Thursday, October 22, 2015

That's Entertainment

    I can't recall our first TV, the one with the rounded tube in a blond, mid-century cabinet atop spindly little legs sporting faux brass socks. We may never have had such a set, actually, and I could be confusing it with the Victrola upon which Dad spun such timeless platters as Percy Faith, Lester Lanin and Drums of Passion. But I do remember the excitement and fanfare that built up around the day he brought home the modern, table-top version; a Zenith, which carried us from the grainy Nixon, Kennedy debate through the assassination, the endless, crepuscular funeral cortege and Jack Ruby's astonishing epilogue. Along the way there must have been some Alan Shepard and some Elvis, but popular apprehension concerning what television might do to our brains had convinced my parents to ban the Box altogether on weeknights.

If I were sick and home from school, a feat that might be easily achieved through the judicious application of an oral thermometer to a glass of hot water - this proscription might be eased, and I'd catch up with a bit of Dobey Gillis or Bowery Boys, but after the early morning newsreels devoted to American agriculture or industry on parade – those stentorious epics depicting massive combines rolling over amber fields of grain – there wasn't much to watch beyond test patterns until Johnny Mathis showed up after lunch to help the housewives with the ironing.

    Between Lyndon Johnson's reluctant, on-screen ascension and his withdrawal a few years later, Dad's restrictions had eased, though he never ceded control of the device, switching it on for Chet Huntley and off after Walter Cronkite. Occasionally he'd insist on a Special or Gala after the news, hosted by Judy and Bing, perhaps, and featuring Ethel Merman; nothing drove his children from the room faster than these three wrapping it up with an encore of  “Alexander's Ragtime Band”!  By that time the War was well under way and it was hard to pass by the tube without Cronkite grabbing you by the elbow and forcing you down into a chair, regardless of house policy.  Night after night, over a plate of Triscuits and Cracker Barrel, we'd watch choppers hovering above the flattened paddies, disgorging one hapless soldier after another into the maelstrom of visible tracer fire below. This prospect -  my nearly certain future, if the TV's prognostications proved correct - made me so unsettled that I rarely stayed for the somber casualty call that ended each report. My father had no stomach for footage of rude, entitled hippies, and, with the barbarians at the gates in Chicago we left home for school and nearly an entire decade elapsed – with the notable exceptions of the moon landing and impeachment hearings - before SNL got my attention. On infrequent trips home I'd find that Dad,  having finally given up regulating the box, had chosen to embrace it and had pretty much given himself over entirely to Carol Burnett, Colombo and Kojak.


     Somewhere over the last thirty years – perhaps it began with the relentless podium digressions of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, I find we've fallen once more into the void. We bought cable. When analog faded away, we went digital; we found ourselves glued to real-time wars, disasters and elections. We subscribed to pay-stations, had to get NetFlix and have burrowed into intricate dramas that take years to resolve. Where thirty minutes of a thoughtful Mr Cronkite was once enough, we subject ourselves to hours of shrieking from Matthews or O'Reilly and, in place of the comedy of Carol Burnett, sufficient to lull my father to sleep of an evening, we're transfixed by the giddy hysteria of the  fall of Republicanism and the rise of Donald Trump, the Great Charlatan.

Friday, October 2, 2015

What Can I Help You With?

    Scholarship, it may be said, has never been a defining characteristic of the males in our line. Primarily concerned with the making and spending of fortunes, at least during the century, more or less, when such fortunes were still available to them, these gentlemen were perhaps more enthusiastic about buying leather-bound, gilt-edged tomes by the pound to decorate the shelves of their smoking parlors than actually sitting down to read any of them. For my own part, few subjects took sufficient hold of my imagination in elementary school to prompt the sort of immersion that might lead toward scholarship and, in any case, the furrow leading from interest to expertise proved almost invariably too long a row to hoe. 

   Thus it became my great good fortune in college to wind up sharing a loft above the porno store on Snow street with a young painter who had already consumed so many of the world's great works that he fairly exuded scholarship from the noodle atop his jaunty beret to the tip of his long, rabbinical barb. Under his tutelage I soon found myself toting around tattered copies of Panofsky's seminal spellbinder, Meaning in the Visual Arts or Gandhi's epic page-turner The Story of My Experiments With Truth, blowing the guys who still thought it was cool to be seen with The Fountainhead or Turtle Island right out of the water. In the evenings we'd sit across the table from one another trading belly laughs over citations from Nijinsky's Diaries, Dead Souls or Canetti's, The Comedy of Vanity. As with most of the knowledge I acquired in college, literature came to me more through peer-to-peer osmosis than any syllabus or requirement of the school itself. As it turned out, I liked to read but wasn't particularly interested in the scholarship of literature; I liked to paint but was bored by the clinical scholarship of painting. Around this time I developed interests in fishing, malted beverages and Jazz. Although these subjects may appear more recreational than academic, authorities from Izaak Walton to Leonard Feather have produced enough Moroccan-bound compendiums on their every minutia to satisfy even the decorating requirements of my forefathers.

