'n says, "If you don't get outta here now, I'm gonna make sure you're laying in the room across the hall from Wally at Greer's!" Harris was about ta say somethin' when Big Steve looks at him real fierce and says, "Closed casket." Oh man, that scared the crap outta everyone in the room. Harris didn't say anything. He just pocketed his change and split. You shoulda heard the room after. Everyone cheered and laughed. "Aw right Big Steve!" half of 'em yelled. The other half were laughin', "Closed casket!" Then Big Steve comes over 'n pats me on the back. I don't know if anyone seen it, but that's the way Big Steve is. He takes care a people he likes, and he liked Wally 'n me. Closed casket. I ain't never heard a anything like that before. That even scared me. No kidding.

     All the regulars were there 'n the place was pretty crowded for a Tuesday night. I heard Phil say to Jimmy C., "Business is great. One a yous guys should die every week!" They looked over at me, and I'm laughin', "Let's kill Harris next! That'll pack 'em in!"

     "Who'll mourn him?" this guy Leo screams.

     "No one!" I says. I says, "We'll just be happy to get rid a him!" Biggest laugh I ever got in there. That one got me even more chips. "Wally's bein' dead's really gettin' me loaded," I mumble to myself. And Phil hears me.

     "Don't get too faced," he says ta me. That's one a his favorites - don't get too faced. "You wanna make it to the wake in one piece tomorrow."

     "I'll be there," I says. "No matter."

     "Hey, Pete," Big Steve says. "'Ya need a ride tomorrow?"

     I had a mouthful a beer, so I swallow and go, "Nah. I'll just take the bus." Then I take another sip, right?

     Then this guy Mickey D. goes, "Be careful crossing the street!"

     Now, the whole place went nuts, and I just about choked on that beer. "Just spit it out!" Coots goes. "What a 'ya savin' it for? 'Ya got twenty more coming anyway!"

     I started coughin' from laughin' so hard, and  I couldn't swallow the damn thing, so Big Steve, like I said, always takin' care a people, slaps me on the back, like I'm some screwed up old TV set. I'm just lucky beer was the only thing that come outta my mouth he hit me so hard. But I'm laughin'. So hard there's tears comin' outta my eyes. Big Steve gives me a pat on the back after. A soft one.

     Before we know it, Phil's flickin' the lights and screamin', "Last call! 'Ya hear me? Last call!" Well, we all get ta moanin' just like we do every other night he does it, but this time he starts wavin' his arms at us ta all be quiet.

     "Listen," he goes real loud. "Listen. If you alls can keep yer mouth shut, the last round'll be on me."

     That shut everyone up, I'll tell 'ya that. Sure did shut 'em up. And quick.

     Then Jimmy C. goes, "Hey Pete," he goes. "You need a wheelbarrow to carry those chips home?"

     "Nah," I go. "Stick 'em in my pocket," is what I says.

     So when Phil's pouring my last shot 'n a beer, he goes, "Who yous gonna argue wit anymore?"

     "Argue?" I says. And I'm thinkin', "Who do I argues wit?"

     "Yeah, argue," he says. "All that mountain and desert stuff. You gots no one ta bicker wit anymore. You jus gonna go ta the mountains on yer own now?"

     "Yeah. I dunno. Guess I could, huh? Whenever that settlement come in."

     Then Ray lifts up his beer and goes, "Here's ta Wally! Wherever he is, heaven or hell, I'll tell 'ya one thing - it's looks better than this place!"

     We all laughed 'n took a drink.

     "Yes sir," Phil goes. "It's gonna get lonely around here wit out you two goin' off on each other."

     Then Coots looks at me and goes, "Aww, you guys was all messed up anyways."

     "How's that that we're all messed up?" I says.

     "You had it all wrong, is what I say," Coots goes. "Mountains and desert. The ocean's where 'ya should go!"

     "The ocean!" I says, and I had ta laugh. I go, "'Ya got hurricanes down there! And floods!"

     Coots yells back, "Yer nuts! Floods? There's no floods! When you ever hear a the ocean flooding?"

     "Oh, there's floods!" I says. "And mudslides! Floods and mudslides!" I scream at 'em. Old Coots, he doesn't watch news a lot. So, "Watch the news!" is what I says to 'em.

     "There's no mud at the ocean! Mud's in the mountains! Where you wanna go!"

     "No no no no no!" I go. "No ocean for me," I go. "'Ya got the hurricanes," I go. "And the floods!"

     "Here we go again," says Phil, and he starts ta laughin', 'n so does everybody else.

     The ocean. Geez. I just had to laugh. Some people just don't get it, you know? I pounded my beer and collected up my chips.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Shakespeare And The Lies

(Here is another story in the Roy Fleming series. Enjoy.)

SHAKESPEARE AND THE LIES

     God, I am so sick of Shakespeare! That's all these excuses for English teachers talk about is Shakespeare! Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare! Like there's been nothing else worthwhile written since the early 1600's. That's probably why Hemingway shot himself, I bet. Some windbag of a literature professor ran into him one day and said, "You know, Ernest old boy, your writing is good and all, but it's certainly no match for a four-hundred-year-old dead guy that wrote in a language we barely understand nowadays. Try tossing in a few thees and for art thous'."

     I'd jump in a boat and pull the trigger, too.

