Fool on the Hill – by Terry Barr

Two weeks after Jimmy Carter was inaugurated as the 39th President of the United States, I moved to Capitol Hill. I was a college kid from a small-town, not quite twenty-one.

Two months after I moved, on St. Patrick’s night, I found myself throwing up the various pints of green beer–consumed earlier at The Hawk & the Dove–into the bushes near my apartment house, Capitol Hill Lodge, on stately Massachusetts Avenue. I hadn’t eaten any supper after work that night. I had never drunk green beer before that night. And as a half-Jewish, half-protestant guy from Bessemer, Alabama, St. Patty’s Day meant nothing to me before that night. However, when one of my co-workers, a very preppy native of Boston, invited my fellow mail carriers and I to go with him to celebrate this green day with like-minded ale, what else could I do?

The H&D was jammed, the beer tasted fine, and the celebration was so heavy that I almost attempted two things that would have changed my simple life.

There was a twenty-nine year old woman at the bar that night, one of the congressional aides I saw four times a day as I made my rounds through the Longworth House building. On these rounds, I pushed a big-wheeled cart that had a high tray for “inside mail”—the stuff going from one congressperson to another within the three House buildings—and the “outside mail”—the letters to constituents that most of us discard unopened in our daily trash. This woman was black-haired with slight wisps of gray, and, I thought, pretty sultry even though she did have lightly-dark rings under her eyes. I knew she was twenty-nine because I had already asked her to go out with me one late afternoon as I was finishing my pick-up.

“How old are you,” she wondered.

“Twenty.”

She considered a moment my long sideburns, my semi-Fu Manchu moustache. Beards and long hair and blue jeans were taboo in House employment, so I did the best I could. I have long wondered where her considerations took her in those moments.

“No, I don’t think I better.”

My policy was to accept a girl/woman’s response point blank. I never pressed a woman or ever asked a woman who said “No” out a second time, except the woman who later married me and has now stuck with me for the past thirty-two years.

But on this night at The H&D, this woman pressed herself against my side, seemingly ready to laud whatever St. Patty had to offer. So I almost leaned in for a kiss. I almost had either an extraordinary night at her place or mine, or a quick slap in the face. Either alternative, I realize now, would have paid off oh-so-well over the next 240 times I passed her congressional doorway for the mail that most people throw away.

So instead, I called my friend Al Mattern over because I knew he was thirty-two and I considered him suave for a mail carrier because he spoke loudly and well and was the one who got to drive the electric pick-up cart. A few weeks later, Al invited me over to his place in Arlington to watch the NCAA semi-final basketball games, and we both enjoyed seeing Al McGuire’s Marquette Warriors defeat Dean Smith’s NC Tar Heels, making me a southern turncoat or something. After smoking too many joints, Al drove me back to my place, stopping first to pick us up some Jack-in-the-Box in those pre-botulism days. I never asked him what happened after I introduced him to a woman whose name I can no longer recall, and he never said a word about it either.

The other thing that almost happened–and this could only have almost happened to me after I had ingested four pints of green beer–was:

I leaned in to my friend Billy “Nitro” Freeman and suggested that we “just leave because the bartender is so busy, he’ll never notice and if he does, he’ll never be able to catch us.”

Thinking back on that night, I’d estimate that at least 200 people were crammed into the bar, every one of us demanding more green beer.

“I know he wouldn’t catch me, but it’s a bad idea man,” Billy said, and so we kept on drinking and grooving to that traditional St. Patty’s ballad, “The Lido Shuffle.”

Once, or actually several times in our friendship, someone asked Billy why his nickname was “Nitro.”

“It’s because for a fat boy, I sure can run,” and then for proof of something, he’d pull up his shirt and show you the stretch marks around his gut and armpits. “I used to be skinny, too,” he’d say wistfully, “but even now, I’m faster than you.”

My roommate, Peter Hackes—son of the famous NBC newsman—took Billy up on his racing challenge. After work that fine April day, each changed into a pair of shorts, but for some strange reason, they still wore their work boots. Peter’s boots were worn down on the outer edges of his heels for that was how he walked. Still, when someone yelled GO and they took off, running maybe sixty yards, Peter finished first, about three yards ahead of Nitro.

“Not bad for a fat boy,” Billy said as he ambled back, and it was the way he said it that made me feel like Billy had won after all. That was the Lido Swagger.

“So why are you called Nitro,” I asked.

But I didn’t get the real skinny until Billy and I drove one Friday night after work to Frederick, Maryland, with Billy’s older brother. There at a bar where we drank all the Falstaff beer they had in stock, Billy’s brother, hearing one too many “Nitro’s,” said to everyone listening,

Yeah, the real reason we call him Nitro is that when he drinks like this, his farts kill.”

I had never seen Billy giggle before that night, but he even did that with a swagger.

On St. Patty’s night, however, his cool saved me.

“It’s not worth it man.”

So I decided I should pay my bill, but before I did so, I decided I needed some air. As I left to go out into the night, the bartender grabbed me,

“Hey, you have a pretty big tab you know.”

“Oh, I’ll be right back, just have to get a breath.”

A few minutes later, I paid the man his $36 plus a generous tip.

Getting caught would not only have been primarily stupid, but secondarily so. I was living and working in DC with a patronage grant from my own congressman, Walter Flowers, who had contacted a professor of mine at the University of Montevallo—Dr. Jack Hamilton—asking if he would nominate someone from the college who also lived in the congressman’s district. That was me: a Social Work major carrying a 3.6 GPA who had also been chief editor of our campus newspaper—The Alabamian—as well as a SGA senator.

So given that I didn’t succumb to temptation on either count, you’d think that the Catholic God and saints would have taken pity on me. You’d think that at the very least they would have allowed me to make it into my apartment and vomit in my own toilet instead of breaking me down just a block from my destination. But I guess I should be thankful that no one saw me or did worse to my pitiful being.

I can tell you this, too: when you puke green beer, it loses none of its tone.

And in the morning, empty and now starving for some kind of food other than the sliced oranges I normally ate before heading to work, I retraced my path from the night before, back to work, and for the next three hours made my rounds, passing the aide I almost kissed, and waiting patiently for my lunch hour, craving that entire time what, fortunately, was being served as the feature dish in the House cafeteria: slices of premium rump roast, just like my mother made for all the Sunday lunches of my naïve youth. I ate that day with undisguised relish.