   I spent the Eighties kneeling on a brown shag rug in Brooklyn, finger poised above the pause button of the Teac, waiting for Phil Schaap to stop talking and drop the needle on Billie Holiday or Coltrane or Mingus or Bird. Schaap was a DJ on New York's preeminent Jazz station and I became a devotee from the moment I discovered him launching into an endless soliloquy on what Charlie Parker may have had for breakfast the day he joined Jay McShann in Kansas City. A decade later I 'd amassed, through relentless taping and oblique osmosis, a nearly encyclopedic education in the form, the closest thing to scholarship I may have ever attained. In those days I could tell you who was who and who wasn't, what the tune was and what tune that riff was based on. Most of this knowledge has faded away in the absence of Jazz radio and the distance I've put between myself and the bright lights and Big City; I can still name the major players, most of the time, but I find myself often stumped by what might once have seemed obvious and unforgettable.

   The other day we were working down the road and listening to Body and Soul on Pandora via Malcolm's laptop. I was thinking maybe Ben Webster..... but not quite. Certainly not the classic, not Hawk, but close. This should be an easy one, I thought, putting down the paint roller, leaning into my ladder and letting the saxophone envelop me. “Hey,” Malcolm called from the next room, breaking the spell. “Come watch this; this is unbelievable!” He was holding his new iphone 6, the laptop on the table between us, the rich, mellifluous Body and Soul filling the room. “Siri!” He said into the phone, “What tune is this?” I started to say something about how almost anybody could name that tune when Siri cut me off. “Let me listen for a moment...” she said, “Ok, I think I've got it. That's Body and Soul by Andy Sheppard!” 

   And Siri was right, of course. I've never even heard of Andy Sheppard. If Siri can do that with an obscure tenor man, she can presumably do it with a painting, a line of verse or nearly anything else we might imagine. Can there really be any future for scholarship?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

My Bad

   Around the time Suzanne began to worry that her father might be consigned to Hell simply for being a Methodist, I developed an interest in exploring those Sins available to me on the streets of New York. Having come from a long line of lapsed Presbyterians, we'd had little instruction in the avoidance of sin, so when I came upon a slide show in Sunday School devoted to the subject, it was instantly apparent that all seven sins were an integral part of life as I knew it, or wished to know it. Indeed, far from being shunned, some of these transgressions, like Gluttony, appeared to be celebrated in the rush from church to the groaning board, where a Sunday dinner of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and Dusty Millers might be washed down with magnums of Merlot and buckets of Bloody Marys before even a soupcon of the Sermon had been digested.

   It was Lust, of course, that captured our imaginations. Wrath seemed to be a familiar component of my father's character and he'd have been the first to point out that it didn't appear that I had too much to be particularly proud of at the time. I'd already noticed Sloth lounging indolently around  my periphery but had yet to fully embrace it as a lifestyle - and most of us knew a little something of Avarice and Envy - but it was Lust that appeared like a distant peak that needed scaling simply because it was there. To that end a few of my schoolmates and I might ride the bus down to the Village on Saturday morning to gawk at dissolute Beats and Folkies before wending our way on foot back uptown along Sixth and Seventh Avenues, speculating on whether this or that passing pedestrian could be a hooker, might the red light at the entrance to any random alley indicate a whore-house or whether there was any truth to the theory that a pair of sneakers slung over the power lines might secretly signify a loose woman's apartment. Always more comfortable imagining Sin than engaging in it, when one of these working girls actually approached me a few years later to offer me a date, it took a full measure of stumbling confusion and chagrin before it dawned on me that she wasn't talking about a piece of fruit.

     The epicenter of Sin in the City, Times Square, was our ultimate destination. There we could buy a bag of Borkham Riff and a corncob pipe, maybe even a warm quart of Ballentine to share in the shadows beneath the tawdry marquees advertising such things as Topless-A-Go-Go and Girls, Girls, Girls! Lacking the courage to try to get in to any of these places, we'd content ourselves with peering through the plate glass of the porno shops, studying the posters of Candy Barr and the legendary Carol Doda and discussing the convoluted carnal hi-jinx that might be on display in such films as Mondo Keyhole and Sin in the Suburbs. After a slice or two at the Papaya King we'd turn our attention to the penny arcades and spend an hour or so playing pin-ball before buying a racy flip-book or nudie neck-tie and heading back uptown.