     And Beowulf? Come on! You might as well read a thousand pages of doctor's prescriptions. It's all a conspiracy. It is. Why else would teenagers be forced to read that junk? You know why? Because there's a truth hidden somewhere that no one wants us future generations to know. For centuries they've been shoving this crap down our throats and telling us it's meaningful. Maybe it was back then, when people thought witch burning was normal, but it doesn't do much for us now. And even if there are some issues in those dusty old books that might have some meaning today, isn't there a much more modern book that might say the same thing? I know there are, because I've read some. Why won't they let us read those books in class? 

     Salinger would be perfect, but forget about ever reading him in the classroom. Adults tried to ban his books, saying they were inappropriate for us dumb kids because of all the bad language and sexuality. Yeah, we all lead such sheltered lives. I guess they never bothered to read any of that Chaucer they force on us. Really though, what are they thinking? I mean, come on, do they really believe teenagers are sitting around thinking, "I'm so bored. What I really need is some good reading this weekend. But what to get? What to get? Oh! I know! How about some John Bunyan? Yeah! Nothing says fun weekend for a teenager than reading The Pilgrim's Progress!" It won't make any sense unless you have an interpreter, and even if you did, nobody'd want to read it anyway. Except of course, the few phony romantic girls, who at age sixteen, think they actually have a grasp on the language and swear they need no help getting through it. They just want to impress, is all. Get straight A's. Go to college and major in Romance Languages, like there's so much of a calling for that, just so they can sit around with their little girly clique one day and say, "Oh, have you ever read, Beowulf? What a thoroughly wonderful poem! Of course, in terms of emotional content, it's no match for Romeo and Juliet!" "No, of course not!" the rest would chime in, then all release these lofty chuckles above each others heads, sip their demi-tasse, and chain-smoke their extra-long filter-tips. 

     I know it happens, because I've seen people like that. That whole picture could be erased if there only wasn't so much emphasis placed on these out-of-date books. But there is, and I think I know why.

     Part of it is, they want us to live in the past, instead of the present and the future. Youth intimidates them. Them, being the adults. They all treat people like me as if we're idiots with no opinions of our own. And then when we do express an opinion, they act like we're idiots for even thinking it. Then those kids grow up to be adults with absolutely no opinions of their own except the one that was jammed into their heads when they were young: that kids shouldn't have any opinions of their own, and if they do, they're stupid ones. So then they wind up doing exactly what they hated when they were kids, and that's treating teenagers like idiots and forcing their own opinions on them. Hell of a vicious circle, isn't it?

     It's all a superiority thing. That's why they keep alive the myth of Shakespeare being important - as long as kids don't understand the real truth, the adults and teacher can act all powerful pretending they do, and continue to make the kids feel insignificant. Give them all Nelson Algren books. Or Catcher in the Rye, and let's see what happens. There'd be a revolution. Full scale.

     I've kinda felt that way for some time now, about Shakespeare and the lies, but I never said anything about it before. That is, not until today. All the pieces finally came together. Second period. Mrs. Pritzer's class. I sat there the whole time not saying a word. I just waited. I waited 'cause I knew she was going to mention him. And not just once. It was gonna happen a lot. She just loves saying his name.  So I set myself a limit. Ten Shakespeares, and it was all gonna hit the fan. Big time.

     The class goes forty-five minutes, and half of it didn't even pass before she hit us over the head with eight. I said nothing. Didn't even turn a page or take notes. Even if I wanted to, all I'd write was, "She said his name again." 

     A few minutes later she tossed out the ninth one, and I pushed my chair away from the desk a little. Then, and I still don't know what strange dimension of reality this one was pulled out of, but she decided to ask me a question.

     "Mr. Fleming? Are you alive back there? You look sick."

     I only stared at her, 'cause I made that promise to myself not to say anything until the limit was met.

     "Okay, Mr. Fleming, how would you compare what we've been talking about to the themes of Shakespeare's Hamlet?"

     That was it. Not just the tenth, but The Trap. No matter what my answer, it would be ridiculed and considered wrong. Even if I had been paying attention to what they were talking about. That's the way it always was. I was going to put a stop to it, though. Not just for me, but for future generations.

     I skidded back my chair and pointed directly at her face. "Shakespeare is full of shit! Why can't adults tell us the truth? Why do you think we can't handle it? I refuse to be a prisoner of the past!"

     Now it was her turn to be silent. Man, did I blow her away. I looked around at the rest of the class and I think they were pretty impressed 'cause I saw all the smiles. You could tell they were waiting a long time for someone to stand up and say what they've been secretly thinking. I felt powerful for once, and I knew in that moment what I had to do. "I'm going to start the revolution!", is all that filled my head. All I could think about. I wanted to gather together my peers, show them the truth that had been hidden from us for so long, and march them all to victory.

     There'd be lots of marching. What revolution would be complete without it?



     I guess I got pretty caught up in the whole thing, because somehow I ended up in the library. Kinda like how you daydream in the shower, and then when you're drying off, you can't for the life of you remember if you washed your hair or not. You distinctly remember washing it the day before, but not just two minutes ago. Only this time, instead of having dirty hair, I was in the library. Sitting on the floor between two rows of fiction, and my lap completely blanketed by books. Good books, at least. Suddenly, I couldn't remember where my books were, or how I ended up like this. I figured I must have left them on a table, and came over here to check something. It bugged me though, how I had become this space head. I hate people like that.