#

I remember when Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan, was exposed for snorting cocaine. While that act was nothing to relish, it wasn’t as devastating as, say, bugging your rival party’s headquarters, getting routinely high on jelly-confectioned beans and thinking trees caused pollution, appointing your son-in-law to your inner cabinet, or berating department store chains for their insensitivity to your daughter.

Carter was the first person I ever voted for. My college roommate, Keith Brandon, and I headed the Georgian’s campaign on the UM campus, which amounted to distributing “Gimme-Jimmy” buttons (with that caricatured grin), and arguing regularly with our dorm-mate Frank–an Irish guy who sported a full chin-beard, no moustache, and carried a beautiful hardwood cane to aid his polio-ridden legs–over gun control. Frank viewed registration as the slippery first step toward “confiscation.” Every other night, Keith and I could hear him coming, from the minute he left his first-floor room to the second he hit the staircase—no elevator in our modern facility—to the inevitable instant when he appeared in our doorframe saying, “Hey fellas, what’s going on?” If he had called us, I’m sure we would have saved him the struggle up and down those stairs, but I guess it was a matter of pride for him to come to friendly enemy land and argue us to a standstill.

“Why do you care so much about pistols anyway, Frank,” we’d ask. “What do you even need one for?”

“Target practice,” he’d say, though what target he was truly aiming for, we never discovered.

When we set up our campaign wares outside the UM Student Center, we’d engage in other arguments such as expanding or limiting welfare coverage. Some of my fellow social work majors argued vehemently over limiting benefits because, as they’d say, the poor just wanted to have more children and bilk the government for more money.

The poor could always “turn to Jesus,” others added.

There wasn’t much arguing, though, in the days following the Carter-Ford debate when President Ford declared that he didn’t consider Poland under Soviet dominance. It was strange using the Cold War to our advantage, almost thanking the USSR for being there.

Just as it’s funny today to think that one of the great knocks against Carter, or virtually any Democrat then, was that they were “soft on communism,” and too unwilling to face down the Russian Bear. Remember, too, how Carter was slammed for normalizing relations with mainland China, for recognizing that communist state as the true China instead of Taiwan?

Remember which president first visited communist China, though?

Or which president took Osama Bin Laden out of this world?

In any case, it is funny to me about Carter’s Georgia Mafia and Jordan’s cocaine use, because in the first two months of my job delivering mail in the US House of Representatives Post Office in the revered Longworth building, I participated in a cocaine deal, struck in the very basement of that building where our mail carts were sequestered. I, and the others participating, paid $70 for a gram, and my main qualm about this deal was that I had never spent so much money on one particular item before, except for the pair of Electro-Voice stereo speakers I bought for $69 each the previous summer. After taxes, I brought home about $1000 a month from the House PO, and given that Peter and I were sharing the $200 a month rent, utilities included, $70 was no big deal, really. Except that it was, you know, not very legal.

Guilt-induced, I later sold half my gram at face value to one of my cohorts, glad to rid myself of both product and guilt, though not so repentant that I didn’t have fun with what I kept. I’d think sometimes of my poor parents who unknowingly financed me to make such deals in our nation’s capital. Who considered every night, I’m sure, what a trustworthy and virtuous citizen I was.

Still, they’d be proud to know that I never made another coke deal in Washington, and that I never saw another such deal go down in the basement of the House, which is kind of like thinking that after you’ve discovered a rat living in the basement of your own apartment building and exterminated him, you’ve completely rid yourself of the pest problem. Or like thinking that the USSR saw Poland as a beloved, protected son.

I don’t know why I wasn’t paranoid about buying cocaine in a government building. Maybe it was because the cellophane packet was so tiny, that it fit so snugly in my corduroy pants pocket. It wasn’t like the guards sitting at every entrance to the building patted us down. As long as we displayed our ID’s visibly, we were okay to leave or enter. Okay, that is, as long as we weren’t carrying something with us, something opaque that needed to be checked. Something like a valise, a backpack, or…a toilet bag.

#

Billy lived in a garage apartment behind his parents’ townhouse somewhere on residential Capitol Hill. Once we knew each other better, sometimes he’d invite me for dinner. After a night of getting stoned and listening to Blue Oyster Cult’s “Agents of Fortune” or The Outlaws’ “Hurry Sundown,” I’d make the near-midnight, mile-and-a-half walk back to my place, taking a different route home each time. I remember when I first told my oldest friend, Jimbo, about moving to DC and being mildly shocked at his reaction since he was always the more adventurous one of us:

“Okay, but I don’t want you out on the streets late at night,” he said, as if he were my father or my lover or something. As if I would take such chances or throw up in the bushes or something.

As if I’d walk home alone, very late and very stoned.

On one of the first Saturdays after I moved to the district, I used the Yellow Pages to map out a walking route from the Hill to Georgetown with the aim of hitting as many used and specialized bookstores as I could. I was plush and heady with my first-ever checking account, ready to buy the books that would make me “political;” the ones that would change my life and form me into a Washington Post-style investigative reporter so that I might expose further presidential malfeasance or the drug rings in House office buildings.

Books like All the President’s Men, On the Bus, The Final Days, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.

In that latter classic, author Hunter S. Thompson, stoned on psychedelics or not, praises California congressman Ronald V. Dellums, a true Berkley radical whose House office sat squarely on my daily rounds. Only once, though, did I actually see Rep. Dellums, as I strode through his office door:

“Congressman Dellums, I really admire you. I read all about you in Hunter Thompson’s book!”

He sort of smiled, said “Thank you,” and excused himself to go enact some legislation, or look up my reference, or call the Post Office downstairs. Later, I told my good friend Ron—who mentored me back at Montevallo—what I’d said to Dellums:

“Was he happy or embarrassed,” Ron asked.

“You know, I really can’t say,” I replied. I wonder today at my own lack of viewpoint.

But before that wonder, that experience, before I bought and read that book, there was the Saturday of my designed path. I wandered through downtown D.C., trying to locate an obscure sci-fi bookstore, still hoping to enhance my political education through foreign bodies. But as I turned an otherwise nondescript street corner, other bodies interfered and asked that I give a quarter to pass by.