     On one such meandering trek we passed an ancient black man pressed up against a chain-link fence in the style of the Crucifixion, legs crossed, arms outstretched, his hands clutching at the links. A roaring fire danced from a trash barrel before him and as we passed his head lolled to the side, his eyes rolled to the whites and he cried out, “ You will burn! You boys will burn in the hellfire of the Lord's damnation!” We looked away and quickened our pace, as we had learned to do at all such urban encounters with the ravers and madmen. And as this brimstone faded into the cacophony of Gotham and the chill receded from my spine I wondered ...

     How could he have known?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

What Makes the Muskrat Guard His Musk?

    At one point during the spider's relentless assault it occurred to me that my reaction might have been somewhat less than courageous. Not the massive, furry, saucer-sized monster that came clattering after me as I stumbled into his thick, ropey web strung between two gum trees in a Sydney park; in the throes of a muffley jet-lag I almost fainted dead away at that encounter. Not even the ubiquitous if somewhat less hirsute wolf spiders that occupy the corners of every window-sash in these parts, spiders that bite you in the night while you're asleep, leaving raised and itchy welts. This guy, a muscular and decidedly truculent specimen of the harmless daddy long-legs, had first caught my attention as he performed a bizarre calisthenic atop a stack of books on the coffee-table while I pondered last week's theme on “Heroism”. As far as I know I'd done nothing to cause the arachnid in question to behave this way, but after a few distracting moments watching his performance – he hunkered down in deep squat-thrusts, kicked out a couple of legs while waving improbably long antennae about in a frenzy before bouncing back up to his full height –  all the while facing off with me and looking me straight in the eye as if to say, “ You want a piece of me, Buddy?”, I did what most of us might have done; I took a deep breath and blew him off the table and into the far corner of the room.


     And that, you'd have thought, should have been the end of it. Within a moment or two my tormentor came rushing out of his corner like Rocky Balboa, made a bee-line for my armchair, scampered up the jacquard and reared back on what must have been his hind legs just in time to catch the full force of my finger-flick in what I imagine was a mouthful of bared teeth. This time he shook it off, climbed the plant stand and took up a position atop a clivia leaf a foot or so from my elbow. There he strutted about, crouched and reared, tossing a volley of threats and imprecations in my direction before climbing laboriously back down to the floor and rushing my chair again. It took him about three seconds to reach  my elbow, at which point, I confess, I got up and moved. A few steps away lay a stack of dog-towels and it was while reaching for one of these - preferring not to extend anything further of my corporeal, fleshy self towards this beast - that I was momentarily overcome by a flush of embarrassment at the realization that I was being chased around by a daddy long-legs; that I was allowing a daddy long-legs to chase me around.

  Mercifully, Suzanne had already gone to bed and there was no witness to my chagrin. The spider had crossed the back of the armchair, descended once more to the floor, climbed the couch and was scurrying towards me along the ridge of the sofa back when I let him have it with a snap of the towel. I gazed about for some sign of what had become of him, some peripheral movement in the shadows and, finding none, resumed my seat, picked up my notes and tried to give a bit more thought to Heroism. And there he came again, barreling out of the far corner at such a prodigious clip that I barely had a chance to hurl my notes in his direction, leap from the chair and douse the lights in an effort to retreat to the bedroom under cover of darkness. Finally reaching the safety of my bed, I crawled between the sheets and lay there in silence, trying to make sense of what had just transpired. “Oh look,” Suzanne said, brushing at the coverlet with one hand while reaching for the light, “a daddy long-legs!”

      Years ago I tried out for a role in our community's summer production of The Wizard of Oz. I had no particular expectation regarding my place in the cast, but certainly hoped to get one of the better parts. I  remember starting in on “If I Only Had the Nerve” for my audition - most of the other kids opted for “Good Morning Starshine”, a dreadful number from a current Broadway hit, and I thought I might get a leg-up with a tune from the show itself. Before I'd gotten through the first verse the director, a man imported for the task from another state, a man whom I'd never even met, rose from his seat and, waving his arms, shouted, “Stop! Stop the music. We've found our Cowardly Lion!” And, beckoning me down from the stage, he added, “ You're in, Kid! You're our Lion....You're a natural!” Of course, I was flattered and never paused to reflect on what this stranger might have seen in me, what hidden mastery might have clinched the deal so quickly. Nor did it occur to me during the curtain calls and ovations, the stream of adults pausing to compliment me or suggest -  for decades thereafter -  how perfect the casting had been, that I might have revealed anything of myself other than my prowess as an actor. Indeed, it wasn't until last week, laying in the dark of the bedroom, my mind alive with  arachnoid possibilities that the lyric came flooding back.... “Whatta they got that I ain't got?”


