Editor’s note: For those of you who know I recently returned from a trip to Rome, I can neither confirm nor deny that any version of these events actually happened. I can confirm that this story is, in the end, fiction. I wrote this piece specifically with McSweeney’s Internet Tendency in mind, and although it was rejected, the editor did take the time to kindly wish my day be passed in the comfort of shorts.
Original sin is located somewhere in the kneecap. This seems to be the official position of the Vatican. At least, that’s the only logical conclusion I can reach after the Pope made me wear pants. The Pope made me wear pants, which means he’s the one to blame for that pool of purple puke in the hall of the Hotel Primus Roma. Send the cleaning bill to 1 Vatican City c/o Papa Francesco.
Pope Francis may be a reformer, but he’s not taking a sledgehammer to the foundational belief of the Church: discomfort = spiritual okey dokeyness. Why else would I have to wear pants just to enter St. Peter’s Basilica when it’s 90 outside and not even a wisp of a Frenchman’s cigarette smoke in the sapphire sky? Millions of exposed kneecaps in San Pietro’s crib might be akin to Satan and his minions assaulting Heaven’s Gate, but I’ve never been closer to the devil’s door than standing crotch-soaked in ball sweat for two hours under the Roman sun waiting to get in to the home of the Holy See.
I admit, the Pope didn’t force me to wear skinny jeans that were up my ass like Kim Kardashian bikini bottoms, limiting any movement to itty bitty steps like a Japanese maiko in platformed okobo, but I have to think it was the Catholic spirit that drove me to choose corporal mortification by diaper rash.
I can sense your lack of sympathy, but consider the consequences of the Vatican’s medieval modesty. If Il Papa hadn’t made me wear pants, I wouldn’t have broken my wrist because I would have had the crotchal flexibility to clear that fence barricading us from the cool stuff in the Roman Forum. I wouldn’t have been forced to eat at the shady late night spot with the tainted prosciutto because all the reputable places were closed after I got out of the hospital or had two liters of red table wine because it was only €14 instead of the €30 it would have cost at a typical tourist trap. It wouldn’t have mattered that the bathroom window in my room at the discount hotel was stuck open or that the window had no screen or that pterodactyl-sized mosquitos were streaming in through the opening or that I closed the bathroom door to keep them from infecting me with Italian herpes or that the doorknob was broken and wouldn’t turn to open the door to the bathroom or that, when I panicked because I couldn’t get to the toilet when the food poisoning struck in the middle of the night, I ran naked into the hallway to eject the aforementioned two liters of wine plus about a cubic meter of spaghetti noodles across the white tile floor like a curling stone gliding over ice.
The night desk guy told me in broken English that he watched the whole thing on video and thought I was throwing up blood because I was possessed by a demon. He was wearing a rosary from the St. Peter’s gift shop. I wasn’t listening to him, not that closely, really, because I was still wearing the briefs into which I had heftily sharted in observation of Newton’s Third Law mandating an equal and opposite reaction to my projectile vomitus. My briefs smelled of the devil’s handiwork, not spiritual cleansing.
The Pope made me wear pants. And there were consequences.
Editor’s note: On the heels of finishing my manuscript for Happy Jack, I probably should have started submitting it to agents to get the long and arduous (and possibly painfully futile) process of getting it published rolling. But then I got the itch to write another novel. Right on top of one I just finished. My first experience finishing a novel, I didn’t want to think about writing for months, so I figured I might ought to use my surprise writing juices while they were still flowing. The result is a 120,000-word first draft of a novel tentatively titled The Dream Trip. Here’s how it happened: I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty right after finishing Happy Jack and thought, hey, I want to write a feel-good travel adventure story. Carrie and I also took a road trip across the ole U.S. of A. last summer so the feeling of it was still fresh and ripe for some appropriation into my writing. Needing more than just “people on a road trip,” I quickly drifted into making the story of Art and Amelia thematically about America’s cultural comeback, then somehow ended up with a magnum opus for the Millennial generation (I do love me some Millennials). We’ll see how it turns out. I’ve got a lot of revision to do. But here is the opening chapter of The Dream Trip.
Chapter 1 – A Month Ago
“How long has this been going on?”
Art’s coworkers had decided to send for help. Naturally, they went to the head of Human Resources. Vicki Thorpe is not a psychologist or a life counselor. She’s not even first aid certified. But in the face of a potential medical emergency, Art’s boss went to Vicki because A) it was the lowest risk course of action and B) major corporations are where very smart people go to become very stupid.
“No one knows,” Tom said. “Nobody remembers him saying a word this morning, but that’s normal. After a while, we just thought he was giving us the silent treatment.”
“So he hasn’t said a word all day?”
“Nope. None of us remember seeing him move, either. Alice balled up a piece of paper and hit him in the eye earlier. He didn’t even flinch.”
“You shouldn’t waste paper,” Vicki said. “It’s a cost center.”
It was 3 p.m. At 8:56 a.m., Art marched in to work without a word, sat down, turned on his computer and commenced to stare at the screen with his hands folded in his lap. Motionless silence since. As he was leaving the house that morning, Amelia announced to him that after nine-plus years of marriage, she was leaving him. He hesitated a moment, then responded “Love you, bye” like he did every morning. He picked his briefcase up from next to the umbrella stand, walked out the door, put the key in the ignition, and drove the concrete expanse of U.S. Route 1 to the corporate headquarters of Lynx Pharmaceutical in Princeton Junction, New Jersey. Art was not aware that Amelia’s five words (“I’m leaving you. I’m sorry.”) triggered a panic attack that had been ongoing from the moment his mind processed them.
“Art. You there buddy?” Vicki snapped her fingers in front of his face. He didn’t even blink. He stared at the little screen saver picture of Amelia hugging him on the Seaside Heights boardwalk the summer before Sandy destroyed it. It bounced around the edges of his computer like the ball in a game of Pong. The rest of the world was black, a void. His remaining senses were tuned in to his heart. It was beating so fast, but it had also started skipping beats. It had been working at over 100 beats per minute for nearly seven hours, well above Art’s normal resting heart rate. To borrow a phrase: he was freaking out, man. Slight trembling and droplets of sweat on his brow were the only signs on the outside. Inside was much worse. His chest felt tight. He felt like his throat had almost closed up. Then, the picture of him and Amelia became fuzzy as he felt something for the first time all day.
“Art, snap out of it. Come on. You’re scaring everyone.” Vicki shook his shoulder, gently for a moment before really rattling his cage with the full force of her doughy, overweight, white collar body. Her skin smelled like 1988.
“Maybe we should call a doctor, Vicki.”
“This might be serious.”
“He looks pale. He might be having a stroke or something.”
“See, Art, you’re scaring everyone,” Vicki said. “You’re not being a good teammate.”
Art turned his head and stared directly into Vicki’s dull grey eyes.
“There you go. Now what’s this all about, Art?”
“I can’t breathe,” Art said. “I can’t breathe.”
He kicked out of his chair, knocking Vicki and another coworker crowding his chair aside. He ripped off his Q*bert 3D pyramid tie then tore open his Pierre Cardin business shirt from T.J.Maxx, launching cheap plastic buttons that plinked across his neighbors’ desks. He wasn’t wearing an undershirt and his hairy gut wobbled over his belt. Quite a crowd had gathered at this point. The more courteous now had the decency to avert their eyes. But for every one of those, four new gawkers would happen to stroll by to watch the train wreck unfold. They stared at him like an animal in the zoo.
Art started making a noise. A horrible noise. Not a scream or a cry or a whimper. Something long and low and pathetic. Pathetic in action as a verb. He patheticed a terrible, mournful noise.
Art swirled around, not looking at anyone, but looking for something. He saw the plastic five-foot-tall palmetto that had been stationed behind his cubicle since the day he started at Lynx Pharmaceutical almost eight years ago. He grabbed it, pulled it to his soft, pale chest. He clung to it as he started to climb onto his desk, but the pot was too heavy. Art alternated trying to get himself and the tree on top of the desk, but failed either way. On each attempt, his belly fat formed a long line across his stomach in the shape of a smile. His two nipples were like large pink eyes. The smiley face beamed at the onlookers, letting them know everything was OK. Tom was so embarrassed for Art, he stepped forward to help him lift the plastic palmetto onto the desk.
“Tom, please. Don’t. That’s not helping,” Vicki said.
Art still couldn’t hear anything. He sat down on the large pot on top of the desk, wrapped his legs around the synthetic trunk and wet himself. Pissed long and hard as he patheticed that terrible, mournful noise again.
Editor’s Note: The following is a selection from my mostly completed (they’re never really done until and unless they’re published) manuscript, HAPPY JACK. It features the title character doing what he does best – making people happy.
In almost no time at all, rumors of the miracle worker on Dauphine Street spread throughout New Orleans. Within two months, people were lining up around the corner of Esplanade Avenue waiting to see Jack Hazelwood and Dr. Claudius Beauregard Archambeau – the men who sold happiness like a commodity in the Hazelwood & Archambeau Holistic Wellness Clinic.
Especially after Bastille Day, the day of Red’s Revival.
By July 14, 2010, Red Armstrong was mostly know as a harmless beggar who frequented the outskirts of the French Quarter by day and lingered outside the doors of Bourbon Street clubs by night listening to the Big Easy’s new wave of ragtime bands. To the younger generation, he was a nameless face. But to the old timers, he was a fallen star, another resident of Katrinatown.
Red was once considered the greatest trumpet player to come out of New Orleans since Louis Armstrong, who, coincidentally, local legend had it was Red’s illegitimate father. There is no sound evidence Louis Armstrong fathered Red, although there is evidence Red legally changed his last name from Oliver in 1956. None of that matters to those familiar with the New Orleans jazz scene. They say the way Red played his trumpet was as all the evidence they needed to prove he was the true heir to Louis’ talent.
But Red lost everything in Katrina – his house, his popular jazz club in Tremé, and most importantly the trumpet he claimed Louis gave to him as a boy. When that was gone, people said he just stopped playing. He lost the will to play and he lost his wits. No one could remember which got lost first, but folks had enough of their own problems after Katrina that no one had it in them to stop his free fall.
By the time Jack came around, those who still knew who he was thought he was too far gone to save, this man who spent all his days mumbling broken lyrics to Louis Armstrong hits. Those who didn’t know him didn’t care in the first place.