The four guys were big and, of course, not overwhelmingly friendly. How much was a quarter worth to them back in ’77?

“Sure,” I said as bravely as I could, and then handed the one who asked—a very big guy wearing a billed cap—my coin.

“You can pass,” he said, motioning down the street. And even though I wanted to go straight, I took that left turn and eventually angled back in the direction I originally wanted. I found the sci-fi place, too, and purchased The Man in the High Castle.

As entrance fees go, mine wasn’t too steep really, and really, that instance on a sunny street in the middle of a winter Saturday afternoon was the only time in the nearly six months I lived in Washington that anyone accosted or even stopped me on my way.

Still, I was relieved every time I re-entered my apartment after a night at Billy’s, considering myself smart or lucky or something.

Sometimes Billy would suggest that I spend the night, usually on a weekend. For some reason, though, once, we planned on my sleeping over on a weeknight. All I needed was my toilet bag containing toothbrush and paste, deodorant, and razor. And, of course, my quarter-bag of pot.

Life is funny, and much passion, hubris, and forgetfulness can be blamed on an extremely stoned man.

Except that when I packed that evening, I wasn’t.

When I packed, I wasn’t thinking of the morning, of the entrance to the Longworth Building. Of the guard awaiting me—the one who asked me to

“Open that bag and let me see what’s in it.”

“Oh. This? It’s just my toothpaste and toilet stuff.”

“I still need to see.”

At least I had known by pot-smoker’s instinct to keep the bag buried underneath the more legit goods. But at that moment, all I could see was my congressman, his gorgeous aide Beverly, my parents and my professors back home. All that shame when they’d get the call and when I’d return home months before I was due.

And in that moment, I did the only thing I could do:

I opened my bag.

To his credit and my relief, the guard looked in, saw my tube of Crest, and said,

“Okay.”

Thankfully, I’m not the sort who continues making small talk after he’s gotten away with something; not the kind to explain where I had been the night before, what I had been doing. That I, of course, was a small town Alabama boy, here in the capital trying to make good, and not listening to the corrupting influences of rock and roll and smoking the devil’s weed.

Instead, I walked on down to our basement, stashed my bag–with the weed I had bought right here a few days before–into my locker, and proceeded on my appointed rounds.

#

Of course, I did wander through the district, stoned, on occasion. My co-worker Dave, who at this time was eighteen and either taking a break before college or deciding where to aim his arrow, got us stoned after work one Saturday, and as we sat around his apartment trying to adjust, he jumped up and said, “C’mon.”

I followed him onto a Metro bus riding crosstown, and when we got off somewhere on Connecticut Avenue, I kept following him right into a bookstore that hadn’t made my list before.

Revolution Books.

That afternoon I bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto, which, actually, I had no idea you could legally acquire, as well as a Socialist Workers’ Party newspaper whose headline read,

“Britain’s Sacred Cow Visits America.”

Those crazy Trotskyites.

Standing in this dark space, I did feel revolutionary, and my feelings only grew deeper as Dave led us to a Cuban restaurant nearby. I had no idea what to expect from Cuban cuisine, but as I scanned the menu, I recognized items that sounded Mexican-restaurant familiar. Enchiladas, only with chicken, accompanied by black beans, a food that we didn’t eat much of back in Alabama, but that, in this seat of western capitalism, filled me with subversive pleasure.

It all seemed so “communist chic.”

The beans were exceptional, and I say that sincerely and not just as one who, that afternoon, was a slave to the munchies.

Recently, a Cuban café opened in our tiny college town, a former mill village, in rural South Carolina. Not bad for a population of 8000 that has shown that it will not support any form of local coffee house. It was not exceptional faire, and matters grew even grimmer when I learned that the mixed-race couple that owned it—she an American, he a native Cuban—also identify as Baptist. Maybe this is all apropos of the post-Castro era.

Back in ’77, though, Castro was still menacing the minds of many in western republics, and the $6.00 I paid for my lunch was, of course, a quarter of what I paid for my ounce of pot. In another few years our next president would declare a War on Drugs, the price of pot would increase ten-fold, and so it would become simpler and more efficient to go ahead and buy coke. But on this afternoon with Dave, the underground rage was still cheap pot, rare black legumes, and sacred cows in tiny dark bookstalls, all within walking distance of the world’s greatest power-seat, which we strolled past on our way back home to my apartment building, which was also near power. But at a cost of $200 a month—utilities included—I should have known the limits of its and my condition.

#

When I first called Capitol Hill Lodge to ensure that my apartment would be ready for occupancy, I’d have sworn to Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter, and even George Wallace that the woman I was speaking to on the phone, the apartment manager, was a Yankee white woman. Her tonal quality reminded me of Bea Arthur on “Maude,” though much friendlier. This woman’s name now escapes me, though Bernadette or Josephine keeps floating to the surface. In any case, I suppose she’s dead now, but on the late Saturday morning I entered her office in the Lodge (we had driven all night from Alabama), coming in from a snow that seemed to darken the atmosphere rather than lighten it, the person who greeted me was a very stout, bosomy, black woman.

“Must be the assistant manager,” I thought.

And then she spoke.

Damn, I know I was a stupid hick from Alabama and should have known better—like black people who are natives of Britain don’t speak in a Southern American dialect either—but until that moment, I had never heard a black person speak in such a voice.

Even “George Jefferson” sounded black to my ears.

So at that precise moment I knew I was immersed in the North. Whatever her name actually was, Bernadette or Josephine welcomed me in, gave me my apartment and mailbox keys, took my first month’s rent plus deposit, and set me free to ascend to the second floor and my new home. My studio apartment had one long window above the twin beds, which rested against opposite walls. A kitchenette adjoined the one living space, and just in back of it was a closet/hallway leading to the bathroom. My friend Ron and his girlfriend Lynne accompanied me on the move, and because Ron’s car was a Mercury Bobcat—a grandiose Pinto—I had to choose which of my precious things to bring. There wasn’t room enough, finally, for both the portable, 15-inch color TV and the stereo component set, and since I wanted talking heads to comfort me and since I also had the AM radio that my Dad and I formerly used to listen to Alabama football games, I chose the TV, even though when in use, I had to slap its sides every twenty seconds to get the picture back in focus.