     But, I guess, for all the negatives I had stacked against me, like having a lousy memory and being covered by books, there was one big plus on my side. It was real quiet. Nobody talking. Which meant, nobody lying. And, most importantly, nobody mentioning that guy's name. Very tranquil. That's a nice word, isn't it? Tranquil. Just saying it makes you feel all calm inside. It's a naturally soothing word. I think it's the qui part. The same three letters start the word quiet, and I don't think that's a coincidence.

     QUIet...tranQUIl...real peaceful.

     "Roy? Sweetheart?"

     I knew that voice, and it wasn't Mrs. Pritzer. Besides, to her, I'm always Mr. Fleming. No, that voice belonged to my mother. What I wanted to know was, why was she in the school library? I hope it wasn't to give me lunch money, or something. Parent's can be so embarrassing sometimes.

     "Be careful, Mrs. Fleming. I think he's on drugs."

     "He's not on drugs. My god, you people are clueless. And the name's not Mrs. Fleming. It's Ms. Crowley. Now please, let me, okay?"

     Why would anybody think I was on drugs? I was just looking at some books. That's all. Adults are so suspicious. All part of their need for control and power. More lies.

     "Roy...?"

     She was being so quiet. I assumed it was because we were in the library and all, but she could have read my mind and knew about the qui part. Could be.

     "Roy, what are you doing?"

     "Just looking at books. Modern books. What are you doing here?"

     "They called me at home."

     "Who? Why?"

     "Vice-Principal Jensen. He said something happened in your English class today...?"

     I looked at all the titles scattered around me and tried to make some sense out of it, but all I could think of was Shakespeare and the lies, so I just said that to her. A few times. I figured she'd know.

     She reached out and gave my hand a little tug. I knew what it meant: she wanted me to look up at her. I did, and she looked so sad. Now I kinda half wondered if someone died. People always have a different look on their face when someone dies. It might not always be honest, but it is very specific. Maybe that's why she came - to talk about someone dead. Or, maybe even to talk about someone not dead. At this point, it was too soon to tell. Either way, I didn't like seeing her like this, so I turned my eyes back down to the floor. But then this weird thing happened. I don't know whether my ears were plugged up or what, but nothing sounded right. It was like when you jump into a pool. A real deep one. There's noise when you're on the diving board, then you hit water, and nothing. Everything is smothered. Strange that it would happen in a library.

     "Pumpkin, what happened today?"

     Then, like I shot to the top of the pool, everything came back to me. My sound and vision were both clear. And I started crying. A lot. Niagara Falls crying. Like I'd been held in solitary confinement for a year, then released and shown "It's a Wonderful Life". The only difference was, these weren't happy tears, because when I looked back up at her, I wanted to just lash out.

     "Why didn't you tell me the truth?"

     "About what?"

     "Not what. Who! Why didn't you tell me he was alive?"

     "Oh, Roy." I could tell she wanted nothing more than to look away, but I had my eyes locked good and hard onto her, and there was no letting go.

     "I saw him last night. He's very much alive!"

     The muscles in her face flinched a couple times, then she got all whispery. "What do you mean, you saw him?"

     "I mean, I saw him. My father. Last night. I was coming home from Amy's and there he was, sitting there in his car, as calm as can be, just staring up at our apartment."

     "What makes you think it was your father?"

     "Because he said to me, Hi Roy, I'm your father! All 'ya had to do was look at him, and you knew."

     "Why don't we go home, Sweetie?"

     "I don't want to go home!"

     Then the brilliant Mr. Jensen added his two cents. "I'm afraid it isn't that easy. We have to stop at Principal Danker's office first..."

     That really set off my mother. "Look! If you want to do something helpful, you can clear the crowd of gawkers away from the door, and then shut it on your way out! I'll handle this. Now, go!"

     Being a bartender, she can act real tough like that when she needs to. I wanted to see what Jensen thought of it, but he had already started stomping away like a baby before I had the chance.

     "Come on, Roy." She pulled on my arm to help me up, but all I really wanted was to stay put on the floor. "Roy, please."

     "No! Why did you lie to me? Why did you tell me he was dead? Adults. Lies. I thought you were different, but you're all the same. All the damn same."

     "I never told you he was dead. I told you he was gone. You're the one who assumed gone meant dead."

     "Then why didn't you set me straight? At least then I woulda known he was alive. I coulda kept contact with him, or something!"

     "Roy..."

     "I couldn't sleep. I sat up all night thinking of all the things we coulda done. Wondering why you never told me. I heard you come home from work, but I hated you so much for lying, I couldn't leave my room."

     "I always meant to tell you someday, but..."

     "...But what? What, mom?"

     Now she started crying, too. I swear, it's always about her. "I couldn't. I just...how do you tell your five-year-old boy, or your teenage boy, that his father left because he found another woman that he thought was prettier than Mommy?"

     I was stunned. Stunned to the point of shaking. It was a possibility that never crossed my mind. I figured 'cause she never told me, that it was something she did. Not him. Now I felt stupid.

     She reached into her pants pocket, pulled out a crumbled Kleenex, and sat with me on the floor.