Except for Jack, who caught a glimpse of Red walking by on the Dauphine Street banquett in front of the clinic. The lines were shorter then, but the waiting room was still full. Jack asked Dr. Archambeau if they could take a break so he could help the man, who he didn’t know from any other old hobo in tattered whisky-stained rags.
The doctor said they didn’t have time for charity cases, but Jack insisted the man was worth helping. He was sure Dr. Archambeau would like what happened if he did.
The doctor was intrigued enough by the offer to let Jack bring him in. The people in the crowded waiting room, however, were not amused. Most of the already unhappy assembly griped and complained about getting skipped by a bum. A couple patients recognized Red and told Jack not to waste his time, there was no use bothering over the old coot. Jack begged forgiveness and promised everyone it would be worth their while. Worth it for the whole city.
One of those waiting room patients was Demetrius Applewood, an up-and-coming clarinet player from Red’s home neighborhood of Tremé. Applewood was in the clinic that day because he was struggling to make it as a musician and was looking for a way out of some trouble he had gotten himself into trying his hand as a small time drug peddler. The story of Jack and Red is one I might have never known if Applewood hadn’t overheard me interviewing other former clinic patients at his new restaurant and live music venue on Spain Street, just north of the French Quarter. He sat down, measured me with a few questions, then said any friend of Jack’s was a friend of his. That he owed everything he had to Jack.
Demetrious Applewood, former patient; proprietor, Who Dat Soul
I saw Jack messin’ around over Red and thought this man crazier than we is. How am I supposed to get help from a dude who don’t know the difference of troubled mind from lost-his-mind? I be seein’ Red on the corners back then, just talkin’ nonsense. But there was always somethin’ a little off with that dude. I used to sneak into his club in Tremé back when I was a kid and he’d dedicate every set to his Pops, Louis Armstrong. I’d be like, old man, nobody believe all that mess. Not even ya own damn band.
What I’m sayin’ is Red, he was pretty unmoved ‘bout this whole episode at that point. He just hummin’ along while Jack drag him into the clinic. The whole time Jack pleading with us and Dr. Archambeau to hear him out, Red mumblin’ old Satchmo, same as he always did. Sound like: ‘I see trees of green, red roses too … two left feet, oh so neat, has Sweet Georgia Brown … oh when you smilin’, when you smilin’ … they all sigh and want to die for Sweet Georgia Brown … and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.’
Anyways, Jack tell Dr. Archambeau he need about a thousand dollars. Dr. Archambeau don’t like this none too well and he lookin’ around at us in the wait room shifty as hell because he don’t want all these fools knowin’ he keep all that money up in there. But, sho’ as I own that seat you parked on, he go off in the back and come back with a cool stack of Benjamins. Jack don’t hesitate. He run out the door and come back 10 minutes later with a classic Besson trumpet and a starter drum kit. You ax me, he got a fine deal on that brass. Just as good as stole it for $800, but you know how it was tough times and all back then. Them drums weren’t worth a handful of beads, though, so I guess the pawn shop got him there.
Dr. Archambeau, he say, ‘Jack, you wanna take this back into the treatment room,’ and Jack say, ‘Naw bawse. These people need to see the show they been waitin’ fo’.’
Jack sit down and start bangin’ on them drums, and I think, damn, boy can do some work with them sticks. Shit, I might pay just to come jam with this brother. That’d surely have my step feelin’ light again. He’s layin’ down the dirtiest old ragtime drum line you ever heard and people in the room start bobbin’ they heads, you know, gettin’ into it a little bit. To the point we don’t even see ole Red step over to the Besson that Jack laid up on the end table.
Man, son, you couldn’t believe it. Like that trumpet never left his lips. He was smokin’ that piece. Everybody in the room get up and start dancin’. Yeah, you know I did. We got music in our blood in this town. Red’s feelin’ it, too. He shakin’ it pretty good for a old ass bum. Then he start playin’ his way right out the front door and everybody like, ‘Yo Red, where you goin’ old man?’ Jack sling a strap ‘round his neck with the snare drum and tell us to just come on wit’im.
It sound stupid anywhere else, but not in N’awlins. We straight started marchin’ down the street and had us a parade. Red marched us the long way ‘round the block to Louis Armstrong Park. Everybody was out celebratin’ Bastille Day and we picked up, shit, I don’t know, prob’ly like two, three thousand folks along the way. Little kids with they hair in braids dancin’ ‘round Red. Must have had ‘bout eight, nine dogs start tailin’ us, too. Then shit got real when this Ma Rainey lookin’ whole-lotta woman joined in. Dressed like she on her way to church in her high heels, purple dress, flowers fallin’ off the side of her hat. I never seen this woman in my life and never seen her since, but I can tell you she stole 1926’s heart with that voice. You better believe Bessie Smith turn over in the grave that day axin’ who stole my sound. That’s when musicians started poppin’ they heads out to see where that new old sound comin’ from. We just about had us a full street band playin’ when we got to the park. ‘Bone, more drums, clarinet, this one zydeco cat had his washboard. They see me and know who I was and be like, ‘Yo D, that crazy Red? Red Armstrong?’
Yeah, yeah it was. Boy, that was a time with a capital T.
Red’s still playing, but no one compares him to Louis Armstrong anymore. He was reborn with his own sound. His new band plays every Thursday night in Who Dat Soul with Applewood on the clarinet. Jack’s not the drummer. He never was a drummer, and he couldn’t play the drums on his own if he tried. It’s what his gift guided him to do that day, that time.
The Mythological Monster Madness bracket is set, but not all competitors are created equal. We break down the field to separate the real contenders from the pretenders in this year’s edition of the greatest sporting competition in the mythological history of the world.
Asia Pacific Region
No. 1 China: Chinese Dragon
No. 4 Nepal: Yeti
Expect the imperial Chinese Dragon to wear down Nepal’s Yeti with waves of cultural hegemony and feigned friendly diplomatic overtures, setting up its famed “Maoist backdoor cut” all day long. China has to be seen as favorites to win the whole tournament as its greatest symbol of power is backed up by the deepest bench in the field, 1 billion-plus Chinese laborers.
No. 2 Japan: Pikachu
No. 3 Australia: Drop Bear
If Japan can get past Australia’s Drop Bear, it could be a tricky match up for the Chinese Dragon thanks to Pikachu’s electric conductivity making it highly flame retardant. That will be no easy feat, though, as Drop Bear – a giant, flesh eating koala – will look to down Pikachu like so much eucalyptus. The Selection Committee dealt a crucial blow to Japan’s hopes when it denied Pikachu’s appeal to evolve into Raichu, stating that Raichu did not appear on Japan’s official roster.
British Isles Region
No. 1 Scotland: Unicorn
No. 4 England: Pixie
England once again brings a big reputation and little substance to the tournament as the Pixie relies exclusively on its strategy of leading opponents to the woods and leaving them there lost, which should pose no problems for Scotland’s Unicorn – a native of woodland habitats. The Unicorn is the only competitor that is not only its nation’s most prized mythological creature but also the actual national animal. Bald Eagle doesn’t seem so great anymore, does it? The only thing standing between Scotland and a title run is the Unicorn’s blood – instant immortality will make any opponent that drinks it a real challenge. A potential Final Four match up with Vladimir Putin could spell international disaster should the Russian Dictator, er, President get hold of the Unicorn’s horn.
No. 2 Wales: Welsh Dragon
No. 3 Ireland: Leprechaun
Lacking the wisdom and strategery of the Chinese Dragon and relying more on brute force, the Welsh Dragon boasts perhaps the best offense in the field. However, Ireland’s Leprechaun will look to exploit the Welsh Dragon’s uncontrollable gold lust with its own damnably-frustrating-to-steal pot o’ the shiny stuff. Should Ireland advance, it would surely fall to Scotland. The Unicorn’s ability to completely disorient the Leprechaun by farting a maze of rainbows would nullify its famous shiftiness.
No. 1 Russia: Vladimir Putin
No. 4 Austria: Krampus
What, we ask, is more mythological than Vladimir Putin? This legend has hugged polar bears, rode horseback shirtless through the Siberian wilderness, shot whales with a crossbow, saved a TV crew from an escaped tiger, flown on a hang glider with migratory cranes and distracted the world from his impending invasion of Ukraine with a little event symbolizing world peace known as the Olympics. After an excellent season of terrorizing Alpine children, Austria’s lovable horned pseudo-Pagan-Christian Christmas demon Krampus stands little chance against the world’s greatest living myth left after the passing of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il.
No. 2 Greece: Minotaur
No. 3 Germany: Wolpertinger
What better creature to survive the labyrinth of the world’s most competitive conference tournament than the Minotaur? Besting such rivals as Cyclops, the Titans, Hydra and Cerberus to make it this far, the “Cretan Beacon” is a strong hope for perennial power Greece. However, the brutal Greek Conference left the Minotaur bloodied and vulnerable after Theseus beheaded it in the waning moments of the league championship game. Having no head with which to see should play right into the paws of Germany’s Wolpertinger, the deer antlered, bird winged rabbit-wolf creature whose main skill involves hiding from drunken Bavarian hunters.
No. 1 Argentina: Diego Maradona
No. 4 Guatemala: El Sombreron
The former child street urchin and cocaine addict is worshiped as a god by many in his soccer loving nation. The people call him Golden Boy and Hand of God, but his most famous nickname came from a radio commentator who wondered aloud on air after a Maradona goal, “Cosmic Kite, what planet have you come from?” The egomaniacal mighty mite’s greatest power is perhaps his unflinching hyperinflated belief in his own legend. Underdog El Sombreron from Guatemala is the feel good story of the tournament, a silver guitar-playing bogeyman in a big sombrero who stalks women by ceaselessly serenading them, trying to braid their hair, and putting dirt in their food so they’re always hungry and can’t sleep. Unfortunately, those skills mirror Maradona’s, and El Sombreron doesn’t kick a soccer ball nearly so well.
No. 2 Egypt: Mummy
No. 3 USA: Chupacabra
America’s best hope was squashed when the Selection Committee ruled that Chuck Norris was not eligible for mythological competition because all acts of greatness ascribed to him were, indeed, 100% factual. That opened the door for the upstart goat-eating Chupacabra out of Puerto Rico, the first tourney contestant to carry the flag for an imperial overlord. Egypt back-doored its way into the tournament by virtue of an American archaeologist’s early 20th century theft of a cursed mummy. The Committee ruled that the Mummy’s 100-year residence in the basement of a small New York college library qualified it to compete on behalf of its original nation in its new home region. The Mummy is coached by the legendary Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, and may be able to upset Maradona in the second round by convincing him of the benefits of embalmment.