Friday, August 28, 2015

Unsafe at Any Speed


Most days we'd ride our bikes the few miles down the road to Johnny Machado's house as there were few other places to go within striking distance and Johnny, a couple of critical years older, was always up to something. Past the relentless, summer-roasted carnage of bloated possum roadkill and flattened corn-snakes pressed into the blistering blacktop, past the German Shepherd at the corner of the Shun Pike who had himself managed to avoid this fate despite a ravenous appetite for fleeting fenders and children on bicycles. Finally, we'd put on extra speed to race past the endless stretch of pasture where Billy Hitchcock experimented with raising emaciated cattle on a diet of factory-second Snickers Bars and Lucky Charms, closing our noses to the stench, risking a mouthful of bluebottles, or just clamping down and holding our breath for the last few hundred yards. In a year or so, Billy Hitchcock would invite Timothy Leary to come live at the estate, which would open an entirely new realm of possibilities for us, but for now, and until the epic, Biafran swarms of blow flies drove the Machados to greener pastures, we were content to while away the long afternoons watching skinny, spavined steers in back-lit silhouette tip over and die from starvation and neglect.

Johnny had a Corvair and a girlfriend, donned the first bandana and enjoyed the admiration of most of the kids we knew. As the Leary era took hold it was Johnny who organized unsuccessful infiltrations onto the grounds in search of Roger McGuinn, Jim Morrison or the host of other demigods and culture heroes rumored to be living there. Legend has it he actually made it in himself at least once, spending a night chewing blotter with the Byrds, and we soon gave up gawking at cows to hang around the Hitchcock gate-house where such celebrities might be shaken down in passing by the local constabulary – or Pigs, as we'd come to call them – and frequent, dramatic raids were staged by a man named G.Gordon Liddy, an assistant DA who would later become known more broadly for his own transgressions.

The night that Johnny's status rose from mere approbation to flirt with the heroic was a Friday, the start of a three-day party he'd organized while his parents were in Puerto Rico.  Muffin was coming in on the Trailways, so we piled into the Fairlane wagon sometime after dark and headed in to town to pick him up. In those days the bus stopped at the Millbrook Diner and, as Johnny lurched to a sloppy stop before the plate-glass window, stumbled out and set his wine glass on the roof, I may have been the only one among us sober enough to notice the row of  Sheriff's Deputies and Staties seated at the counter who swiveled in unison to gaze in awe at our arrival. Stuffing Muffin and his bedroll in the back we set off down the deserted street, weaving in and out beneath the lamplights as the main drag gave way to a pitch-black country road.

The strobes and sirens caught up with us within a half a mile and, in the giddy confusion of our revelry, it took Johnny a few hundred yards and the deployment of the cruiser's loudspeaker to finally pull over and come to a stop. I'm not sure what substances beyond Cold Duck and Mateus were on board, but under the glare of his high-beams a half a dozen of us emerged like Bozos from the clown car to be baton-prodded and poked into position along the flanks and hood of the Fairlane. Few of us had identification - my junior membership card from The Museum of Modern Art seemed to provoke rather than mollify the cop – and, after warning us all not to move a muscle, the deputy searched the car and gave the rest of us a cursory pat-down before turning his full attention to Johnny.

While we sat, despairing, in the wagon, the cop grabbed Johnny by the collar of his one-piece, Army-surplus flight suit and threw him, spread-eagle, across the hood before us. Gripping him from behind in an awkward bear-hug, he then began the process of thrusting his hands into each of the suit's many flaps and pockets, starting at the epaulets and working his way down. We could hear Johnny trying to warn him about something, but the cop just told him to shut up and kept working his way, roughly and with prejudice, down the torso to the two, zippered side pockets at Johnny's waist. These, it seems, were not pockets at all, but openings designed to allow access to one's trouser pockets, assuming one was wearing trousers which, sadly, Johnny was not. With one last, dramatic flourish and thrust, the cop had plunged both hands up to the forearms into Johnny's unswaddled loins, resulting in an horrific dance under the headlights as the two of them, locked together, prodigious belly to back, careened about the road shoulder, snorting and howling like a pair of mating beasts.