     "So, umm, what did he say? What did he want?"

     "He said he wanted to see me."

     "Mmm. And, why did he say we aren't together? Or did he?"

     "Yeah, he did. He said things didn't work out."

     "Right. Things didn't work out. It's real hard for things to work out when all you do is lie to your wife and tell her you're working overtime when you're really spending the night with another woman. And I suppose he told you he misses you, and thinks about you a lot."

     That hurt. "Yeah."

     "Yeah. Me, too. Every month for about a year, he'd call me and say the same shit. I miss you. But he'd never act on it, you know, never leave her, or even pretend that he wanted to make it all work again. Just, I miss you. And for a while, I believed it. Then I realized that those three words were just his way of controlling me. And a good way  of relieving his guilt. So, I just let go. Letting you believe he was dead was one of the ways that helped me get through it. I swear, I never thought it would hurt you, because I never thought he'd come back."

     "I'm sorry."

     "No no no no. Don't you be sorry. You're right. I should  have told you."

     The very top of my head started to throb. Information overload, maybe.

     "Who was it?"

     That one question totally changed her expression. She didn't seem so sad anymore. Now she looked downright aggravated.

     "It doesn't matter, Roy."

     "What? Another thing you're not going to tell me?" I could get just as annoyed as she can.

     "Even if I told you, it wouldn't mean a thing. You didn't know her."

     "Are they still together?"

     "I have no idea. Didn't he say anything to you about it?"

     "Don't get mad at me. I just asked a question." Boy, she can get snippy sometimes.

     "Sorry..."

     Just when it seemed like she was ready to give in and fill me in on everything, we heard this screaming from clear across the other side of the room.

     "Roy! Let me in, damn it! Ro-oy! Jenny! Where are you?"

     Amy. Great, now I really felt foolish. My mom flashed me this coy little grin. At least I think it was supposed to be coy.

     "My god! What happened! All those books! Did someone push a shelf over on you?"

     I couldn't help it, but I started laughing. So did my mom. Then for some stupid reason, we both started to cry simultaneously. It was like we didn't know what the hell to do. This didn't sit too well with Amy, though. She must have thought we were laughing at her.

     "Well, what then? All I know is Julie Marshall told me you went crazy or something about Shakespeare, ripped up your book, and marched out of the room screaming something about a revolution."

     "Oh, Christ..." My stomach started to hurt now.

     Mom took Amy by the hand. "Can you leave for a while?"

     "You mean, can I cut? Yeah, but my mom won't be too thrilled."

     "She won't know. And if she does, I'll take care of it. Are you okay to leave now, Pumpkin?"

     I nodded, and brushed a couple books off my lap.

     "We can go to Conrad's. Have some lunch and talk."

     By now, Mom and I seemed pretty relaxed, but Amy was still a little fidgety. "So, what happened? Is anybody gonna tell me?"

     "Let's get out of here first," then she reached down with her other hand to help me up. I didn't let go this time.

     "Do you still hate me?"

     "No. I just wish you woulda told me the truth in the beginning."

     "I know."

     The rest of the books on top of me fell off when I stood. They were mostly hardcovers, so it sounded like a big game of dominoes. What I didn't realize until we were almost out the door was that I was unknowingly clutching on to this Vonnegut book. A newer one that I hadn't read before. For a moment I honestly thought about going up to the desk to check it out, but I thought that really would have seemed nuts.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Found Not Looking

(Editor's Note: Far too much of my writing from the 90's has been lost due to my early battles with technology, either as a result of my forgetting to backup the hard drive in case the computer crashed ~ and back then it always did ~ or because the floppy disc I used did not have the life span that it promised when first purchased. I recently found some short stories written from then that survived, mainly because they were written on a typewriter (!) and probably duplicated at a Kinko's, which means, in order to share them with you, they must be retyped. Retyped, not rewritten. At least, that's my intent. I'm sure a couple things will need to be cleaned up here and there, but I will try to remain as faithful to the original version as possible.
Anyway, here's the first of the batch. I started to write a series of stories about a character named Roy. I've only found three of them so far, although I do believe a few more exist. Hopefully they will turn up someday. So, in no particular order, here is the first installment.)


Found Not Looking 

     I'm not too thrilled about it, but I'm going to spend the weekend in Wisconsin with my mother. It was either that, or spend it under the watchful eye of Gladys, the seventy year old widow across the hall. If her wrinkles and smell don't kill you, it's that stuff she shoves down your throat she dares to call food that will. Why I can't take care of myself for two days is a huge mystery to me - I mean, come on, I'm sixteen, not five. It's not like I'm going to fry meat next to an old pile of papers, or play in the tub with a clock radio, or anything. And why is it okay for me to be alone at night when she works at the bar, but not now? I don't know. You treat a kid like a kid for too long and they develop complexes. That's what I think.

     Anyway, don't get me wrong, I think Wisconsin's a great place. I've been there about a thousand and twenty times, but all those were on vacations, or something like a vacation, and believe me, this is not a vacation. My Aunt Bridget went off the deep end again. We found out last night and I swear, my mom hasn't stopped crying since. Even here in the car. I've been trying not to bug her 'cause I know she's upset, so I haven't said anything the whole trip, and, I even let her listen to her own radio station the entire way without one complaint, but I don't know, seems like every time we see a sign on the road just telling us how much further we have to go, she immediately busts up. Five miles outside of Chicago Ridge, I gave up on constantly reopening the glove compartment and just pulled out the box of Kleenex and dropped it in the seat between us.