Biggest tourney snubs
1. Norwegian Troll
The struggles in recent years of Norway’s legendary Troll have led to a drastic drop in fuzzy-headed troll keychain sales as its stock falls faster than Duck Dynasty ratings, leading some to label it the Kentucky Wildcats of mythological sport.
2. Polite Frenchman
Perhaps the strongest mythological entity to be left out of the field in centuries. The Polite Frenchman is so rare that it is rumored the Committee extended him a bid, but he was never located to accept it.
Africa’s mythological sport leagues continue to languish under the Eurocentric Selection Committee bylaws excluding these nations from competing on the grandest stage. A history of racism and bias against oral folklore once again casts a shadow over this great tournament, and we expect more African nations will follow Egypt’s lead finding alternative routes into the field through gross cultural appropriation by Europe and the United States. To wit, former NBA star, Old Spice pitch man and Dikembe Mutumbo Saves the World hero Dikembe Mutumbo is rumored to be in training to compete on behalf of the Democratic Republic of Congo next season.
On the Impracticality of the Application of Newton’s Third Law to Human Behavior in a World Where Butterflies Sometimes Flap Their Wings
A man in an orange scarf and a tweed flat cap walks down a city street at three minutes past midnight toward an engagement for the evening, lost in pleasant thought about the possibilities of the night ahead. Another man, a rather burly working class sort with a bald head and brown teeth, walks in the opposite direction at the end of a long day of drinking in the pub. As they approach, the man in the scarf snaps-to just in time to meet the burly man’s eyes and offer a polite nod. Simultaneously, the burly man reaches out and brusquely knocks off the man in the scarf’s flat cap. He says something, but the man in the scarf does not catch it, only that it was intended as an insult.
“What’s that about?” the man in the orange scarf asks before he is even able to turn around. The two men face each other, the tweed flat cap a line drawn in the sand midway between them.
“Fucking wanker,” the man in the scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.
“Whaddye call me, boy? A wanker, am I? Call me a wanker again and see what happens.” The burly man swells his chest. He’s three inches taller and 80 pounds heavier than the man in the orange scarf.
“No, no, you don’t seem to understand how this works,” the man in the scarf says. “You get the satisfaction of knocking me in the head for whatever reason suited your fancy. In return, I get to call you nasty things like wanker and asshole and douchebag. Then we go our separate ways. It’s the only fair and equitable resolution.”
The man in the scarf then turns on his heel and continues on his way to the evening’s engagement without further event.
The burly man stands stuck in place watching the man in the orange scarf go, stumped and bewildered by his unassailable logic. Later, at home, the burly man decides the man in the scarf was mocking him. He decides to give the man a good knock in the nose if he ever sees him again, or at the very least a knock to the next sort he comes across with the same irritating look about him.
The man in the orange scarf sweeps his flat cap off the ground in disgust. The burly man waits for his victim to either provoke him, in which case he will satisfy his desire to pummel this fellow with such an irritating look about him, or to cower away, in which case he will revel in exposing the man’s cowardice.
“The only sort of man who knocks another fellow’s cap off for no good reason other than to establish dominance like a mangy street dog is an extremely unhappy one,” the man in the scarf says.
“Am not,” says the burly man, unsure if he has been provoked to the level necessary to justify breaking the man in the scarf’s nose.
“Oh, I assure you, you are. Just look at you. You are a bully, which means no one loves you, not even your own mummy. You hate your father because he was mean, and you hate him more because he was still better than you. You have no real friends. You are unliked by your coworkers. You don’t even like yourself, which is why you smell so bad and don’t take care of your teeth. I’m sure your wife hates you because you are stupid, poor, mean, incapable of understanding her, and you think watching football over fish and chips at the pub is a form of foreplay. I’ll bet she’s cheating on you. Wait. She is, isn’t she?”
“I’ll … I’ll kill you. I’ll fucking kill you.” The burly man balls his fists as he says it, hushed almost to a whisper. He turns so red that the man in the scarf can see it even under the dim streetlight, tipping off his impending charge.
“I’ll kill you. I’ll fucking kill you,” he yells, chasing the man in the scarf down the street. But the man in the scarf is much faster and the burly man gives up the chase quickly.
The man in the orange scarf goes on to his evening’s engagement without any further event. The burly man returns home. His wife isn’t there again. He stares at a picture of her for two hours, then retrieves a shotgun and leaves a fair portion of his skull and brains painted against the living room wall. In the next day’s evening paper, the man in the scarf reads about the suicide, but not connecting the name to his assailant, merely laments the wretched condition of working class sorts.
The burly man waits for the man in the scarf to either provoke him, in which case he will satisfy his desire to pummel this fellow with such an irritating look about him, or to cower away, in which case he will revel in exposing the man’s cowardice.
“Fucking wanker,” the man in the orange scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.
“Whaddye call me, boy? A wanker, am I? Call me a wanker again and see what happens.”
“You’re a fucking wanker. A douchebag asshole who bullies people to compensate for a small dick and a mild case of retardation.”
The burly man bulls toward the man in the orange scarf, loading up a devastating haymaker. The man in the scarf steps toward the bully, inside the sweeping blow, and efficiently thrusts the heel of his right hand upward into the man’s nose, disorienting him. A second thrust, fist to Adam’s apple, leaves the burly man choking. A straight kick to the burly man’s kneecap buckles his leg and renders him incapable of giving chase. The man in the orange scarf then looks from side to side and, seeing no witnesses, makes haste away to the evening’s engagement, which he enjoys despite a slightly swollen hand.
The burly man’s wife finds him in their bed, bruised and battered, the next morning upon returning home from a night of adultering. Two broken picture frames and an emotional rant later, she makes good on a promise to leave him if he got into another donnybrook at the pub. His leg is too injured to walk and his pride is too hurt besides so he doesn’t go to work. The burly man’s boss, who likes him not in the least, fires him as permitted by the union after three no call-no shows. Within a month, the burly man is on the street, abusing alcohol and heroin, mugging men and women in dark alleys.
“I’m serious. Explain to me why you would do something so asinine,” the man in the scarf says, sweeping his flat cap off the sidewalk in disgust.
“Cause I felt like it and I do whatever the hell I want,” the burly man says.
“Oh, come on then, there has to be more to it than that. You must have passed other lone men walking down the street, yet you chose to humiliate me. Why?”
“Because you’ve got an irritating look about you.”
“Well, now we’re getting somewhere. And why do I have an irritating look about me? Is it my clothes or has God just cursed me with an irksome face?”
“I don’t like you mugs with your prissy scarves and stupid caps. You’re all a bunch of college boys who thinks you is better than everybody else. Just looking at you makes me want to choke you with that pretty scarf right where you stand.”
“You will do nothing of the sort. My mother knit this scarf when she had cancer to cope with the pain. She died two days after she finished it.”
“I … I’m sorry. My old man died of the cancer.” The two men stand quietly in their place for several moments.
“Well, no use us standing out here in the cold facing off like enemies. Let me buy you a beer and see if we can’t understand each other. If you decide even then my sort is as irritating as you thought, you’ll at least get a free drink or two out of the deal.”
The burly man studies the man in the scarf, searching his face to find some hint of a trick. Finding none, he saw no reason to turn down a free beer. The two sit in a pub down the street discussing their lives and aspirations until the pub closes at one in the morning. The burly man evokes the man in the scarf’s empathy with tales of the cruelties done to him and his siblings by well-to-do children growing up in an old industrial town. The man in the scarf earns the burly man’s respect, if not his admiration, for listening to him fairly.
The man in the orange scarf then departs for a late arrival at the evening’s engagement. The burly man returns home without his old insecurities about the educated classes, which provides him a sense of self-respect that ostensibly ends his days of pub brawling, allows him to save his marriage and drastically improves his personal hygiene.
The man in the orange scarf holds the eyes of the burly man for a moment, then shakes his head, picking up his scarf in disgust. He turns on his heel without a word and continues on his way to the evening’s engagement. He thinks the man a brute, then tells himself not to consider the matter for another moment.
Exactly what I figured, the burly man thinks. Those types with that irritating sort of look are always cowards. He continues down the exact path he was on before the incident ever occurred. Wherever that may lead.
Author’s note: Long form fiction is more my speed, but the output required since starting the creative writing program at the University of Edinburgh has put me on to writing more short stories. And, I have to say, I kind of like it. Now, imagine my surprise when I discover there is such a thing as “flash fiction.” It’s like the shitty fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants personal blogging of the short fiction world. I’ll be a natural! Kidding, of course. Perfectly respectable authors — very poor, perfectly respectable authors — write flash fiction. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I tried my hand and came out the other side with the two pieces below. One overly sappy and nostalgic, the other openly mocking myself, my classmates and the profession I’m attempting to pursue. So, yeah, it can be tough to find balance in 1,000 words or less.
The Things that Make Me
Look at that snow come down. I’ve always said as long as I can sled in the snow, I’m living life the way I want to live it. With gusto. Wide-eyed, childlike enthusiasm.
My damn hip dysplasia doesn’t much agree with gusto and childlike enthusiasm, unfortunately. I had to give up sledding ‘round about nine years ago. Dancing, too. Roberta and I loved to dance. There are other things I can get along doing that let me keep the spirit of ‘em, though.
I reckon I gave up tennis about the same time the hair started growing out my ears. Unrelated, I believe. Chronic shin splints kept me off the court. Surfing, that kept me young at heart for years. I was part of the original Surfin’ USA generation all the way back in the ‘60s. Had a nasty spill back in 1997, I believe it was. Doctor said I broke two vertebras. Said I was lucky to walk out of the ocean. Luck’s a matter of perspective, I suppose. Doesn’t feel lucky I can’t even body surf any more. Neck’s too weak, doctor says. Too big a risk a wave could roll me on my head. Poof. Out go the lights.
Never really loved golf, but loved emptying a cooler of beer with mi amigos and bumper carts down the 18th fairway. Rheumatoid arthritis in my fingers took that one away. Arthritis nabbed a few trademarks of my joie de vivre, come think of it. Can’t walk outside if it’s too cold. Can’t toss the grandkids around the way they like. Well, don’t tell the doctor, I still toss the littlest one around a bit, but I pay for it in spades.