Eventually uncoupled, the cop, red-faced, chagrined and furious, slapped the cuffs on Johnny Machado and threw him in the back of the cruiser, instructing Muffin, the only other one with a driver's license, to proceed ahead with the rest of us back to town. There we waited in the courtroom while the sole village judge was awoken from his slumber to arraign Johnny on charges of driving under the influence and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. “I imagine I'll be speaking with your father about this, Johnny.” Said the judge. “ I imagine I'll be speaking with him, too.” Replied Johnny, flashing us that wonderful, indomitable grin.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


         About a week after I began stealing chocolate Easter-eggs at the Five and Dime on Lexington they sprung their trap and nailed me. I'd been stopping by every afternoon on my walk home from the bus-stop and thought I'd had the con pretty well in hand; moseying down the Easter aisle with my book-bag open, assuming a casual air of innocence and indifference while idly sweeping the colorful bags of chocolates into the gaping satchel with all the apathy of a midnight croupier raking in the chips. I'm not sure why I wasted my larcenous adventures on something so petty and pointless as these generic, waxy candies, but, like the magpie, I was compelled as much by the colorful foil as the imitation chocolate flavor and found them irresistible and addictive. Having taken my limit, I'd saunter through Toys and Stationary just for the effect, pausing to consider a fountain pen or model airplane on my way back to the front of the store. Confident I'd gone undetected, I stepped out that afternoon into the crushing horde emerging from the Bloomingdale's subway stop and let the massive flow carry me upstream.

   Within a dozen yards my progress was impeded by a man in janitorial gray, arms folded across his chest, who seemed determined to bar my way. I feinted right, then left, to no avail. Finally I looked up, past the muscled forearms, past the red-stitched pocket patch that read “Manny”, to a swarthy, scowling face and the first indication that something in my plan may just have gone awry. “Whatcha got in that bag, kid?” Manny barked, grabbing the brief-case and wrenching it open. My stomach rose in my throat, my ears began to ring and a cold sweat broke across my forehead. My first thought, of course, was to play dumb and, by way of diversion I trotted out a meaningless melange of the French and Latin they'd just started us on in that fourth-grade year at school. “Pardon?” I asked. “Quo vadis?” If I'd imagined that dealing with this foreign boy might prove too complex for Manny, my hopes were quickly dashed as he demanded, “You got a receipt for that?” Pedestrians had begun to collect; a bit of gawking had commenced around this tiny, urban drama. I looked back down at the sidewalk, casting about for an answer. “I ... threw it away?” I ventured, indicating the trash-can some twenty feet behind us that we both knew I'd never gotten close to. Manny grabbed my elbow, “You're coming with me.” He said, dragging me through the parting crowd and back into the store.

   “We've been watching you all week.” The manager told me. I sat in the hard wooden chair next to the desk he'd emptied my loot out on to. I needed to pee; my mouth was dry, my legs had lost all feeling. “What's your name, Slick?” Nothing came to mind; I drew a blank. Suddenly recalling the marquee of the movie house up the block on Third, I blurted out triumphantly, “Tom Jones!”  in what would become the first alias in a cat-and-mouse game that would go on between us for the next hour or more. I'm not sure what I expected when he lifted the phone, dialed the bogus number I'd given and said, “Good evening. Am I speaking with Mrs. Jones?” Suffice to say, though, that just coming upon that first handy moniker opened the creative floodgates and there followed a veritable who's-who of random surnames stretching from the obvious, Smith, through such paragons of popular culture as Don Knotts, Fess Parker and even Johnny Mathis. It's entirely possible that this man had never heard of any of these people, as he dutifully dialed each of the fabricated phone numbers I offered before finally losing his cool. “You think this is funny? You think this is a game, wise-ass? This is your last chance; you give me your real name and number or I'm calling the cops and you're going downtown!” I didn't believe him. I took one last stab at it, as if I thought I could wear him down through attrition. It was nearly five; they'd have to close up soon and let me go. “ Tom Jones.” I said again. He called the cops.

   The squad car showed up with siren blaring and lights flashing. In the time it took the patrolmen to reach the office at the back of the store I'd panicked, of course, and spilled the beans. They put the cuffs on and one of them led me out through the gauntlet of lingering customers and sympathetic shop-girls in powder blue smocks who cooed and simpered solicitously at this poor child's rough treatment. I sat in the back of the car as the nausea set in. “Now you've done it, kid; we gotta take you downtown.” The cop said while we waited for his partner. And they did take me downtown, for about ten terrifying blocks before turning east, circling back uptown and pulling to a stop in front of our house. My mother was waiting at the door. “Just you wait until your father gets home!” She said.