     I said, "went off the deep end again", because she has a long history of going off the deep end. She's like the Olympic diving champ of crazy. A lot of the earlier stuff I don't know about, probably because of that age discrimination thing again, but in the past few years I've listened in on enough conversations to think I'm pretty well informed. I don't have the time to go into everything, that is, unless you don't mind me me going gray and having grandkids before I'm finished, but I will tell you about the last episode before this.

     It was about a couple weeks ago, July third to be exact. I know that for a fact because my mom had to make a similar trip up there the very next day, leaving me unable to watch any fireworks 'cause I was stuck inside Gladys' all day, eating three meals of this crummy mush that tasted like greasy bread and liver. I was sick for two days. Anyway, my loony Aunt Bridget picked July third to announce to all of her neighbors that she was suddenly psychic, which is odd enough, but apparently, she could only perform her powers when totally naked. And that's how she spent that day informing everyone. I don't know all the details, but I got this picture in my mind of Aunt Bridget, who's really not too bad looking for a woman in her upper thirties, completely nude, skipping up and down the streets in broad daylight screaming, "I'm psychic! I'm psychic!", and pointing at people sitting on their front porches or looking out their windows, "Your favorite color is blue!" "You wish you were a car mechanic!" "You have trouble doing long division!" I'd love to know what really happened, and, why she thought she could only be psychic when she was naked, but my mom is crying all over the place. It's gotten to the point where hotels signs are making her weep. And excuse me, but that's one thing I can't deal with - when people try telling you stories while they're crying. Gasping for air in between words, stopping all the time to blow their nose...if there's any humor at all in the story, that's certainly gonna wreck it.

     The only thing that's keeping me going is the fact that when we get there, I don't have to hang around. I already asked a couple times, so everything's settled with that at least. Aunt Bridget's house is only a block or so from the woods, so I'm gonna go in there and meditate. I've never done it before, but I've been reading "The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac, and as far as I can tell, the two things the characters really like to do are meditate, and play yabyum. Yabyum is some sex position, I guess, where the man and the woman sit facing each other and don't move for something like ten hours. Obviously, between those two choices, I'm limited to meditating. Which is fine with me, 'cause I've wanted to do it ever since I read about it early on in the book. That's not to say I never wanted to try yabyum, but given the circumstances, meditation seems like the easiest one for me to get involved in.

     Plus, who's got ten hours to do something like that? I guess my question is, even if you did have the time, what do you do for the ten hours? Do you talk? And if you do, what do you say? I don't think I'm being insensitive when I say that ten hours with anyone is a lot of conversation time to kill. I just can't imagine being locked in the same sex position with a naked woman and getting to the stage where you're talking about what chances the Cubs have next season. You know what I mean? I really think you can only say "I love you", "Wow, this feels good", and "You've got a great body", for so many hours before it gets boring. I really have to finish this book and see what they're trying to accomplish. I'd get into it now, but reading in a moving car gets me supremely nauseous, and I already don't feel so hot as it is. Long car rides in general get me sick. I could never be an Indy driver - I'd fall asleep after the twentieth lap and kill everyone. I would. I know it.

     "Wake up, Pumpkin. We're almost there."

     See? I fell asleep. It just hits me and BOOM, I'd swerve and take out all the other drivers. I really wish she hadn't woken me up until we pulled in front, though. We're still about three blocks away. If there's one thing I hate, it's being woken up from a nap while the car is still moving. When I wake up like that, I usually feel worse than I did before I fell asleep, and I like to end that feeling immediately by stepping out. This only makes me feel cruddier. But I can't tell that to her. Not now. She'd start bawling again, then when we did get to the house she'd never stop. I know her with these crying jags. She's incredible. I think I'll put a character like her in one of the novels I'm gonna write. A woman who never stops crying. Winning the lottery would be no different than misplacing your keys to her, she'd just be a crying and sniffling wreck. My mom's not that bad, but characters in novels are always exaggerations of people you know. I read that somewhere.

     It wasn't as bizarre as I thought when we walked in. Since I'd never been to one of these deals before, I kinda half-expected to find Aunt Bridget in a straightjacket and chained to the wall, all wild-eyed struggling to break free while these big orderly guys stood by with whips and clubs wait for her to get good and loony. But it wasn't like that at all, which is good, 'cause I don't think I could have handled that. What happened was this nice old man in short sleeves and gray pants answered the door and introduced himself as Dr. Miller. He's Bridget's psychiatrist. I know that from eavesdropping. "Dr. Miller this", and "Dr. Miller that", is all you ever hear my mom say. It's half her conversation. I'm not kidding.

     He patted my mom on her shoulder, giving her the whole whispery, "Jenny, I'm so sorry" routine, then shaking my hand like we were long time business associates, or something. That's better than the old guy rubbing your head and calling you Junior. I just want to scream when they do that. Or, recite every four and five syllable word I know along with their definitions to prove I'm not a little kid.