Been years since I played volleyball. Collapsed arch took away that one back in the ‘80s. You should have seen me jump. I bet Foggy Andrews once that if we put a mattress down on the far side, I could jump clean over the net. I’ll tell you this, I never had to pay Foggy a dime.
It’s been here in just the last few years that I lost my strong constitution. I miss Madame Zhang’s Szechuan House so much some nights I swear I will sneak into Roberta’s drawer, snatch the car keys and drive out for some spicy fried duck. Driver’s license be damned. I can see just fine. But the gig would be right up once Roberta caught me camped out on the pot for 48 hours. Mexican, Cajun, good Italian. Hell, I can’t eat a bit of it. Not even the fake Chinese with no bite. Everything Roberta lets me eat tastes like Saltine crackers. Can’t drink either. I said goodbye to red wine and whiskey a while back. They give me the farts. The bad kind.
That business, I don’t let it get me down. I told you I’ve still got some tricks up my sleeve. The spirit of the thing hasn’t gotten away from me yet. It’ll take more than a little hip dysplasia to knock me down.
Take fishing. No, I can’t handle the rod anymore on accounts of my arthritis. But I can teach it. Show my grandkids how to tie a fly on right, fish the best spots, down to what side of every fallen tree to cast to. The big ones are getting right good. The little ones, they don’t have the patience yet, but I showed ‘em my old tricks for catching frogs by the pond. How to corner skinks and lizards and grab hold of ‘em so they don’t get squished.
Now there’s a good cover of snow, I’m about to unveil my new plan to hold on to the spirit of it. I’m going to tell ‘em they don’t know how to sled the way Grampa and his amigos used to do it. Get ‘em all riled up. They’ll climb all over me. Tell us, Grampa. Tell us. Tell us. Then I’ll take ‘em out to the hill and tell ‘em how to make a ramp, a nice big ramp. A proper ramp. And I’ll tell ‘em, you’ve got to sled down this hill and hit that ramp hard if you want to sled the way Grampa and his amigos used to do it. I’ll be, it’s going to be a hoot watching those little buggers pop off their sleds like popcorn. Pop! There they go!
It took longer to figure all this out than it did for the hair to fill in my ears. But I come to realize hip dysplasia and shin splints and arthritis and all that mess can keep me from doing what I like, but no ailment can keep me from loving what I like. What I’m saying is just because I can’t show off much gusto don’t mean I’m not full of gusto. I can’t do the hokey pokey, but I can still act like a kid.
An old feller who still loves remembering his days on a sled got the spirit of it just as much as any man still riding his.
Creative Writing Student Uses the Toilet
I step into a dim and steamy windowless cuboid where the two Cs – cleanliness and contemplation – co-exist in a harmonious parallelogram with the three Ss most known to be the domain of this sanctum of human privacy.
Damp and humid, the warm air clings to the topography of my body as I shed the layers obfuscating my unexplored southern hemisphere. How I long for intrepid Polo or Magellan, de Gama or Drake to discover the beauty, relieve the angst, absolve the shame buried within these hidden treasures and my tissued heart. Crystalline droplets form on my crooked nose and furrowed brow, lingering vapors condensing to deposit the serenity of my roommate’s ritual shower onto flesh where it soaks me with the infinite echoes of his singsong voice.
I twirl as an ungainly toddler does imitating a waltz, gracelessly depositing my downy posterior on a humble throne of porcelain with a dull thud reminiscent of the falling dreams of trying times gone by. Its faux mahogany cover a clever ruse disguising the intent of its service, unmasked as it embraces my girth. The dark synthetic grains whisper of African mysteries and hypnotize my consciousness, steering my sanguine eyes along swirling sands, round and round, as the tribal drum beats deep down in the chasm of my soul, pulsating the elastic of my rectum like two hairless palms drumming the taut hide atop a mighty djembe. Round and round, my bedazzled gaze follows over the precipice into the shimmering lake below, its surface a mirror reflecting age-old insecurities from which I cannot look away and so I shatter it with heavy missiles forged not only by the indiscretions of my past, but by the blood, sweat and tears of the noble Nebraska corn farmer, the lonely mustachioed Guatemalan toiling over orchards for the future of his children, the weary union man in the factory, the aspiring adolescent full of dreams that one day her spatula will be replaced by judge’s gavel or author’s pen.
The cesspool betwixt my loins is assaulted with the gross domestic product of our nation’s history – one thousand technological innovations, one million engineers’ dreams, one-hundred million men and women fighting for minimum wage and better working conditions – condensed into a single package. I reject history with such sudden aggression that my body shudders, ejecting without ceremony a sullied past into the unconsecrated burial ground of its watery grave so that I may cleanse my corporeal existence of old sins and rise anew, fresh and untainted by the failings of our unscrupulous world.
My vision grows dim as the cuboid incubates me like a womb does an unborn child. The commercial detritus of sanitation, hygiene and beauty disappears from before me as my sight withdraws from the world, like the universe contracting within the enormity of a black hole at the end of time. And then my vision and mass explode forth once again with the force of the origin of all things, before Jonah or Noah, Sodom or Gomorrah, Adam or Eve. By my eyes alone, the Big Bang is witnessed and all is light. All is white, blinding, radiant light riding swooping electromagnetic waves so bright it must be seen by taste and smell.
But oh, sweet lament. Oh, terror of nights. The light, it is a Siren, heralding brave fools to tragic misfortune. A blinding trick that opens my senses to peril, a creeping chimera escaped from Dante’s Inferno. It is goblins I smell and ghouls I taste and their foul deeds wrinkle my nose and dizzy my mind as tears pour forth from the corners of my eyes along the channel of my nose like water rolling down the great aqueducts through Rome.
I extend my arm and take hold of the brass dagger that will vanquish this malodorous creature back into the depths of its realm with a single earnest thrust. Down, down I thrust, and the belching, gurgling screams of the underworld are transmitted through the liquid medium of space before reversing in the eddying chaos of the churning vacuum. Melancholy aqueous cries for mercy go unheeded as I light a candle to the fickle, feckless gods who rule such grim chambers as these. I pray for answers, for understanding, for explanations of why this world is filled with injustices horrific as Caledonian battlefields, but do not expect answers from impotent deities in the lofty molecular density of this syrupy durian atmosphere.
Their reply is rich with fetid cruelty, and my eyes open once again to sip the solemn truth from my tropical chamber of agony and torment. “It was still too steamy,” they cry. “Why is there no window to open,” they lament. “You should have waited,” they chant.
I should have waited. But it was not my fate. I should have waited. But I could not.
All of my girlfriend’s friends wanted me bad. They were all after me because I was Boltman. Not just a guy in the suit, but like the real thing. It was a pretty cool dream.
I was living in this shitty little camper behind a chop shop run by a bunch of Mexicans, but it didn’t seem to impact my cred with the ladies. When you’re the living incarnation of the most badass mascot in the NFL, pretty much anything you do – even living in a crap camper surrounded by sketchy Mexicans – also seems badass.
I catch my girlfriend’s friend Leigh snooping around my camper. She’s freaking hot. I mean, not in real life. In real life, she’s kind of cute, but she’s bulimic and her hair’s gross and limp and starting to fall out, and her teeth are brown, and her breath is disgusting. In my dream, it’s her, just hot. And she has these lightning tattoos on her cheeks that are so badass they do Boltman proud. She looks like one of the tat-faced Romulans from that Star Trek reboot a couple years ago, but hot.
She reaches up on top of my camper and finds a baggie of weed and she’s like, “You smoke weed? I didn’t know you were so cool.” Then she gives me this look and since it’s my dream, I know she wants to bang. I don’t think we did. I kind of lost that part. And I don’t know why I hid my weed on top of the camper. That was pretty stupid. Even in San Diego County, it rains sometimes. In real life, I keep my supply in Boltman’s head. Dude, there is no better way to hotbox than putting on Boltman’s head. I’ll let you try it sometime.
The last part of my dream I walk over to the chop shop and apparently the Mexicans respect the shit out of me. Makes sense, though. A) I’m Boltman. B) They’re like, “Hey cabron, we see you over there at that camper. All your girlfriend’s friends want your pito. You be the shit, mein.”
I lean my elbow down on a car they’re working on and I’m like, “Que pasa, chicos?” One gets up and gets me a cup of coffee. Some of that strong Mexican blend shit. And we looked at my bag of weed because they wanted to see how dank my nugs were. And that’s about it. Pretty dope, right?
I told that story to Danny Woodhead in the tunnel before the game yesterday. We’re like the same height so we see eye to eye. Haha. Get it? Nah, but it’s tough being an undersized mascot just like it is being a small running back, so he gets me. After I told him the story, he said, “Yeah, man, that’s cool. I’m going to get locked in on this game now, though, so talk to you later.” He’s a pretty cool dude.
It’s not like I wasn’t taking the game serious. I took it real serious and the whole world knows what’s up now. Sportscenter Top 10, baby! I mean, Sportscenter Not Top 10, but what’s the difference? National TV exposure, man.
We had to win the game to make the playoffs. This was the first season in four years the Chargers brought Boltman back on the field and I’m thinking, yo, if we make the playoffs, they’re going to realize Boltman is the good luck charm. They’re going to put me on salary and sign me to a long-term contract and shit. Pretty good for a kid from San Diego Community College with a mascot school certificate, right?
Some people say mascots don’t make any difference in the game. That’s bull shit. Cheerleaders, true, but mascots have at least as much impact on the game as assistant coaches. Not like offensive coordinators. That’s stupid. But like the running back and linebacker coaches. You doubt me? Way back in 1996, Morten Andersen – best kicker in NFL history – missed a 30-yard chip shot that got the Jacksonville Jaguars into the playoffs in their second year in existence. Go back and look at the replay. Notice those goalposts swinging back and forth right before the kick when Andersen’s lining up? Look closer. That’s Jaxson de Ville, the best mascot in the NFL today, shaking the goalposts. Andersen got Jedi mind tricked. Wide left. Speaking of Jax, the NFL had to change mascot rules to try and stop us from winning games after he freaked out the Pittsburgh Steelers offense by running up to their huddle with a lifesize doll of their quarterback and stomping its head in.
Now the NFL says we “are prohibited from engaging in any acts of taunting opposing players, coaches or game officials.” Boo. But we still get the crowd hyped when the team needs noise, make life suck for opposing fans so they don’t ever come back and we do other things.