In the six months I lived at Capitol Hill Lodge, I met no other tenants, though the ones I passed in the lobby looked much more prosperous than I. Many were much older, too, all were white, and most had The Washington Post delivered each day to their door. It was such a thrill for me to sometimes swipe one of their dailies, and then swoon over such luminous names as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein or David Broder affixed to front and editorial pages.

Other than sharing the Post at 200 Massachusetts Avenue, the other things that we tenants commonly held were the rats in our basement laundry facility and, I assume, the infestation of roaches in our private living spaces.

I didn’t cook that much and always cleaned up after myself if I did. No matter, those roaches were in the cabinets, under the counters, on the ceiling, everywhere. Though I never fully adjusted to their presence, I did sleep better each night after killing a dozen or so.

I couldn’t kill the rats, so after a few weeks, Billy offered his own washer/dryer for my use.

So when I heard our now current president cautioning John Lewis about cleaning up the mess in his congressional district—basically the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta—I wanted to suggest to the man in orange that he look to his own house or tower. Because all is not well practically everywhere. Roaches, rats cocaine users: they don’t care about the condition your conditional accent is in.

When I finally moved out of the Lodge, my parents insisted that I leave all plates and cups and every single iced teaspoon behind. For Peter. Another lost reminder of all my remainders.

#

My life on the Hill wasn’t solely composed of aides I wanted to date, buxom apartment managers, roaches on my ceiling, and friends who sold me drugs and let me do laundry at their parents’ urban townhouse. I met some famous people, too, like Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, from Texas. Once, a friend and I thought we saw Cy Vance speeding past us in a dome-lit limo. And then there was the day Andrew Young, recently confirmed UN Ambassador, came striding down the hall as I made my rounds on the fourth floor. He smiled at me, too, and I smiled back even though I knew that my Dad thought Young was a radical.

No one I met, however, could compare to the two men I worked for: the assistant postmaster, a guy named Elmo, and my immediate supervisor, Frank.

Elmo mainly sat in his “office,” a glorified cubicle, hoping no one needed him. Sometimes he’d walk through the room, always dressed in white shirt, black pants, black tie, and shoes whose laces were frayed, for all to see. He seemed mainly sober.

When my service was near its end, Elmo called me into his cubicle, the first time we had ever spoken:

“Well, Frank tells me your leavin’ us. He says you’ve done fine work, fine work.”

“Thank you Elmo.”

“Yep, fine work. So, we were thinkin’ that we’re gonna give you your last week off, with pay, to show you how much we appreciate you.”

“Wow. That would be great Elmo.”

“Whatcha gonna do with all that time?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go to New York. I’ve never been, and it would be great to see some shows there.”

“Yeah. You know you can get free tickets to those shows. All ya have to do is write to ‘em.”

“Really? Cause I heard they could be pretty expensive.”

“Nah, write to ‘em. They’d be glad to have you in the audience. “The Match Game,” “To Tell the Truth,” any of ‘em.”

“OK, I will Elmo. And thanks again.”

What would have been the point of explaining? After all, he meant well.

Frank was a Baltimore man, and I never knew men from Baltimore had specific Baltimorean accents. The only way I can describe it is to say that they pronounced their fair city “Bal-TEE-Moah.” Frank considered all of us guys in the mailroom to be his “boys,” and he treated us much like the father in the book I’m listening to now, Shit My Father Says: gruff, but with love. Frank was sixty-five at least, smoked the worst-smelling pipe tobacco I’ve ever scented, and wore flannel shirts and brown slacks every workday. “Grizzled” is the word that describes him best, and that attitude showed if any of us ran late, or got the inside/outside mail confused.

I’m guessing that Frank would have been irate and disappointed about the drugs. Worse, that some of us smoked at lunchtime, which meant that the afternoon mail maybe didn’t quite get to where it should have. Perhaps this explains the slow doom of the Carter presidency. I confess that when I worked at my Dad’s jewelry store, I spent similar lunch hours, which meant that the prices I attached to the jewelry after lunch might have been just a bit off, which I’m sure had nothing to do with the business’s eventual collapse into bankruptcy. Wasn’t that just the way wholesale was heading?

Frank and my Dad were contemporaries, and so out of displaced generational respect, I agreed to Frank’s request that before I leave for good, I train my replacement. Patronage jobs had time limits, and the guy I was training was the definition of a southern prep-school boy, heading to the University of Alabama the following year. He wore blue ivy-league shirts, khaki pants, and Sperry Docksiders to work. I could have told him that he wasn’t a fit, but then someone could have told me that, too, on my first day. As I showed him the rounds, explained the intricacies of sorting mail, and introduced him to the aides in various offices, he proceeded to take notes in the little folding pad he brought.

I mean, he took notes on everything: which elevator to use, whose offices followed whose even though the names were attached to each door, where to stash the mail cart, which aide was the nicest. I wondered if he expected me to issue a quiz on the following day, and I thought about it seriously over night.

I didn’t though, and when I returned a week later to say my final farewells to Frank and Elmo and Al and Nitro Freeman, Frank pulled me aside:

“Tehhy, the new guy havin’ problems. Couldja go with him one moah time?”

“Sure Frank. I’d be glad to.

And so we made our rounds, the guy still taking notes, still asking exactly where the inside mail belonged.

When we returned to the mailroom, Frank looked at me as if I had the power of impeachment. But I just shook my head, grabbed his hand and said goodbye. I never told Frank that I was a Yankees fan, but now, every time I watch the Yanks play Frank’s beloved Orioles, I wince only a little and look the other way if the Birds win.

Two months after I left, I was eating at our favorite restaurant in Bessemer, The Bright Star, and I ran into the guy who replaced me, the guy who cut my time in Washington short. The guy who would be enrolling in law school that coming fall.

“Yep, I’m back home. The job just wasn’t for me,” he said with a grin.

“Guess not,” I replied, thinking about the choices we so callously make, the chances we throw away, the deals we could have had.

The people we choose to defend our rights, and the votes we so calculatedly waste or never use in the first place.