     My mom squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. I was one of those communications like, "Well, this is it. I hope I can do it," followed by, "You can. Just be brave." Sometimes, those tacit moments that only you can understand are pretty cool. Tacit, in case you don't know, means "unspoken". It's a word I came across last week. Maybe I'll use that one if anybody ever calls me Junior. Or maybe, I'll just stare at them, real tacit-like.

     There were about ten people there, most of them I knew, but it was still kinda strange because it was more like a small party that what it really was - people getting together to decide if Bridget needed to be put away for good. They were all standing around in small groups talking, breaking away for a minute to say hi to me and mom, then going back to what they were doing before like it was all no big deal. To top it off, Dr. Miller's wife laid out this buffet table, right there in Bridget's living room, with sandwiches, salads, and a bunch of desserts. It was too much. I wanted to comment on how inappropriate it seemed, but Mom was on the other side of the room already, and I was, after all, pretty hungry, so I didn't say anything more than hello, and ain't it a shame, to a couple people who tried to talk, and made a beeline to the table and dug right in.

     About twenty minutes later I felt fed enough, and secure enough, to leave the house and go out to the woods. I mean, Aunt Bridget was in her bedroom asleep, I guess, and my mom was busy doing the group console thing with everybody, which left me with nothing to do anyway. She just told me to be back for dinner, which, when I think about it, was never given a specific time. What time do people visiting a crazy woman in Wisconsin eat dinner? I'm guessing six-thirty, seven.

     But, like I said, that's just a guess.

     While I was looking for a good tree to meditate under, I started thinking about Aunt Bridget and how much fun she used to be. It was eleven years ago this summer that her and Uncle Rick moved up here from Chicago. I don't remember too much about being five years old other than coming up here for a few weeks at a time and goofing off. I'd just get out of the car and start laughing and running. Step out of the front or back of the house, and start laughing and running. Never really knew where I was running to, only I knew I wanted to, and when I'd gone too far, someone would call me back. Kids are amazing. All they ever want to do is run. Now here I am, in the same place I was when I was a kid, and I'm looking for the perfect tree to sit under so I can meditate.

     Getting old is a real strange deal sometime.

     I don't know anything about Wisconsin trees really, other than some have leaves, and some have needles. I chose a big old leafy one so I wouldn't get a butt full of needles. I figured it would be hard enough to clear your mind without all if that going on, too.

     Just in general, it's not easy to clear your mind. You know, make it a total blank. It's near impossible. One of the characters in the book said that you're supposed to relax and empty your mind of thought, or something like that, but I can't. I mean, it works for a little while, then goofy things start popping into my head. Things like Aunt Bridget with that long crazy black hair of hers, chasing me around the yard, then running out of breath and her falling me on wheezing and laughing like some mad woman. And then four months later going to Uncle Rick's funeral and seeing her with those big dark sunglasses on, crying and wiping her cheeks every ten seconds. Then coming back up here the next couple summers after that and wanting her to chase me, but winding up just running in circles by myself and falling down like some aired-out balloon.

     I opened my eyes as wide as I could until I heard a stretching sound inside my head, and then shut them again. For about five whole minutes, it was working just fine, until I started thinking about breasts. I don't know why, but it's this odd subconscious kick I've been on lately. Whenever I'm not thinking of anything important, and my mind starts wandering, I suddenly start thinking of breasts. Nobody's in particular, just random female breasts. In fact, as gruesome as it sounds, there's never a head attached. Not that I'm imagining decapitated women, or anything like that. It's just that I never see the head to know who's they are. I only picture the breasts, and part of the stomach. Sick, huh?

     I'd like to say that it's not my fault, but it is my mind, so I guess I have to take some responsibility. The strange part of it is I've only seen breasts once in my life, last year at the community pool. I was kinda dating this girl named Cindy Bowers, for only about three months, and the whole time never got more than a kiss or two. Then, one day we go to the pool, and she flashes me! Right outta the blue! Which, really, is no big deal, if you knew Cindy. I mean, she's a nice girl and all, but she was only fifteen at time time, and they were nothing to marvel at, so believe me when I say, these breasts I'm seeing in my head are not, nor ever were, Cindy Bowers'. I can't say who's they are, 'cause like I said, there's no head. I never told anybody this because I'm afraid they'd start analyzing me and figure out I should be put away with Aunt Bridget.

     I'm hoping it's just a phase.

     I decided to give up on the lotus position, which is the way they say to do it in the book. My legs aren't that stretchy. I'm able to fold them how they should be and all, but forget about trying to hold them like that for any length of time. I don't know how people can clear their minds and sit like that 'cause all I can think about is "How long do I have to sit like this?", which kinda interferes with the whole clear-your-mind business. I'm figuring it's like the whole Ten-and-Two thing. They teach you in Driver's Ed. to think of the steering wheel like a clock, and to drive with your hands set on the ten and the two. We all do it during the lessons, 'cause otherwise they won't give you your stupid license, but in the real world, nobody does it. My mom, for instance, keeps her right hand on the six, and her left hand in her lap. I noticed that today. And we didn't get in some fiery crash. So, I figure, as long as you get to your destination, who the hell cares where your hands are? Or your legs, for that matter?