Yeah, we can do other things. I got my big shot yesterday against the Chiefs and I took it.
We’re tied 24-24 and the Chiefs are driving late in the fourth quarter. Their quarterback completes a pass into field goal range, but the idiot threw it down the middle of the field and they’re out of timeouts. They rush the field goal unit out while the clock’s ticking down. I’m on the sideline like, “What do I do? What do I do? What would Jax do?” Then I see this Chiefs fan jump out of the front row onto the sideline. This asshole is trying to run onto the field so he can get play stopped. That’s the rule. Fan on the field, automatic stoppage of play and the clock. He’s trying to buy their damn kicker time to get set up.
Boltman is not having it! The best thing about my Boltman costume is it’s pretty unobstructive. I’ve got a big lightning bolt foam head – he’s so badass, rocking Oakleys and this big grin that says, “Yeah, I’m a boss” – and then a muscle suit for my arms and upper body, which I don’t even really need because I’m a physical specimen already. But other than that it’s pretty much just me in shoulder pads and a Chargers uniform. Backflips, round offs, cartwheels, I can do all that acrobatic shit. Fans go nuts when I do back handsprings the full length of the field when we run out of the tunnel before kickoff.
The point is, this Chiefs fan doesn’t know what he’s stepped into. Security sees him, but he’s coming right at me. This is meant to be. Boltman to the rescue. I get a running start at him and he thinks it’s funny. Hey, look at this mascot coming right at me! Then I drop the boom. Diving tackle, fully airborne, WrestleMania style. Right into this dude’s ribs. Perfect form tackle. Dwight Freeney would have been proud.
I turn around just in time to see Ryan Succop running into place. He never gets a chance to get lined up and misses a 41-yarder. Chargers win in overtime. We’re going to the playoffs. You’re welcome, signed: Boltman.
So you know the party is on! The team’s all going out to Fluxx to celebrate. I know how the players roll so I get there at the same time as them and everything. The line isn’t just out the door, it’s around the block, but of course the bouncers are letting all of us in ahead of everybody. Peeps didn’t even care. They all start spazzing, clapping, pulling out their iPhones and snapping pictures. I’m waving back at them when this big ass bald bouncer with a half dozen fat rolls on his neck (why are they always big bald guys with fat necks?) puts his hand on me. I’m like, “Easy, big guy. I’m with the team.”
The jerk has the balls to be like, “You don’t look like Danny Woodhead and as far as I know there ain’t no other midgets on the team.”
I was about to get rowdy with that comment, but Phillip Rivers came up right next to me and I say, “Hey Phil, tell this dude I’m with the team, please.”
He says, “I ain’t never seen this boy in my life. Don’t let him through, Little John.” Man, Phillip Rivers knows who I am. He sees me in the locker room all the time. He’s such a redneck asshole. That’s why nobody likes him.
I’m about to explain to this bouncer – how original, a big guy called Little John – that I’m Boltman when Danny walks up and another bouncer lifts the rope for him. I yell, “Danny, Danny. It’s me. Tell this guy to let me in.” But I guess he didn’t hear me because he just kept walking in with his girl and a couple other dudes. Woodhead’s a pretty cool guy.
“I’ve had about enough, little man. Back of the line or you’re never getting in this club again.” That’s what he says to me. Can you believe it? Boltman, the guy who wins the game that gets the Chargers into the playoffs, standing in line with the rest of the commoners. Fine. I go to the back of the line. But I still get in like an hour later.
“Give a nig a little bit of power and he can’t help get carried away with it.” That’s what I say to this decent-looking girl with her ass hanging out the back of her dress. Damn, I love San Diego weather. She turned back to her girls. Whatever, she’s not even that fly and I can’t turn my game on yet because I’m still so mad at that nig. I’m not a racist or anything, it’s cool to call them nigs. I call Malcolm Floyd my nig all the time and he just shakes his head because it’s funny and that’s our thing. Malcolm Floyd is a goofy looking nig.
I’m about to tell this big bouncer what I think about him, but I calmed down standing in line for an hour so I decide to play it cool. I stared him down, though. I don’t care how tall he is. He acted like he didn’t see me because he was talking to these two club skanks trying to get in. But he knows what’s up.
It’s hot as hell in the club so I pop open another button to let my pecs do the talking. I told you I don’t need that Boltman muscle suit. And it must be my lucky day because I turn around and see Leigh on the dance floor with two other club skanks. Maybe it was just because of that dream, but her skinny legs were fly in that miniskirt. She used to get PO’d at me for calling her stork legs, and my girlfriend bitches at me about how you shouldn’t mess with the body image of girls with eating disorders, but I don’t know what I was thinking. Her legs were so sexy the way she moved when she danced. She doesn’t have any chest to speak of, but that’s all good because she’s got one of those tight little white girl booties. Like she’s still 14 or something. I hate those big hips and booties all the guys on the team are always talking about. I try to tell them to quit listening to rap videos because that shit is disgusting, but they don’t listen.
I decide I’m going to go surprise Leigh and show her my skills on the dance floor then apologize about calling her stork legs. I close my eyes for a second and I see her face in my dream. She’s so hot with those face tats.
I grab her around the waist from behind and grind right up on her. We had to take all these dance classes at mascot college and I’ve got mad rhythm. I forgot that Leigh’s a jumpy bitch, though, and she turned around and pushed me and yelled, “Get off me, asshole,” before she even saw who I was.
“Damn baby, chill out. It’s just me,” I say.
“Oh God, Frank. You’re such a disgusting little freak. You know Alice is meeting us here later.” Then she and her girls walked off. I was going to hit her with a comeback about her small tits, but I guess Alice is probably right about bulimics and that body image thing. I’m firey. Small guys got to be. But I’m not cruel. Damn, I forgot Alice said she was coming to Luxx. Having a girlfriend suxxx, dude.
I don’t even have a chance to get off the dance floor when I hear this voice say, “You’d probably have more luck with the ladies if you wore your Boltman costume, Franky.” There’s always an asshole, right?
I turn around and who should it be? The Mother Fucking San Diego Chicken.
I mean, he’s not in his chicken suit, but it’s the guy. He used to be my hero. I idolized him. He was the greatest. The greatest of all time. Philly Phanatic, my ass. That’s just East Coast bias, for reals. But then I met the guy and he’s really the biggest jerk of all time. I’ve already had to deal with the bouncer, wait in that freaking line and get dissed by my girlfriend’s twig bitch friend who’s totally busted compared to in my dream. I’ve had it. It’s time to let the panther loose.
I say: “Don’t they have an age limit for getting into this bar?”
He says: “Don’t they have a height requirement?” Oh hells naw!
“Obviously not, Chicken, because I came in with Danny Woodhead tonight. Who’d you come with, you old ass has been?”
“Funny. I came in with Woodhead, too. His little girl Gia loves my act. He’s a pretty cool dude, that Danny Woodhead. I thought that was you at the entrance. I said, hey Danny, did you hear someone call your name? He said keep walking.”
Damn. It was already embarrassing to get caught like that, but getting betrayed by Danny? That hurt. Especially after what I did for the team.
“You know what pal, I don’t care how old you are. This ends tonight. This is my town. I’m going to mess you up right here, right now.” Seriously, though, I wouldn’t hurt an old guy like that. He knew what I was talking about. Mascot challenge, right there on the dance floor. I know he can’t do half of his moves anymore, but he’s too proud to admit it. Pathetic old man should have retired years ago, but he can’t handle giving up the fame so I’m going to have to take his heart. I’m in pretty dope shape so I can probably pull off all my moves until I’m 40, but I swear, when I can’t do back handsprings down the entire field anymore, I’m just going to have myself euthanized or something. What’s the point of living as an old washed up has been?
I yell at some dudes to clear some space and, let me tell you, the San Diego Chicken got served. Served. I did a backflip, straight into a front flip, trotted a couple circles doing fist pumps to get the crowd into it, then busted out some sick break dancing. Chicken has nada on me.
But before that jerk had a chance to try and come back at me, these three guys walked up behind him and were like, “Hey Pollo Loco, who is this douchebag? He giving you trouble?”
Then, I hear that big redneck’s voice right behind me. Phil says, “You mean you guys don’t know? This is Boltman. He won the game for us today.” It’s kind of hard to pick up sarcasm when the DJ is thumping bass like it’s going out of style, so for a second I actually thought he was defending me.
Then this smart ass anonymous nobody beside Phil yells, “More like Flying Faggot Man.” That big redneck Rivers and everybody starts laughing at me. God, I hate Phillip Rivers. You know what, I’ve had about enough of this crap. I bounce out of there, but don’t’ think I’m going to let that Chicken forget he got served so hard he didn’t even attempt a comeback.
Unfortunately, that was not the end of my shitty night. I get a cab and on the way home I check my voice mail. I’ve got one and I’m hoping maybe it’s my girlfriend because right about now I could use a little support, or some pussy, or something. I don’t know.
But it’s not her number. I click on the message.
“Hey Frank. It’s Sean O’Connor.” He’s director of stadium and game day operations. “Look, Frank, I’m sorry to have to do this, but that stunt you pulled today, tackling the Chiefs fan, we’re going to have to let you go. Spanos demanded it specifically. You’re fired, Frank. Between you and me, I think you’re going to be OK. Judges hate fans that run onto the field. But you violated security protocol, and Spanos says it’s your neck if the guy decides to sue. You can come clean out your stuff and turn in the Boltman costume between 9 and 10 tomorrow morning. Goodbye, Frank.”
Man, I couldn’t help it, I start crying in the cab. Crying like a little bitch. This is not how my day was supposed to end up. The cab driver asks me what’s wrong. I say, “I’m not Boltman anymore.”
Saying it hits me like a ton of freaking bricks. I’m not Boltman …
Editor’s Note: This post is the first chapter of my recently completed novel manuscript “Happy Jack.” Enjoy!
Forward from the author, James “Fish” Fishman
The man who you will read about in this account is real. There are no shortage of hospital records, college transcripts and public tax files to prove he exists.
The psychic and emotional powers I will describe this man as possessing are, however, open to skepticism. But there is no doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of the hundreds of eye-witnesses interviewed for the writing of this account, of his unique abilities. These witnesses testify with stunning consistency to the sensation of euphoria experienced in his presence, the lengths to which he went to please them, the feeling of addiction and withdrawal when he left their lives.
What does it mean to make everyone happy?