    Years later, in the midst of a raging winter storm on a night I'd have been well advised to spend at home, I found myself trudging up College Hill to catch a glimpse of a former girlfriend who was passing through town with the boyfriend from back home. He and I had never met and, in the delirium induced by unrequited love, I'd convinced myself that it would be perfectly reasonable to show up, assume an alias and share a few beers. By the time I'd reached Brown Street the snow was waist deep and I presented myself, exhausted, drenched in sweat and caked in ice at the apartment where they were staying. If her girlfriends were surprised to see me in their foyer, they stifled their horror long enough to lead me to the kitchen where a shocked and speechless Jenny rose stammering from the table, struggling in a futile effort to come up with something to say by way of an introduction to her boyfriend. “Oh, my,” she choked. “This...This is...I'd like you to meet...”

    “Tom Jones.” I offered, extending a hand towards my rival. It was the first thing that popped into my head and, were it not for the sudden uncomfortable hush, the wide eyes and ashen complexions of the girls now backed up in confusion against the kitchen walls, I might have pulled it off. As it was, we managed maybe ten minutes worth of small talk before Jenny and her man left the room to engage in a heated discussion around this sudden turn of events. I opted for the kitchen window, crawling out onto the fire escape, sliding down the icy ladder and hanging there - buffeted by the strobes and rotor wash of the choppers landing the 10th Mountain Division on the Hope High football field -  before dropping into the soft, frigid drifts of the Blizzard of '78.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Miccosukee Moon


         When Danny Sylvester lay bleeding out in the rust-red dust of that Miccosukee trailer park, we have no way of knowing whether or not he was aware of the twenty-seven million dollars Uncle Walter had in mind to leave him in his will. None of the rest of us had any inkling that Uncle Walter had that kind of money, but he had taken the boy, the foreman's son, under his dubious wing years earlier, so maybe Danny knew. Nor can we imagine what Mr Sylvester thought about handing his son over to an eccentric old bachelor farmer who'd had no experience raising anything but eyebrows until he started growing watermelons on the Florida Panhandle in the late Fifties. Walter sent Danny to school, took him along on annual voyages to Europe and the world beyond aboard the Cunard line, showered him with expensive gifts and generally treated him as the son he'd never had; or so we'd like to think. What darker impulses and stifled yearnings may have motivated this lonely soul I can't say, but he had a dozen nieces and nephews whom he hardly knew.

   Danny was about my brother's age and we'd see him and some of the kids from the other farm families when we took the Silver Meteor down to Thomasville to spend Christmas at our Grandmother's place nearby. There were often presents under the tree for these kids, too, and one year – I might have been eight years old – I grabbed at a pair of shiny, chrome six-shooters with pearly, plastic handles, holstered on a Naugahyde cartridge belt and hanging like an ornament from a low bough of the massive tree. I was sure they were for me and I'd been craving them ever since I peeked in through the living-room doors well before dawn. Uncle Walter quickly intervened; setting down a tumbler of breakfast bourbon, he handed the cap-guns off to Danny and a box-set of The Jungle Books to me. And that might have been the last time I saw or gave much thought to Danny Sylvester until the night I heard he'd been killed.

   Whatever effect Walter's attentions and influence may have had on Danny over the years, they didn't prevent him from marrying, and it was for the purpose of collecting his wife from the arms of another man that he set out for the trailer park that fateful night. I picture him in his kitchen, drinking, enraged, stumbling about in search of his pistol, about to go off half-cocked. Was Uncle Walter there with him, trying to talk Danny down? Did he reach for the car keys or the gun in a futile attempt to stop this madness before things went too far? In the event, they arrived together and I imagine poor Uncle Walter grasping at Danny's arm or shirttails, beseeching him to stop as he broke free and ran up the cinder-block stoop to hammer sobs and threats out into the sticky night upon the rusty, metal door. We've all seen the movie; this can't end well. A man came to the door, I've heard; there was a fight down in the scabrous yard and Danny was shot to death in the desiccated dirt beneath the Spanish moss. I'd like to think he died in Walter's arms, the same embrace my uncle might have spent so many years yearning to enfold his Danny in.

   The last time I saw Uncle Walter – indeed, one of the few times I'd ever seen him - was at my wedding. Why he decided to come all the way to Maine for this event, to celebrate the marriage of a nephew he'd never known,  might have had more to do with saying goodbye to my mother and aunt, his two half sisters, at what he knew to be the last leg of his life than any fondness for me. He gave us a curious little enameled wire candle holder as a wedding present, a sort of crown of thorns; he gave me a Norelco shaver as a groom's gift. We knew nothing of his fortune on that day. Some years later, a few weeks after Mom had said he'd died, someone dressed in Jackass pants, clutching a cocktail, approached me at some event and shrieked, “ Was that your Grandfather who just left all that money to that school?”