     I have to say, it is kinda relaxing, sitting cross-legged with your back real straight, thinking about nothing and just taking in all the sounds and smells. Wisconsin has this great smell around August like nothing I've ever smelled back in Illinois. It's like there's this contest where every tree and plant is trying to outdo each other. Kinda like walking past the saleswomen at the perfume counters of a department store: "Hello, would you like to try some Oak today?" "May I interest you in Bunches of Purple Flowers?", and stuff like that. Only the trees don't pretend to be twenty years younger than they really are, and wear eight pounds of makeup.

     It occurred to me after a few minutes that the harder you try not to think about things, the harder it is to not think. That made no sense. Okay, how's this - ? The moment you say, "I'm not going to think anymore", you get flooded with all this nonsense. But then, no matter how relaxed you seem to get, there's just no way, I'm sorry, that you can't be thinking of something. So I'm wondering if that's part of this whole meditation thing - that you get as relaxed as possible, and whatever's the most important to you at that given time is what you wind up thinking about.

     My Aunt Bridget and disembodied breasts. What the hell does that mean?

     "Are you okay?"

     I can't tell you how far that made me jump. I whacked the back of my head into the tree. I hate, absolutely hate, unexpected voices from nowhere. I wish there was some international law where everyone who was going to unexpectedly sneak up on someone else had to say "Psst" first, or they went to jail.

     I opened my eyes, and there was this skinny blonde girl with ripped blue jeans and a Badgers shirt standing about ten feet in front of me. I don't know how the hell I didn't hear her feet crunching the grass. I must be starting to master this meditating stuff.

     "Ow."

     She said "ow." Can you believe that?

     "Hi," is all I said. I couldn't really yell at her for scaring me. I mean, how did she know? And besides, she was pretty good looking.

     "What were you doing? If you don't mind me asking."

     "Meditating."

     "Oh."

     She had a look in her eyes, so I thought I should be nice and save her the embarrassment. "It's a thing people do to relax. Buddhists do it."

     "You're not Buddhist."

     "I might be."

     She lightly shook her head. "You're Roy Fleming, aren't you?"

     "Yeah. How'd you know that?"

     "I'm psychic...what's so funny?"

     I'm sorry, but I had to smile. I really wanted to ask her how she could read my mind with her clothes on, but I'm chicken, and just smiled.

     "Nothing. You're just supposed to smile after you meditate. It's like a ritual. So, how do you know me?"

     "You used to go out with Cindy Bowers. I'm in her homeroom."

     Now I wondered if I had some weird religious experience. I sit by a tree to meditate; think about Aunt Bridget who claimed she was a psychic; and think about breasts, even though the only pair, if you could call them that, were Cindy Bowers'. Then I meet someone who in one minute ties it all together. How supremely strange.

     "I'm Amy Branden. I sat behind her, you know, Bowers, Branden. I used to hear her talk about you. I saw you in the hall last week of school. Your hair was shorter."

     "She talked about me? What did she say?" I was curious as hell. I really needed to know because it always struck me as odd why a girl would break-up with you just two weeks after flashing you. I wondered if it was some experiment gone awry.

     "Just stuff. Nothing major."

     "But, like what?"

     "I don't know, ahh, stuff you did, where you were going. That kinda thing."

     "Anything in particular stick in your head?"

     She took a little while to think about it, which I kinda liked, because some people wouldn't even bother to give it a second thought. She brushed back her hair and puckered her lips, like she was trying to force herself into remembering, but in the end, she shook her head. "No..." I figured admitting to your classmates that you flashed a guy maybe wasn't a big topic among girls.

     "Oh, there is one thing I remember. She said you kissed better than Art Sanders."

     "What the hell? She kissed Art Sanders?"

     "I guess she musta."

     "Yuck. That's not too depressing. I'm gonna have to make a point of finding out more about a girl's past before I go out with her."

     "Still, you should take that as a compliment."

     "I guess, but isn't it kinda the same as saying pizza tastes better than bird crap?"

     "I wouldn't know. I never kissed Art Sanders."

     "And you should take that as a compliment."

     She laughed. She had a funny laugh. Not funny like it was so hideous that it made it funny, but funny because it was a real laugh, and it made you want to laugh along with her. Only I didn't, because it would have seemed like I was laughing at my own joke, and I hate people like that, so I just smiled. Suddenly, I'd become King Smiles. I must have looked like I had a lobotomy, or something.

     So, you go to Bailey?" Boy, what an insight. I'm such a master of conversation. "I've never seen you before." Like I'm some spy, and I know everyone.

     "I don't know. This'll be my third year there. Maybe you just weren't looking."

     She laughed again. Not uproariously, or anything. Just a little one. Like a little bubble in a pop bottle. Geez, listen to me.

     "You guys aren't going out anymore, are you?"

     "Who? Cindy and me? No. We broke up like a year ago."

     "Why?"

     "I don't know. I was kinda hoping you would."

     "We weren't really friends. I just knew her from class."

     "Oh." I looked around, because at that moment, I didn't really know what else to do. It was one of those awkward moments where you really want to say something, but you can't think of anything worthwhile. I kinda caught her looking at me while I was staring off. I know because as soon as I saw her, she shifted her eyes back to the ground real sneaky-like, then smiled and licked the bottom of her lip.

     Times like this, guys could start getting poetic and not realize it until it's too late.

     "Can I try it?"