In my personal experience with Jack, his presence causes your pleasure synapses to fire like crazy. You feel high in a way that no drug compares, but you’re not aware that you’re being acted upon by an outside force. If that were the end of it for Jack, I wouldn’t have much of a story and Jack would probably be a much different person.
In describing his own perception of his “special trait,” Jack told me over beignets at Café du Monde in New Orleans early one eventful summer morning that “I just understand what people need to be happy.” He couldn’t elaborate, and I can’t ask him to elaborate now because as you will see that morning was the last time I would ever be able to speak to Jack. From that conversation and more with the very few others who knew Jack’s secret, I gather he was often incapable of articulating why he performed a certain action to guide someone to happiness even they didn’t know how to acquire. His understanding is one of instinct. Some other force imbues him with the answer and guides him to provide it, all while Jack is left with only the space in the corners of his mind to contemplate why, chewing on the question as he would another of his favorite doughy beignets.
We do have some indication that Jack’s condition is not unprecedented. In many cultures, but most prominently passed down through the oral traditions of Haitian Voodoo practitioners (Vodouisants), folklore exists telling of children who bring happiness to all those who set eyes on them. The evidence suggests these children in Haiti were hunted down and taken from their homes by Voodoo priests and priestesses in order to please spirits. It seems they never lived long thereafter. But I find it fitting that the strongest history, anecdotal and superstitious as it may be, of people with this power comes from Voodoo folklore. Vodouisants, after all, have altered the course of Jack’s life even more than I have.
The end product, the exterior effects of his peculiarity and not the mysterious cause, was what first drew me to the man known as Happy Jack.
When I met him on Dauphin Island, that precious accumulation of Gulf sand dangling like a fragile golden chain below the slender neck of Alabama’s Mobile Bay, soon after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, those exterior results looked like the human-interest story I needed to get my producers off my back.
I could always see a story and built a career on jumping right in with no regard for consequences. For those of you familiar with my career as the CNN news caricature Fish Fishman, you may recall some of my more famous – or infamous – TV moments. If CNN needed to throw someone into the middle of a hurricane, I was their man. If CNN needed to put someone in a flak jacket and let bullets and missiles fly over their head in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Sudan or Detroit, I was their man.
More notoriously, if CNN needed to cover a snowstorm that wasn’t so snowy or a flood that didn’t really flood, I was the man willing to pile up snow in a field or stand in the middle of a drainage pond to give my cameraman the shot CNN needed to convince the viewing audience that we were delivering to them a major news event.
Of course, in the budding age of camera phones and social media, I was caught completely unaware when my “good shots” became viral internet sensations capturing the insanity (and inanity) of 24-hours news television. I used to blame CNN, the producers, but I was complicit undermining the serious journalism career I had hoped to create.
In that sense, Jack is my salvation. He was compelled to help me achieve my dream.
But, at first, I only saw the story. The story right in front of me. The homeless man risking his life to rescue people trapped in homes they thought would keep them safe before the hurricane reduced them to splinters.
I didn’t begin to sense the bigger story, Jack’s personal story, until much later. To be precise, in April 2010, when I met Happy Jack on Dauphin Island for the third time while on assignment to cover the BP oil spill. When he disappeared, and I felt the symptoms of withdrawal described again and again in the testimonials collected for this work, I began to grasp the nature of what I had encountered. A skepticism I didn’t know I was clinging to eventually melted away. I saw that Happy Jack possessed magic, or something – a power, a gift, a supernatural ability.
But I still didn’t fully understand what device drove this man until after I tracked him from Dauphin Island to a tiny apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter, where I found him standing over a perverse sex addict chained down in his bed. That’s when he explained it to me, and she asked for help.
Along that tortuous path, he fulfilled his obligation to steer me to happiness. To help me get over my fear of starting over. Earnestly pursue becoming the serious journalist I so fiercely desired to be. Let go of Fish Fishman and just be James again.
I needed to be James to tell his story the right way.
It took many nights, and many long arguments with my editor, to best decide how – and in what order – to recount Jack’s life. In the end, we decided to unveil the secrets as they would have been revealed to Jack.
In this decision, I worry the following pages are somewhat not in keeping with the principles of good journalism. I sometimes withhold context the reader is owed to frame what was happening to Jack during certain periods of his life. I will break a best practice for any journalist: I will bury the lead. I won’t always attribute facts and opinions to their source. In some cases, this anonymity is used to protect my sources. Jack was involved with a countless number of individuals in New Orleans whom the word “shady” does not even begin to describe. But I have at times chosen to forego attribution because I do not want it to get in the way of the reader experiencing Jack’s predicament more intimately.
In exchange for forgiveness in these matters, I hope I can reward readers with a proper understanding of a person who secretly fought the biggest war imaginable. He could never win more than a few battles, and yet he chose to fight for us.
I did not write this account to convince you of the authenticity of a mystical being. I wrote it because Jack Hazelwood is an incredible man who has done more to help the depraved, forgotten, snakebit people of the Gulf Coast than anyone. He deserves to be mentioned with the greatest of our modern saints: Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Mandela.
His story deserves to be told.
Editor’s note: It’s the holiday season and I needed to lighten the mood. So seeing as my stories generally involve crooks, ne’er do wells, bad people or bad things happening to good people, I decided to share this bedtime story I wrote for my newest niece. A little break from the usual…
Wuddle wuddle, I want a cuddle
cried Little Lenny to the frog in the puddle
Little Lenny, I am befuddled
what’s so bad that you need a cuddle?
Are you in some kind of trouble
asked the frog from deep in his puddle
Wuddle wuddle, I NEED a cuddle
demands Little Lenny as her face starts to ruddle.
So concerned was the frog down in the puddle
he leapt away, leaving behind a big bubble
Off to the bears, the frog did scuttle
A very wise pair, and a most loving couple
Wuddle wuddle, Lenny NEEDS a cuddle
the frog from the puddle told the bear couple
Who needs such a thing came the bears’ rebuttal
There are bigger things with which we all struggle
Then the bears began to kiss using their muzzles
The frog knew not to interrupt as they both nuzzled
Wuddle wuddle, how to solve this puzzle
of why Little Lenny needs her big cuddle?
To the beaver I’ll go, thought the frog from the puddle
Beaver’s wiser than the bears, at least by double
The answer to this riddle, he’ll surely decouple
For Little Lenny’s sake, the frog’s effort redoubled
Wuddle wuddle, why does Lenny need a cuddle?
Please tell me, beaver, before her heart starts to buckle
For little ones, the strength of a cuddle
is like mud that holds my dam from falling to rubble
Now go along, frog, catch the next shuttle
before Little Lenny’s cries become raucous and ruckle
Wuddle wuddle, thanks a bundle!
The frog said to the beaver before turning to hustle
On his way back, he ran into a mother quintupled
Mrs. Rabbit, who gave frog one more idea to juggle
Frog, she said, you’re being a thick knuckle
In the matter of cuddles, the answer’s more subtle
Wuddle wuddle, if Little Lenny cries for a cuddle
reach out and hug her with your frog arms so supple
So the frog made haste to give Little Lenny a snuggle
And her sad little cries turned into a chuckle
She found her thumb, and began to suckle
Off to the land of dreams, she was carefully smuggled
Wuddle wuddle, thought the frog returning to the puddle,
sometimes it’s just nice to have a good cuddle
To say Glen “Grub” Harvey had a past would be overstating the matter. It would come too close to implying that he was somebody who had actually done something.
In truth, Grub was born onto the cold porcelain of a dirty bathtub in a Baltimore row house as a nobody, was raised a nobody by a couple of nobodies, and meandered through life as a nobody until he reached Ocean City 19 years ago. Nothing from then until now has improved his status as a societal nonentity.
He is, however, a somebody to the Ocean City police and Maryland public court records. The White Marlin vodka-swilling alcoholic, bipolar, high school dropout might have had a half-decent shot at scraping by on the up-and-up with some support from a halfway house or an employment program for the mentally ill, but he was a nobody to that end of the system, too. No one – not the police or the courts – ever connected the dots to get Grub on the radar of public resources for people like him. He was anonymously tucked away on the Eastern Shore, the local legal system’s toy to torment like a stray dog that wandered across the wrong kid’s path.
Calling Grub a stray dog is probably too generous. Even the mangiest stray dogs occasionally get adopted. No one adopts a stray human.
Grub is what society would call a non-functioning alcoholic and the police call a public nuisance, but a dispassionate observer would be forced to acknowledge his admirable knack for providing his own basic necessities: vodka, food, shelter.
Unfortunately, this talent is what made him a somebody to the Ocean City police when the rest of society could not care less about his comings or goings. Grub arrived in Ocean City on September 29, 1994, at the age of 36 with nothing more than the stinking clothes on his back and a stolen Army issue duffel containing a ripped sleeping bag, a liter of vodka, an empty tin of Skoal packed with $3.48 in change, and a faded Polaroid of him and his mother placing cheap tinsel on a sparse Christmas tree. His time of arrival was not by coincidence. Grub was seeking the opportunities of Ocean City’s exploding real estate market.
With $3.48 to his name, he was not in the market for a new condo, per se, but he was searching for one. In the early years of the Clinton-era upturn, word spread among Baltimore’s astute community of homeless that Ocean City’s housing boom had turned the town into Easy Street, so to speak. Prospering blue collar types from Baltimore, Annapolis, Wilmington, Philadelphia and as far away as Pittsburgh were buying up condos like candy and using them at most as rental properties from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Some didn’t even bother renting and the condos provided steady shelter for opportunistic hobos for up to 11-and-a-half months of the year. In some of the newer super developments, homeless squatters outnumbered actual condo owners 5- or 6-to-1, an entire secondary population of uncounted citizens.
That first winter and ensuing spring were salad days for Grub, but the squatters got too greedy. Their presence became too obvious (the bellwether of the end of a free ride for any group of homeless) and the cops had to act. Grub, along with dozens of other vagrants including many good friends from Baltimore, were swept up before the 1995 beach tourism season began and charged with a litany of offenses from breaking and entering to vandalism to resisting arrest and second-degree assault, for those unwise enough to try evading arrest.
Unlike the resisters who were locked up all summer, Grub was back on the streets in a few days, but with the condos filling up with tourists and seasonal cops fleecing the island like cockroaches, there was nowhere to hide. Nowhere to get drunk in peace. He spent the summer in and out of the clink on convictions like drunk and disorderly conduct, loitering, public nuisance and other such trivialities.