   “My uncle,” I muttered, brushing flecks of crabmeat spittle and endive from my shirtfront. “ What money? What school?” And that's the first I'd heard of it. In fact, the patrons and alumni of Westminster School knew all about Uncle Walter's generous endowment before anyone in the family even knew he'd died. He might have left us each a million dollars and still been able to leave the single greatest gift in history to a private, secondary school. A school, it turned out, he'd spent only one year at, a post-graduate year, no less, in 1935. Bereft of Danny Sylvester and not wanting to corrupt his extended family with an embarrassment of riches, some have speculated that Walter left his fortune to this place with the understanding that buildings and arenas might be built to bear his name, a legacy he craved but could not achieve in the shadow of his powerful father, a politician and statesman, a man of consequence. Many months later, my brother, who was Uncle Walter's godson, received a check from the estate for the improbable sum of two hundred and fifty dollars; his assessment may be closer to the mark. It is my brother's contention that it was during that glorious Spring of 1935 that our Uncle Walter, however fleetingly, discovered and acted upon his stifled sexuality.

   Whatever the case, he must have been unrivaled in the world of watermelons.


Wednesday, July 8, 2015



         Of course it fell to me to be the scaredy-cat. When it comes to the sort of inspired diversion and questionable judgment that helped fend off the ennui of endless summers, I'll admit it; I was a follower, not a leader. Absconding with some besotted grandee's Lincoln for an adolescent joy-ride, burgling the local country-store for warm Schlitz and Fluff or pulling traps and poaching chicken-lobsters never really seemed like a smart move at the time, and the frisson of danger and jeopardy inherent in these bright ideas left me more nauseous than exhilarated. Blowing urinals off the wall with M-80's at Camp was certainly a thrill – more for the mystery of the homespun engineering, in my case, than any pleasure or satisfaction in wanton destruction - but Russian roulette, clutching simmering fireworks or igniting anything more substantial than a pile of driftwood in a sand-pit on the beach never appealed.

   If an often cautious and somewhat less enthusiastic follower, I went along in any case, as the scorn of my peers seemed a greater retribution than any consequence my nascent imagination could convey. Before we had access to cars or boats - or soft and summery, nut-brown girls to impress - there were thrills, for some, afforded by such double-dares as shoplifting, choking on gin and purloined Pall Malls or running away from home. I was a timid and remorseful thief, pocketing the occasional lurid comic-book or Chunky while some accomplished peculator distracted the harried clerk with inquiries about  Prince Albert in a can. I gagged on smoldering corn silk, regurgitated strange brews concocted from abandoned cocktails in bottles of O-So-Grape and dutifully followed my brother or cousin as we snuck away at dusk with bandanas strung on sticks, stuffed with powdered KoolAid, band-aids and stale bread, stifling the urge to ask when we'd turn home.

    Richard had the first car, the first boat and enough charisma to convince us that it would be a great idea to head out to Seguin and spend the night swilling a wine-jug full of plundered spirits, carelessly blended, in the old Coast Guard boat-house at the foot of the island's rickety, rope and plank gantry that spanned the deep abyss between the shore and the lighthouse high above. We loaded sleeping bags, an enameled, dented pot and potato chips up under the nose of the Kaiulani and headed east in the growing dusk, around the Point and into the rising, wet chop of the open ocean.  After a while, when the mainland had diminished in scale so that the lights coming on along the shore seemed no larger than the emerging stars above, Richard pulled alongside a buoy and called for us to help him haul. I'd heard you could be shot on sight for this and scanned the empty horizons before halfheartedly joining in. An hour or so later we cut the engine and rode the swells silently in to the island's tiny harbor.

    By the time we'd gathered wood, built a small fire in the rocks and drowned the lobsters in a pot of tepid seawater, we'd managed to choke back nearly half the bilious jug and it was only a matter of another hour or so, during which someone upended the fetid gurry atop the sleeping bags, before Richard suggested we climb the terrifying catwalk in order to party with the Coast Guard. Even a bellyful of bad booze couldn't convince me that this was a good idea, but I stumbled out and brought up the rear, afraid to go, reluctant to stay behind. The span was made of rope and planks, laced along braided, wire cable and looked more like something out of Lost Horizon than anything you'd expect to find within the purview of the Coast Guard. My buzz was dead within a dozen yards, and watching John and Richard swaying, giggling and dropping occasionally to the rickety slats ahead did little by way of encouragement. At some point, clutching the rope railing with both hands, inching along above the pine-tops, it made no sense to turn back, and, forging reluctantly ahead, I reached the summit at last only to be caught in the tight embrace of a livid petty-officer and escorted, bodily, to the concrete bunker at the base of the flagpole. There I found Richard and John, slathered in lobster goo, engaged in a futile effort to convince our hosts of their sobriety while rolling about in mirthful hilarity beneath the Stars and Stripes.