#

Something else happened to me in those Washington weeks. When, and only when, I had friends visiting me, we often went to the movies. I don’t know why Jimbo and I chose to see Fun with Dick and Jane, but we did. I think it was a light-hearted romp, something of a caper film. Another caper film was Behind the Green Door, the infamous Marilyn Chambers vehicle that Ron and Lynne insisted we see. Being from Alabama and all, we didn’t get the chance to see real and famous hardcore sex films. You know, the ones where men grab women by whatever hair they can grab and where sex occurs in vivid black and white. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to go, but in the end, it was pretty boring, and not so pretty.

The film I remember most, however, was Robert Altman’s Three Women, a picture I saw twice with Jimbo and with Freddy. It’s a film you kind of have to see twice if you’re going to get all that happens, or at least give yourself a chance to. The personalities of the three women in question—played by Shelly Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Janice Rule—morph into and beyond each other within the confines of a remote and rundown Texas motel where Rule’s very pregnant character keeps painting grotesque scenes of alien beings with tremendous penises violating the supposed females of their kind. Rule’s husband, played I believe by Robert Forster, stands behind each woman, guiding their aim, to a great extent, making them what they are: heartbreakingly psychotic. It’s a film I’d see again today, that is, if it weren’t playing out nightly on my news feed. I won’t tell you what happens at the end, a) because I hate to spoil things, and b) because it might get some people’s hopes up, or conversely, reinforce their belief that women should be seen, occasionally, but never heard.

In the end, it’s funny what we remember about a certain time and place in our lives. And what I remember tells me how very fortunate I was, though in my own end, I never became the political reporter I thought I would be. I changed my college major to English, and when the next election arose, I did not vote for Carter.

To my shame now, I voted third party, which didn’t matter so much in 1980 since Reagan truly did win in a landslide, unlike….

#

Inauguration day 2017.

If I go to Washington at all, it will be under no one’s patronage but my own. By the time anyone reads these words, this cloudy day will be some sort of memory, too: strange or nightmarish or perhaps the word my Nanny used when I was little, when I had been sick with whatever stomach bug was circulating in our collective system; when I had thrown up all my vegetable soup or cornbread, or that lime green Jell-o they used to give me for dessert when I had been extra good:

“I’m sorry darling,’” she’d say. “Does your throat taste bitter now?”

“Yes,” I’d nod, not completely understanding how she knew or why she was asking.

She’d give me some Canada Dry then, to soothe me and wipe the taste from my mouth. If only it were always so easy. If only she were here now to comfort me and, perhaps, you too.

terrybarr

Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in journals such as Full Grown People, Sinkhole Lit, Drunk Monkeys, Hippocampus, Left Hooks Journal, South Writ Large, and Lowestoft Chronicle. His essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother, will be published in a second edition this May by Third Lung Press. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.

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Somewhere Special – by J. Ray Paradiso

My Mother and Father were goo-goo sweethearts at Chicago’s Englewood High School, Home of the Eagles, The Purple and White. In their ice box days and goombah neighborhood, “Jim Paradiso’s my protector,” cautioned other guys better not mess with her lest they courted his rrrage and rrroar up close and personal, in their face, like a huge, bad-hungry, howling-bear.

They eloped right after graduation before he enlisted as a Seaman Recruit in the U.S. Navy. Packed light, my Mother boarded a heart thumping, tripleXXXpress to San Diego. Before he shipped out, they laid in at the first VACANCY sign. Needless service refilled his starch, restocked her dairy during brief breaks in their actiOn … with a CAPITAL “O.” For 72 non-stop hours, musing what to name me nine months o-u-t didn’t command his full attention or her top priority.

When he returned from service two years later, he was not the same, sweet, loving Cover Boy.  Submarine duty in the South Pacific stress-sank him.  No longer her protector, he modeled abusive drinking, concluding their divorce after countless, failed “I’m sorrys, “I won’t do it agains,”  “I still love yous.”

My Mother and I moved in with her parents, my Gram and Gramp, on the top floor of a Whew-walk up at 76th and Yates. Three stop lights from brain-freezing chocolate malts with whipped cream heads and cherry caps at Pinzur’s drug store. Two from slippery sliders at White Castle. One from double features plus Bugs Bunny, What’s up, Doc,? cartoons at the Shore Theatre.

My Father had visitation rights, and was ordered to pay child support, which he did.  Occasionally.

One visit, in particular, POPS from memory like a frosty bulb crunched in a vintage flash-camera. Buzzer-buzzzzing, I peek around the corner, spy my Gramp guard-gait the hall and catch his chilly, “Hi, Jim,” the way I’d greet the dentist. Then, “Jimmie, your Father’s here to take you out.”

 

We share hazel eyes, lady lashes, same names. That’s pretty much all we have in common. What we’ll do, where he’ll take me, how I’ll feel, are divined in a faded, black and white, 3×5 inch photo I’ll uncover 60 years later. Cradled in a timeworn, bulging, Alper-Richman Furs’ box, labeled “Family pict…+ clo… friends,” in my Gram’s best, as she would say, “chicken scratch.”

The photo shows me propped on a huge, stuffed, expresso-colored Grizzly at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Wearing a what-cha-ma-call-it, South-of-the-border, hat with starry tassels, a galaxy of tassels, dancing all around its two-tone brim, I look light years from Venus about the zoo, the bear and especially… the hat.

“We’re going somewhere special,” he says.  “Introduce you to my friends.  Show you off. You’ll like it.”

Perched on a stool with my new KEDS dangling mid-air, I meet my Father’s buddies at a shot-and-a-beer- for-a-dollar dive on Canal Street in a stone-washed part of town way before stone-wash fashions Rush Street chic-chic.  What are their names, Jack Daniels and Johnny Walker and…?

I feel (How can I describe it?) alien, derailed, bare-ass, homeless, hooky-spooks, pants-peed-creepy. Like a squirrel monkey posing for a Picasso portrait among stale paints, haggard brushes, thirsty canvass.

Somewhere special is where he said he’d take me, where he wanted to go. And somewhere special, to his mind, is exactly where we went, where he took me.

Lovingly.

jrayparadiso

J. Ray Paradiso is a recovering academic in the process of refreshing himself as a writer and photographer.

Game Changer – by Tonya Price

When the words came, Trina felt like she’d been punched in the gut.