     I had no clue. None. The only thing I could think of was that maybe Cindy did tell her, and now she wanted to flash me, too. Kinda like how everyone going to Ireland has to kiss the Blarney Stone - every time you're with Roy Fleming, 'ya gotta flash him.

     I must have given her a dirty look, because she seemed a little bent out of shape.

     "What? Can you only do it alone?"

     Now I was really confused. "Do what?"

     "Meditate. What'd 'ya think?'

     "Nothing. I knew what you were talking about. I was just thinking. No, come on. So, what are you doing up here? You up for the weekend, or the summer? Here. Just sit down and cross your legs."

     She dropped to her butt like it had a hundred pounds of padding, which it didn't, believe me, and crossed her legs like I said.

     "My parents went on a cruise for a couple weeks, and then they're staying in San Diego for another week or so, and I got stuck up here with my grandparents. It's sooooo boring. About the only excitement's been some woman who freaked out and ran through town totally naked. Honest. I heard she flipped out again yesterday." She looked kind of embarrassed about saying it out loud, then made an X over her heart and raised her hand in the air like she was taking an oath in court. "What about you? The weekend?"

     "Yeah. My mom and I came up to make sure my aunt kept her clothes on."

     I can't tell you how many colors she turned, but I bet the trees were taking notes for next season.

     "Oh, god! I'm so so sorry! That's your aunt?"

     "Yeah, but don't worry about it. She's been messed up for a while."

     She didn't say anything for what seemed like a year. Seriously. Calendar pages were flying past her face.

     "I better go."

     "If it's about my aunt and what you said, don't worry. You didn't know."

     "No, it's not that."

     "She's just my aunt. My clothes are staying on. It's not genetic, or anything."

     She laughed again, which I took as a good sign.

     "No, I have to go anyway. If I'm not back in time for dinner, my grandma gets all huffy."

     "Is it dinner for just your grandparents, or does the whole area eat now? 'Cause that's when I'm supposed to be back, too."

     "The whole area. They voted on it last year."

     Even I had to laugh at that one. "I don't know how long we're staying, so just in case, I guess I'll see you back in school next month."

     "Well, I'm gonna be stuck here until a week from Tuesday. Are you gonna be coming back up before then?"

     "Have no idea, but if I do, I'll look for you."

     "You have to finish teaching me how to meditate. I'm staying about two blocks from here just past the church. They're the Sawyer's."

     "I know them. I've been coming up here since I was five. I wonder why I never saw you before?"

     "I was here. Guess you just weren't looking."

     I walked with her to the street. She went right and I headed left. "See 'ya."

     "Hope so."

****************

     "How's Aunt Bridget?"

     The living room looked like a team of maids came in and worked for hours: the food was all gone, and everything else was put back into place, dusted, polished and scrubbed. The only people left that I could see were Dr. Miller, Bridget's sister-in-law Kathy, a woman who I never cared for, and my mom, who was sprawled out on the couch with her shoes off and her feet propped up on a freshly dusted table. Just looking at her answered my question. Not only did she look wiped out, but she was drinking a whiskey and water. She's strictly a wine woman. Whiskey and water was for serious occasions only.

     "Not too good, Pumpkin...I'm sorry."

     "That's okay. You can call me Pumpkin. You had a hard day. But tomorrow, it's gotta stop."

     She hummed out a tiny laugh, which was all she could do with a mouthful of whiskey and water, and then patted next to her on the couch. "Sit down."

     When I did, she set her glass on the table and hugged me. Real hard. I felt uncomfortable. Not because I was hugging my mom in semi-public, but because I didn't like the circumstances that it was happening.

     "Dr. Miller wants to observe her for a while, but, but he thinks it may be necessary to...have her go somewhere. For treatment. Where she could be...taken care of better. I feel so useless, Roy."

     "Come on, Mom. What could you do?"

     "I feel bad because I wasn't there for her."

     "What are you talking about? When? When she was running around town?"

     She took a healthy swig from her glass and swallowed real loud. "When Rick died. She couldn't handle the day-to-day crap. I should have known better."

     "How come you didn't freak out? Dad died a year before Uncle Rick did."

     She tugged at her lip like she was trying to stop was she was about to say, but the words came out anyway. "Because I had you. You helped me. You made things normal. She was all alone."

     Then she sniffed, and I knew immediately what was about to follow. I looked around the room for Kleenex, but there wasn't a box to be found. Whoever cleaned did a damn good job. Luckily, she managed to keep herself together and didn't need any.

     "Do you think we have to come up again next weekend?"

     "I'm afraid so. I'd like to just stay, but I don't think I can get all my shifts covered in time. Don't worry, you don't have to come with. You can stay by yourself. I trust you."

     Great. Now she trusts me. "No, that's okay. I'll come up with you. I, ahh, I found someone up here who goes to Bailey, if you can believe it. Besides, you shouldn't be alone. Fumblin' around for the Kleenex while you're driving and everything'll get you in an accident, and I don't want to have Gladys cooking for me the whole time you're in the hospital."

     She gave a little laugh, and then the damn broke. Tears were squirting out all over. It looked more like she was sweating than crying.

     "I love you, Pumpkin."

     "I love you, too. And remember, tomorrow, no more Pumpkin."

     I'd love to know where she got this Pumpkin thing. I don't look anything like a pumpkin. If I was any less secure about myself, I might go loony.