Grub never resisted and, even in his often drunken stupor, was always polite. He was a mouse among men. A lamb. But he became a known commodity to the cops. They didn’t all pick on him, but one or two in particular took special joy harassing the hobos. Those ones knew when they saw him, there was probably something they could charge him with. So they did. And so Grub’s rap sheet grew quickly.
But Grub didn’t want to leave Ocean City. There were way too many vacant condos for the cops to police so plenty of opportunity to live the good life. Besides, he had never found a cheaper vodka in all the United States than White Marlin, an Eastern Shore specialty. He could buy a half gallon for $5, and was always shrewd saving the nickels and dimes he begged on the Boardwalk until he had enough to buy the large volume. It was Grub’s rudimentary understanding of economies of scale at work while every other scrabbling bum scrambled off to the liquor store as soon as they had the $1.39 needed to buy the 375 milliliter flask-size bottles.
As quickly as his rap sheet grew, the judicial system grew tired of Grub, particularly Judge Albert Munson. The judge wasn’t a cruel man, but the endless circus of young punks and ne’er do wells paraded in front of him on the unchanging pattern of drunk, disorderly and lewd activity, offering the same lame excuses, made him tersely practical. The longer he could put away repeat irredeemables like Mr. Harvey, the longer it would be before he had to deal with them again.
Grub didn’t mind the max sentences that much. His offenses were never serious enough to get him transferred out of the Ocean City jail – just 60- and 90-day type jobs – and most of the repeat inmates in the city jail knew him well enough to leave him be. So what did he care if he was freeloading in a condo or getting three square meals a day from Uncle Sam? It was all a roof over his head. Well, he did hurt for a lack of vodka when he was in the slammer. That part wasn’t pleasant one bit.
After 19 years of the same pattern repeating, every 90 or 180 days, Judge Munson was quite sure his stomach ulcer couldn’t take it if he saw Mr. Harvey in his court room again. And he threatened him with exile to make his point, even though he had no legal authority to issue such a sentence.
Grub was telling Andy about the judge’s implosion during his last appearance in court, and how he made a vow to stay out of trouble for the rest of his life. He had just returned from a 30-day stint in the city jail to the top-notch “Starting at $800,000” condo he and Andy had been squatting in, without interruption, through the last three months of peak season.
The vow wasn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounded. Grub was only 55, but severe cirrhosis of the liver and lack of adequate healthcare (he proudly touted his record of never going to a doctor or dentist his entire adult life) meant he’d be lucky to eek out another five years. He looked to anyone to be at least 75. His bulbous nose was red with burst capillaries and his ruddy cheeks folded into deep creases down his weathered and pockmarked face. He had an ample amount of dirty grey hair left on the top of his head, and near as much sprouting from his nostrils and ears. His teeth had not fared so well, with less than half of them left brown and rotting in his mouth.
“Judge Munson, he been right good a me ‘n’ I ain’t aimin’ a disappoint ‘im,” Grub told Andy, a squatter he knew from Baltimore that he had shared residences with for the last six years. Smart squatters always worked with at least one other to watch their backs – for help avoiding the police and for protection from their own kind. Some of the more malicious wanderers were like to slit a rival’s throat while he slept if it meant they could pry a handle of liquor from his cold, dead grip.
Most people outside of Maryland wouldn’t have understood two words Grub strung together. He spoke in strings of sound that offended the ear – half crazy hobo developed through years of suffering untreated nerve and anxiety disorders and half local Baltimore, a dialect that sounded like a proper southerner with a sack full of marbles inserted into the pouch of each cheek. Andy shared a similar background and pattern of speech and understood Grub just fine.
“Na man, that a lotta horse shit, Grub, you in ‘n’ outta clink e’ry dang month, be back in ‘ere next week, betcha handle White Marlin. You best gone backa Bawlimmer. Gack gack gack.” “Bawlimmer,” of course, was the proper regional rendering of “Baltimore” and “gack gack gack” just a sputtering of nonsense sounds. Andy suffered from a nervous tick that acted on him something akin to Tourette’s Syndrome, forcing errant syllables out of his mouth at the end of almost every spoken thought.
Grub was going to put a finger in Andy’s chest and tell him he accepted the challenge, but the disagreement had rattled Andy’s nerves and he was pulling a make shift straw and tin foil pipe out of his pocket to light up a rock of crack. Grub couldn’t abide by hard drugs. As previously noted, Grub had an admirable knack for surviving and alcohol was his choice for a vice because it was much better for his posterity and still allowed him to self-medicate his troubles away. Not that Grub ever reasoned the choice out so thoughtfully.
Instead of starting a fight, Grub decided to head out to the Boardwalk. It was the last big night of Sunfest, Ocean City’s final peak season festival before slowing down for the fall and Grub’s last chance for serious easy money. He grabbed the bright pink child’s tutu picked up at the Goodwill for a dollar and headed out the door. Grub learned years ago that people are much more inclined to loose some change from their pocket when laughing at you than when they feel sorry for you. No one wants to be made to feel guilty by a sad old drunk.
Grub had a pretty good audience gathered and folks were pouring their dimes and quarters out into the discarded Boardwalk Fries cup he used to hold tips. He set up outside the rock ‘n’ roll arcade so he could dance to the music, tunes from real bands from the good ole days like Styx and Jefferson Starship. He was wearing a pair of stained jogging pants under his tutu, but when he felt like the crowd was as big as it was going to get, he dropped trou right there on the Boardwalk to reveal a hot pink thong on under the tutu. The crowd responded with catcalls, laughs, a rousing ovation and – sweetest sound of them all – a waterfall of change into his cup.
He started shaking his backside at onlookers having the biggest laugh, and even rubbed it up against an obese woman wearing a T-shirt that said, “Tequila Makes My Clothes Fall Off.” Her even more obese husband thought it was a riot so Grub snatched a piece of his funnel cake while the fat man rubbed tears from his eyes with his free hand.
Grub was still rubbing it on the fat woman when the crowd suddenly quieted. He should have known right then, but he was high on the thrill of entertaining the crowd and figured he just needed to up his antics again. He turned around to attempt a handstand, and there Pfc. Mendez stood between the obese couple, arms crossed, 18 inches from Grub’s face.
Shit. Good thing he didn’t take Andy up on the bet.
For one split second, Grub thought about running. Then his instinct for survival kicked in.
“Aw heck, c’mon Off’sir Menda, I just come outta slammer. Gimme a break, off’sir. I ain’t meanoharm, off’sir.”
“Public nuisance, indecent exposure, lewd and lascivious behavior. There are minors out here, Harvey. We might just be looking at child sex offenses here. You better get used to the slammer because it looks like you’re going in for a long time, bub.” Like most police forces, Ocean City’s is tug-and-pull between good cops and bad cops, those who want to keep the peace and those who get off on making people’s lives hell. Pfc. Sean Mendes was a world-class example of the latter, a “mean summabitch” as Grub and Andy called him. In the summer when Ocean City’s population swelled from 7,000 locals to between 200,000 to 400,000 people, the force simply didn’t have the resources to monitor its own. Pfc. Mendes knew it. Provided he didn’t do anything too stupid like billy club some dipshit teenager into a coma, he could pretty much do whatever he wanted. The island was his oyster, and Grub’s dirty hide was a pearl.
“Please, off’sir. I n’ain’t drunk’er’nuthin’, off’sir.”
“Judge Munson is not going to be happy about seeing you again so soon, bub. What do you have to say about that?”
“Ain’t you s’pose read m’rights, off’sir?”
Pfc. Mendes wrenched Grub into an arm bar and struck his elbow into the back of the man’s neck. Grub threw his back into a melodramatic arch and screeched. “Let’s add resisting arrest to the charges, Mr. Harvey.”
“Aw please, Off’sir Menda. I ain’t hurt no’ne. Naw. Jus’wan’go home, off’sir.”
Pfc. Mendes drug him off to the city jail in his pink tutu and thong, but not before collecting his tip cup, which was overflowing with more than $20 – what would have been enough to supply Grub with White Marlin for more than two weeks. Fortunately, the jail still had his prison jumpsuit from that morning so he didn’t have to suffer the injustice of facing arraignment in front of Judge Munson in a tutu. The judge shook his head in frustration when he saw Grub, read the charges, and set bond at $1,000. It may as well have been a million.
Unfortunately, late summer is the worst time to get charged with a crime in Ocean City, particularly if you don’t have money for bail. The backlog of cases from a summer’s worth of late night drunken shenanigans means a wait of months to get your day in court. After 62 days in jail, Grub finally got his.
For all Pfc. Mendes’ threats on the Boardwalk, Grub ended up only facing an indecent exposure charge and performing without a license, a violation of city ordinance. But indecent exposure was serious business if Judge Munson meant to keep his promise. It carried a maximum three-year sentence, and Grub had never done time like that. He was sure to get transferred to the county jail or maybe even upstate with that kind of time.
“I could sure use a drink” was Grub’s primary conscious thought in response to his predicament as he sat in court. In fact, he said as much to his public defender, Miss Erickson. She was a real pretty lady, although she already seemed to have the spirit beat out of her and she wasn’t even 30 yet. That didn’t bother Grub one bit when he was sitting in the front row directly behind the defense table, waiting for his number to be called by the judge. Her blouse slipped up her back just enough to reveal a small Celtic knot tattoo just above her barely exposed white panty line.
“Glen Harvey,” Judge Munson called.
“Yessir, hee y’onah,” Grub replied.
“Come on. Let’s get this over with. What do we have today?” The judge dug into the charges and glanced through the police report. The name Pfc. Sean Mendes caught his attention as much as the description of events.
After Grub waived his right to a jury trial, the assistant Worcester County District Attorney working Ocean City District Court that day called Pfc. Mendes as the prosecution’s only witness. Mendes offered a predictably embellished recounting of events. Miss Erickson tried to press him on a couple of the more lofty claims, but the officer deflected her thrusts with an air of boredom, repeating over and over the standard issue response: “To the best of my recollection, that is how I recall it.” It was a no-win situation for Erickson. Even though Judge Munson, the assistant DA and every frequenter of the courtroom knew Pfc. Mendes was full of shit, it was his word as a sworn officer of the law against a drunken, homeless lifetime con. The judge had no choice but to take Mendes at his word, even if his disdain for the young officer was only slightly more veiled than the contempt he held for Grub. Simply put, no judge could set the precedent of taking, one-against-one, the accused’s word over a police officer’s.