“They suspect melanoma on back.” He told her, in a text message of all things, on his way home from the doctor.  Trina blinked and looked at the message again to be sure she had read it correctly.

“Did biopsy. Will know in 3 weeks. Just surgery if shallow. Chemo and radiation if deep. Great. Don’t tell anybody.” Came the next text.

“Shit. I knew that f’er looked bad. Just the one spot?” Trina texted back, the phone shaking in her hands.  No response.

She unpacked the groceries from his car, which she had borrowed from him that day, and tried to laugh while their 7-year-old daughter, Amelia, told jokes she had made up on the playground with her friends. Then she took the winter tires, wrapped in plastic storage bags and stacked them at the end of the garage, so they would be ready to load into her car when he got back. She looked tentatively down the road, waiting, somewhat impatiently, for his return. What does this mean? Melanoma – that’s the worst kind. So many things ran through her head. Did he cancel the life insurance policy like he said he was going to? What would she do for a living if he were no longer around to support her? She felt selfish thinking these thoughts. We are going to fight it, of course. He is not going to die. But she couldn’t help thinking of the time earlier this year, at the summer’s end, when Amelia had said maybe someone in our family won’t be alive next year.

“That’s crazy,” Trina had responded. And, because she was superstitious, “Like who?”

“Dad.” Amelia had said matter of fact.

Trina didn’t like it when Amelia said things out of the blue, and so calmly like that. It unnerved her.

A mouse dangled from the beak of a crow across the street, as other, lesser crows waited nearby for their share of the feast. She looked down the street in anticipation, and reminded herself that her daughter also dreamt that strangers broke into the house and shot everyone, and that had not come true.  At least not yet.

It probably was going to be fine. She reassured herself and waited with growing impatience at the end of the driveway. Her tire appointment was at noon and it was already 11:55. What was taking him so long? Of course, I can’t just jump in the car and leave. I must take time to talk about it. She shivered. Talk. Something they hadn’t really done in years. Nothing more, really, than the weather, and when to pick up Amelia, and what the plan would be for visiting family over the holidays. She could not imagine how it must feel to receive such a diagnosis, hard as she tried.  For God’s sakes, have some compassion, she thought to herself. Yes, I must hug him at least. She looked at the time on her phone, and again, down the street.

She thought about the long summer days she spent at the beach with the man she had met two years ago; his strong, bronzed arm strung casually around her shoulders, and the thrill she experienced when she sent sexy text messages or received one unexpectedly. Her stomach then had felt like a most delicious mix of butterflies and uncertainty. Of course, that would all have to end now.  This was a game changer. She couldn’t carry on behind his back anymore.

Then she thought back to the time when her daughter was three.  They were gardening, and again, out of the blue, Amelia began to describe to Trina the way her “new husband” would look.

“He has dark hair. That goes like this.” She had said as she waved her hand over her head and off to the side.

At the time, Trina thought it was the most unusual thing to ever come out of a child’s mouth. What does a three year old know of death or divorce? She herself could barely have imagined, back then, why on earth she would ever be with someone other than her husband. He had just gotten back from a year in Iraq, his second tour, and though things were not amazing, she’d always thought they’d get better on their own, in time. But, again, superstition had got the better of her.

“I’m going to be married to someone else?” Trina had stopped digging and glanced toward her daughter who was squatting over the garden in her sundress, the August sun bronzing her shoulders.

“Not Dad, but after Dad. When you’re older.” Amelia had kept digging with her plastic shovel.

“Well, what happens to Dad?” Trina had asked, once again digging in the dirt, contemplating this information, trying to act like it was not a big deal.

“I don’t know. He’s not there.” She had said,  as Trina handed her a bulb for the hole she had dug. Divorce. Trina had thought, as she dropped a bulb in her own hole and covered it with dirt. She had not considered the alternative back then.

Trina glanced furtively down the road and then snuck a peek of the picture she kept hidden on her phone. Would she be able to end it? She couldn’t think right now of continuing it. Everything had become so real.

Then the black SUV appeared in the distance. Her eyes shifted to the ground when he pulled up the drive. She shoved the phone in her pocket and then finally looked at him, really looked at him, for the first time in years.  She chose to ignore the take out bag he held in his hand, which he must have stopped for in spite of the fact that she had just bought groceries and had an appointment at noon, which she was now late for.

“How do you feel?” she heard herself saying as she fidgeted with the objects in her pocket, trying to guess what they were. A tissue. Mail key. Her phone, of course, it never left her side.

“I’m fine. I don’t want to talk about it.” He became busy piling the tires into the back of her SUV.

“Do you want a hug?” She didn’t feel like giving one, not to him, but God, he must need one. How inhumane of her to deny him that one basic need at a time like this. Even though he had denied her basic needs for most of their marriage.

“No.” He heaved another tire into the trunk. “Well, maybe, yeah.” He turned to her and they embraced for the first time in years. The hug felt unnaturally good. She patted his back.

“Thanks for telling me to go get it checked out,” he said.

“Yup,” she responded. She didn’t know what else to say, so she nodded, got in the car, and drove off to the mechanics.

That’s when it struck her. She slumped down in the seat and gripped the steering wheel, struggling to see the road through her tears. He might be dying and you’re making the last moments of his life misery. You’re not even trying to make this work. What kind of horrible person does that? She took a deep breath and the voice in her head reasoned. But I did try. I tried for years, when he was not trying.  The tears came freely now and were salty in her mouth. She wiped them away with the back of her hand. Suddenly the sexting didn’t seem so much fun and she wondered how she had ever could have done it in the first place. It filled your need. Came the voice. That’s how. She nodded to no one in particular, out the windshield. She took another deep breath and knew she couldn’t leave him. Not now. Not yet. This was a game changer. She would not just ‘try to stay’ as she had been doing for years. She would stay and try. After two years of guilt and stress and hidden phone messages, she had finally decided. Because of cancer.  of all the things, she thought. She drummed the steering wheel with her fingers. Then, surprisingly, even to her, a quiet laughter filled the car. She couldn’t help but think of the irony of it. Something known only for taking, and which still might, had given.