     And there we sat for the rest of the night under the watchful glare of a guardsman who might have been in bed himself had we not shown up. Forbidden to move a muscle until we could prove to him an ability to negotiate even the flagstone walkway to the bridge, one or another of us would, at random intervals, rise up and make an earnest effort at this fiction, only to trip on something real or imagined and go down like a sack of rocks before so much as a word could be uttered. It was Richard, of course, who finally pulled it off at dawn and led the way back down. Abandoning the jug, the putrid sleeping bags and the nasty slick of shell bits, feelers and tomalley on the boat house floor, we climbed aboard the boat at first light and were tucked abed, sober, exhausted and none the wiser before the sun had risen above Seguin.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Round Trip Ticket


    My first real brush with the concept of the transmigration of souls came one evening in May, four hundred miles from Moose Jaw, four hundred from Duluth, and not too far from where my Grandfather's dreams of solvency were scattered as chaff before the winds of the great Canadian prairie. He'd come out to raise a little wheat for the dough-boys and lived in a rude, plank shack the size of your bathroom while waiting for the Trans-Canadian railroad to swing by and make him rich. Jack's failure as a farmer is relentlessly, painstakingly detailed in the nearly daily letters he wrote his fiance, Grace, in Duluth and the railroad missed him by a hundred miles.

   We were there, stretching out our sleeping bags in the grassy culvert that separated the highway from the tracks, after a long and numbing drive through Saskatchewan during which the only event of note was the transit of the sun from an exhausting, steady glare before my eyes to the lowering, red glow in the rear view mirror. The only distraction was my mental image of a gaunt young man in overalls and chaps and the realization of how little this place had changed in the six decades since Grandaddy had thrown in the towel. 

   “ It's after six.” I said, swatting at the mosquitoes that had begun to mass around us.“ There won't be any more trains tonight. We'll be fine here.” Nina reached out and grabbed my flailing hand. “Don't do that!” She said. “Don't kill the mosquitoes! My Perfect Master teaches that if you kill a creature you may return in your next life as that creature.” Too late. I looked at the macerated smudge of insect in my palm; I thought of all the mosquitoes my Grandfather might have swatted: the midges, gnats and biting flies he'd curried off his lame, exhausted horse and the dying oxen borrowed from a neighbor. Indeed, we were heading for the coast of Maine, where I now pictured generations of swarming cousins, aunts and uncles in an endless cycle of metempsychotic, fly-swatting ancestry stretching back for millennia and as far into the future as good breeding would allow. My mother had always warned me not to kill a spider lest it rain – and to this day I consider the forecast before doing so – but she'd not said much about the spiritual predilections of lovely girls in peasant blouses, and, although I'd suspected Nina's were a potent cocktail of third-eyes and chakras liberally seasoned with random bits of the Hindu, the Buddhist, and the Zoroastrian, this was the first instance in our two months together that had given me serious pause. As Nina assumed her padmasana, intoning her personal mantra within a cloud of ravenous mozzies, I zipped myself into the bag, gradually slid to the bottom of the culvert and slept the sleep of the dead.

   At three o'clock the world exploded as an endless string of boxcars hurtled past and I found myself naked and de-bagged, kneeling on the gravel berm, shrieking in sympathetic harmony with my arms wrapped round my ears. How I got there was a mystery; my soul –  my whole corpuscular self – may have just as reasonably migrated toward that hurtling train as away from it. Without so much as a bend in the tracks or the slightest of hummocks between Banff and Montreal, the engineer hadn't applied the brakes since Regina and it was only through the Grace of God, Rajneesh or Ram Dass that the two of us survived.

   Scatterings of wee red squirrels and chipmunks have been darting, lemming-like, across the roads up here of late. They blow over the blacktop like leaves, darting about in a frozen pose of indecision just ahead of the oncoming cars. I only see them for an instant, as the dogs do, gnashing and foaming at the windows in furious cacophony as I wrest the wheel about in risky bits of over-compensation. Sometimes I see them in the rear-view, visibly stunned for a moment before continuing their joyful scamper to the other side. Sometimes I don't. The dogs know little of reincarnation, I suspect, and would likely disagree, but Nina would know that there are worse things to return as than the chipmunk.