Miss Erickson informed Judge Munson that the defense had no witnesses. Although she perhaps should have said that Mr. Harvey did not have the resources to afford an attorney who would make the effort to find the witnesses on the Boardwalk that day who would expose Pfc. Mendes’ trumped up claims for the lies they were.
“Mr. Harvey, do you have anything to say before I make my judgment?”
“No, he does not, your honor,” Miss Erickson said.
“Yeah I do, y’onah,” Grub interrupted. Miss Erickson eyed him with a look of exhaustion, then waved her hand toward the judge as if to say, “Go ahead, hang yourself.”
“You may proceed, Mr. Harvey. I’d like to hear this.”
“Well see, y’onah, I jus’ wanna say I ain’t try a hurt no’ne. I’s just out ‘ere try a gib folk a laugh, y’know, shake my lil’ toosh a bit.”
The entire courtroom burst into a fit of laughter. Judge Munson couldn’t stifle a short chuckle of his own. The four reporters in their customary spot on the second row behind the prosecution scribbled “shake my little toosh” as fast as their hands could manage.
“I understand, Mr. Harvey. You have a unique talent for entertaining people. Other than me, that is. On the charge of indecent exposure, I find you not guilty.” The judge turned, baring his dark jowly scowl, toward Pfc. Mendes, sitting comfortably next to the assistant DA. “Officer Mendes, this is the sort of frivolous nonsense that has my court backed up to next century and I’m sick of it. I am quite sure there was a better way to handle a homeless man in a tutu than dragging him off to jail where he has been a great cost to taxpayers. If we are going to start convicting people for showing off their cheeks on the Boardwalk, then you’re going to have to haul in every single young woman on the beach. I am warning you, do not bring nonsense like this into my court again.”
Grub felt such a well of excitement rise into his chest that he thumped the solid maple defense table with his fist in celebration. Even Miss Erickson was inspired enough to smile at Grub and lay a kind hand on his shoulder.
Judge Munson turned back to Grub.
“You’re not off the hook yet, Mr. Harvey. There’s the matter of performing on the Boardwalk without a license. You do not deny that you were performing for a crowd without a license?”
“Well, that is punishable by a $500 fine or up to 90 days in prison. Do you have $500, Mr. Harvey?”
“I didn’t think so. Well, a permit to perform on the Boardwalk can be obtained at City Hall for one dollar. I also have the authority to issue a performer’s permit. Do you have one dollar to pay to the court today for your permit, Mr. Harvey?”
Grub’s head sank. “Nuh’uh, y’onah.”
“I have a dollar. I can pay for him, your honor.”
“No, I’m afraid not, Miss Erickson. That’s a kind gesture, though. Glen Harvey, I find you in violation of local ordinance requiring a permit to perform on the Ocean City Boardwalk and sentence you to serve 90 days in prison with credit for 62 days served. That’s 28 days, Mr. Harvey, as a warning to you. It could have been three years. Remember my promise. Do not let me see you here again.”
For the likes of Grub, it was still a triumphant day in court. He celebrated scoring a major victory over Pfc. Mendes, although he knew the officer would hold a grudge for sure now and be champing at the bit for payback.
The final 28 days in city jail flew by and Grub burst onto Coastal Highway with a spring in his step. Only nine blocks to the condo and a big night with Andy and his almost full half gallon of White Marlin. Grub could always trust Andy with his liquor. He much preferred crack or meth. It made them ideal roommates.
But when Grub got back to the condo, his internal alarm started sounding as soon as he snuck up the stairs to the third story corner unit. The window at the far end of the condo, which he and Andy always left wedged open with a small plastic doorstop, was bashed out. It was a completely careless act – not just because it drew the attention of residents and, inevitably, the cops, but winter was just around the corner and the cold Atlantic wind was a miserable bedfellow on long nights.
Grub heard voices and was about to turn tail and run when he deciphered one of them as Andy’s. He was relieved. He needed to get deep into a handle of White Marlin, but more pressing was the Polaroid of him and his mom from Christmas 1968. He didn’t remember Christmas 1968, but he did remember that the picture used to have Christmas 1968 scribbled on the back before he spilt vodka on it and the date rubbed off.
He crunched against fallen glass, carefully navigating his way through the window. The two men within heard him and scattered, but Andy caught a glimpse of his old roommate before fleeing out their escape route.
“Aw shit, it just Grub. Aye Grub, when you get out? I seen’n’a paper you got charge wi’ some incident ‘sposure. Figgered judge’d lock you up aleast three a fi’ year. Gark gark gark.” Andy looked nervous. His left eye was twitching and he batted at it like it was a pestering fly. He didn’t introduce the man standing next to him, and in fact looked more like he was trying to pretend he wasn’t there.
“Who him?” Grub asked.
“Beano,” the man answered for himself. “And you is good for nothing but trouble. Andy told me how them cops foller you around, just lookin’ to bust ya. We don’t want none of that attention ‘round here so maybe you best move on, Grub.”
“Whadafuck, who you talkin’ me li’ that?” Grub felt extremely agitated. He needed a drink and now. He burst past Beano and Andy into his room. At first his White Marlin vodka bottle was nowhere to be seen, but then he saw it in the corner among a pile of assorted empty plastic liquor bottles. The room was trashed. Grub felt ashamed. He always took pride in keeping the condos where he squatted in perfect condition so the owners would have minimal worry after he was inevitably found and chased off.
The stink of stale urine hung in the air. Grub could see the yellow piss stain spread across the white carpet in the corner by the pile of liquor bottles. His sleeping bag had been co-opted into an arrangement of tattered blankets that presumably belonged to Beano, an outsider Grub had never seen before. There were discarded bits of food – half-eaten sandwiches with molded crusts and festering meat, melted pieces of candy fused to the carpet – everywhere, not to mention a suspiciously large blood stain smeared across the wall. There were a hundred cigarette butts cast around the floor and twice as many burn marks on the carpet and walls.
“I’se sorry, Grub, I needa sumbody watch m’back. You getchya ass thrown in the clink alla time, can’t watch m’own ass alla time.” Andy had materialized behind Grub in the doorway to the room. Grub didn’t turn to address him.
“M’gone, Andy, jus’ ge’dasumbitch tell wheredago ma Polaroid and I’ma g’on git.
“Polaroid? One ya mamma? Ah shit, Grub. Grick grick grick. Gack gack.” Andy looked in pain trying to stop the nonsense sounds from bursting forth. He looked troubled in every way.
“Waddyamean, ah shit?”
“What dipshit is tryin’ to say to ya, Dipshit Number Two, is that we burnt up that ol’ass picture of ya mamma cuz it was gettin’ cold and we wanted us a little fire.”
Grub emitted a wild sound, the sound of rage, as senseless to the human ear as Andy’s nervous noises, but filled with such pure animalistic passion that it would surely have been recognized by any great predator – a wolf, a bear, even a lion. He launched himself at Beano, but the much younger, much stronger man caught him by the neck and used his momentum to sling him head first into the wall. The pain was immense, Beano’s brute force sending his head inches deep through the sheetrock.
Beano proceeded to kick Grub in his ribs repeatedly. Grub didn’t bother trying to defend himself. His survival instinct kicked in again. He was a mouse. A lamb. Or better yet for the occasion, an armadillo or a possum. The more meekly he could take his beating, the sooner Beano would get bored.
But Andy, damn him, Andy couldn’t bear the sight. He was weaker than Grub, reed thin from years of malnutrition and crack and meth abuse. He clubbed Beano over the back of the head with a glass beer bottle, which just served to piss him off more. Beano grabbed Andy by the shirt collar and repeated his move of launching him headlong into the wall.
Andy, unfortunately, struck a stud. There was a sickening crack that didn’t come from the wall and Andy’s body collapsed to the ground in an awkward contorted mass.
“Shit.” Beano grabbed a coat from a pile and took off out the window. In his haste, he slashed his wrist on a chunk of glass still attached to the frame and left a stream of blood along the concrete railway and down the stairs.
“Andy! Andy! C’mon. Lookame.” Grub shook Andy’s shoulders vigorously and smacked his face. Grub had decent instincts for many things, but proper care for major neck trauma was not one. He didn’t think it mattered. Andy wasn’t moving. And his neck was pointed in an awful direction compared to the tilt of his shoulders. Grub slapped his face again.
“Gawdammit quit hittin’ me.” Andy didn’t open his eyes, but he turned his head toward Grub and grimaced in pain. He lifted his hands and placed them against his cranium like he was squeezing a melon.
Grub had a hard time holding back from hugging Andy, but his joy was short lived. He caught a glimpse of a dark figure staring in the front window in his peripheral vision and thought Beano had come back to finish the job.
But it was worse.
“What kind of fuckin’ retard soap opera do we have here?” Pfc. Mendes surveyed the two men sitting battered against the busted wall, the putrid piles of trash in the condo, the broken window and the blood that he had followed up the stairs to the unit. “Don’t look at me so surprised, you idiot. I followed you from jail. Did you think I was going to let you embarrass me like that in court and that was going to be the end of it?”
“Please, Off’sir Menda. T’ain’t whatta look. Beano. It all Beano. Hedunnit. Please, off’sir.”
“Save it, bub. This is some serious shit here. Forced entry. Destruction of private property. Third-degree burglary, easy. Maybe first-degree burglary and first-degree assault, once I track down this bleeder and convince him it’s in his best interest to testify against your ass. Oh, Judge Munson is gonna nail you for 10 years, no doubt. If he’s not feeling like such a pussy, you’re gone for 20.”
“Please, off’sir…” It wasn’t even a real plea, it was a whimper. Grub was no legal expert, but he had been in court enough times to know the deck was stacked against him. He knew what it looked like, and what it looked like was enough to convict a man like him.
Pfc. Mendes radioed for back up and didn’t even bother to tell Grub to stop when he got up and walked to the back bedroom. He knew Grub was a mouse. Not going anywhere.
Grub rifled through the empty bottles. As luck would have it, the handle of White Marlin still had a good four shots of vodka in it. Seemed even a hard thug like Beano couldn’t handle White Marlin on its own. Grub downed it in one long swill, then lay down and closed his eyes.
He became an armadillo. A possum. He hoped he could get his hands on some vodka upstate. He hoped his liver would give out before he got there.