By the time Trina pulled into the parking lot, her tears were nothing more than dried up crystal-white riverbeds on her cheeks and the calm in her stomach told her that, no matter what, it was all going to be okay.

 

Let Us Drunkenly Compare Mythologies – by Lou Graves

What use is a large vocabulary if one is too shy to use it?  Epistolary perhaps?  A large vocabulary should include the obscenities.  Leonard Cohen said “there are no dirty words, ever.”  Lenny Bruce said “There are no dirty words, just dirty minds.”  Lenny Bruce was born Leonard Schneider; he changed his name because of anti-Semitism.  Leonard Cohen was born Leonard Cohen.  Erotographomania: (noun) an obsession with writing love letters and/or poems.  Leonard Cohen writes love letters and poems.  Lenny Bruce wrote How To Talk Dirty and Influence People.  Leonard Cohen is a genius.  Lenny Bruce was a genius before he died.  Love letters are a dead art form.

    The previous paragraph I found buried amongst the scribblings of an old notebook.  Clearly I had written it when Leonard Cohen was still amongst the living.  Since he has died it should perhaps say “Leonard Cohen and Lenny Bruce were both geniuses before they died” and “Leonard Cohen wrote…” rather than “Leonard Cohen writes…”  I was in bar when I heard that Leonard Cohen had died.  Later that night, stumbling home, I stopped to join a homeless man in chorus; we sang Bird on a Wire, our gravely off-tune voices echoing through the dead streets.  “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in some midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”  When I got home I woke up my roommates and told them Leonard Cohen had died.  I had to tell somebody.  We stood in the kitchen speechless.  Later that night I wrote a eulogy for Leonard Cohen and toasted him by finishing off the bottle of whiskey I had on my desk.  The eulogy was published the following month and then soon after that 2016 came to end.  In 2017 Leonard Cohen would have turned 83.

Obituaries and eulogies oftentimes are written in advance and then kept on ice (so to speak) until the subject has died.  W.H. Auden and another author (who exactly, I forget) were having breakfast when it was realized that each had already written the other’s obituary for the same Newspaper.  Hemmingway used to read the obituaries every morning to cheer himself up, and it seemed to work, for a while (he later stuck a shotgun in his mouth).  Marcus Garvey died of a heart attack when he opened the newspaper and saw his own obituary.  Mark Twain and Alfred Nobel both read their own premature obituaries.  Twain called it “an exaggeration.”  Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, went on to found the Nobel Prize.  Christopher Hitchens, after seeing himself described in a magazine as “the late Christopher Hitchens” was inspired to write his autobiography and when asked if it wasn’t a bit premature he replied that “One couldn’t very well leave it too late.”  Since 2011 Christopher Hitchens has been known as the late Christopher Hitchens.

As I write this I am sitting in the same bar where I first heard of Leonard Cohen’s death.  It’s a slow night.  At the end of the bar is a young woman with blonde hair who looks not unlike Leonard’s one time lover and muse, Marianne.  A ghost, perhaps?  The stool next to mine is empty and I can’t help wondering what Leonard would have to say should he wonder in and sit down.  Perhaps we would compare mythologies.  I lift my glass to toast Leonard and realize I have nothing to say.  Nothing, except cheers.  And thank you.  To Leonard.

lougraves

Lou Graves is a writer, literary and music critic, and contributing author to Narrow Magazine.  He  was born in London, England and has been writing ever since he could hold a crayon. Recent work has appeared in Out Of Our, Flash Fiction, Fishfood, The Write Room, One Sentence Poetry, Florida Speaks, A.C. PAPA, and others. He is the author of THERE IS AN EMPTINESS (a collection of poetry) and DUTCH COURAGE and other excuses for liver failure (a collection of essays.)

Smolder – by DENNIS FRIEND

Smolder

By

Dennis Friend

 

 

 

“What was your girlfriend’s name?”

Konni had been reading the newspaper when she glanced up slowly and stared at me. I could not read the look on her face.

What an odd question, I thought. Konni knew her name. In the 40-plus years we’ve been married, Konni has heard about Karen countless times. I answered anyway.

Wordlessly, Konni handed me the newspaper’s obituary section.

Karen’s name, the name of the funeral home and a brief “Complete notice later” summarized the end of Karen’s life in three sentences.

There never was a complete notice. The funeral home told me she had been buried in a pauper’s grave, attended only by her young daughter and the daughter’s guardians.

No headstone. No marker. No other survivors. No other friends.

She deserved better.

Her death unleashed a flood of memories, most of which I had buried for decades.

Softly whispering ‘I love you’

Karen and I stood waist-deep in the lake, the only two people swimming that chilly day in early autumn. Now, we were silent, clinging to each other like shipwreck survivors and kissing.

Karen started laughing and I drew back.

“What’s so funny?”

“You smell like a candy bar.”
“It’s cocoa butter. It’s like suntan lotion. It keeps you from getting sunburned,” I told her.

“I kinda doubt that,” she replied.

“Oh, and your mixture of baby oil and iodine works so much better.”

“Tell me, Dennis. Do you see sunburn here?” she asked, slipping out of my arms and flashing her bare back before diving under the water again.

I caught up with her. She spun around, kissed me and whispered “I love you.”

It was 1969, and that was the first time she ever told me that. The moment is frozen in time for me. Lyrics from a 1967 song by David and Jonathan perfectly described the moment, the mood, my time with Karen: “I can feel your warm face ever close to my lips and the scent of you invades the cool evening air, I can close my eyes and you’re there in my arms still… and I hear your voice whispering ‘I love you.’”

To paraphrase a line from Erich Segal’s “Love Story,” Karen loved her grandmother, the Beatles, life in the country, and me. I did not marry her. We did not live happily ever after. But she has had a profound effect on my life, despite the fact that I last saw her more than 40 years ago.

Some memories are faded or lost, since I have to think back to the days when my hair was not gray and most of my life stretched well ahead of me.

I have to think back to a humid summer evening in 1968 at a dimly-lit outdoor dance staged in a parking lot between a high school and a cemetery. I saw the petite blonde with her startling, hypnotic dark eyes almost as soon as I arrived.  She stood out as if someone had decided to shine a spotlight on her. She seemed radiant. I thought she was beautiful.

So did my friend, who immediately asked her to dance. An attractive, dark-haired young lady saw me staring toward the pretty blonde and told me, “Her name’s Karen,” then added somewhat ruefully, “all the guys want to dance with her.”

When the song ended and my friend left Karen by herself, I immediately introduced myself and asked her to dance.

I was enchanted. Karen was a high school senior who lived in nearby Bennington. I was a high school graduate ready to attend college in September. Karen and I danced for the rest of the night.

I was smitten by this beautiful creature with those marvelous eyes. She was funny, clever and fond of trying to confuse people with cryptic statements like, “Intelligence is not to be confused with an organized mind.”

“Is that a famous saying?” I asked.

“Yes, and much quoted,” She claimed.

Well, who said it?” I pressed.

She laughed. “I did, just now. Did you forget?”

She gave me her phone number and asked me to call her. I did. We began dating. I would make the trip faithfully, often in 15 or 20 minutes, even though it normally took at least 30 minutes to travel from my home in Omaha to her modest Allen Street house if one were to follow the posted speed limits. I chose to risk a speeding ticket. Who cares about a speed limit when you’re 18 and a beautiful girl is waiting for you?

We went to movies, to dances, to her school’s homecoming, to Friday and Saturday parties. She showed me her favorite retreat, a small, isolated rural family cemetery not far from her home. She said she liked the place because it was out in the country, peaceful and serene.

“I always think of how wonderful the country is,” she confided before adding out of the blue, “When I think of how beautiful nature is, I want you to be with me. You,” she repeated for emphasis, fixing her gaze on me.

No one speaks like this in real life, I thought. How could I not fall in love with her?

Happy together

A few years ago, I heard an odd and awkward quote: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to realize that this, too, was a gift.”

When I met Karen, I already had an attractive, intelligent, loving girlfriend. I was in the kind of relationship people usually reference by saying, “They belong together.” I wasn’t looking for someone new. I was at this summer dance because one of my friends was suffering through a breakup. I drove him there so he could meet someone.

He didn’t meet anyone, but I did. Karen was blonde and attractive, disarmingly charming, occasionally philosophical and wickedly funny. She had hazel eyes that seemed to change color depending on the lighting, the color of her clothing, even her eye shadow, and she had impossibly straight hair that smelled of baby powder, Heaven Sent perfume and, occasionally, cigarette smoke. She liked to write, as did I. She spoke a little German, which she had learned from her grandmother, someone she regarded with awe and deep affection. I was to learn over time that she could be both touchingly vulnerable and devastatingly cruel.

But she seemed content, when we were together, to just be together.

When I showed up for her high school commencement and for the party at her house afterwards, she simply said, “Thank you for coming to my graduation and seeing me cry.”

Later, she asked, “What’s wrong with me? I can never seem to say what I want to say to you, or to do the things I want to do with you. For some reason, when I’m with you, nothing I want to say or do seems important. I’m stupid anyway.”

Karen was not stupid. She was imaginative, sometimes argumentative, creative, impulsive, maddening, a curious mixture of bravado, sexuality and self-doubt, but never stupid.

She was an involved student. Her high school yearbook listed activities ranging from mixed chorus, girls’ glee, small groups and music contests to participation in the Merit and

Regents exam. She was an interscholastic test winner. She took independent study. She was involved with the school yearbook.

She occasionally sent me poems as well as letters. One of her poems included the lines,

“My thoughts come tumbling down in tears,

And so it seems through all my years…”

In turn, I sent her a free-verse poem filled with whatever wisdom a 19-year-old could muster.

I can remember only the lines,

“Some people walk white-caned through their lives

Not knowing the difference between

A sunset and

A sunset”

She said she loved it. She said she loved everything I wrote and everything I did and told me, “You should be a writer.” My dismissive answer was, “I have to work for a living.”

She shot me a look with those extraordinarily-expressive eyes that suggested I was a complete idiot and said quietly, “Some people make a living writing, and I believe it’s important for people to do what they love.”

I thought about it. Later, I changed my major from “teaching” to “communications” and decided I would become a writer.

Karen had that effect on some people. I was one of those people.

‘Cupid’s wings are not adapted for long range flights’

Karen didn’t seem to care about material things, and never talked about money. I assumed her family came from modest circumstances. The dress she wore to the homecoming dance had seen better days and had a rip under one sleeve, but she moved in ways that masked the tear and conducted herself in such a way that no one noticed.

She seemed to accept people as they were. I never heard her criticize anyone for the kinds of cars they drove, the jobs they held or whether or not they had money. When I had a few dollars, we would go to a restaurant for a dinner or to a movie theater to see popular films of the day.  She was not terribly fond of “Yellow Submarine” but loved “Romeo and Juliet.”

When money was an issue, we would spend an afternoon or evening at her house, retreating to her bedroom to talk, or kiss, or dance. We might lie wordlessly in her bed, arms around each other, listening to “I Will” by The Beatles or to the “Abbey Road” album.

It really didn’t seem to matter what we did or where we went. She seemed happy to be with me.

Over the years, some people suggested she was a coquette, toying with men without real feelings of affection. Maybe that was true. I don’t know and I don’t care. Truth is, I refused to believe it then or now, because this is a young woman with whom I fell deeply and madly in love.

She found it difficult to believe I would be willing to drive to her small town as often as I did, simply to see her. She once assured me I would become bored with her, quoting James Bossard to back her claim: “Cupid may have wings, but apparently they are not adapted for long flights.”

My response was to cut my college classes a few days later to show up at her high school. I told her principal that Karen was a friend of mine, I was planning to become a teacher and Karen had, in the interests of higher education, convinced me to tour the school. He gave me the tour. Karen managed to conceal her surprise when I showed up in her classroom, accompanied by her principal, but later acted as if my visit was not just a masterstroke of brilliance but also the equivalent of an expensive gift. I still have a letter she mailed to me, scripted in her impeccable penmanship:

“Dennis, I was just thinking about you and how much you mean to me. And then I thought of how beautiful you are to me, and I started to cry. And when I cried, I realized that I think I love you. And I wondered why you would ever like something like me. You’re beautiful and I love you. I think of your eyes and your face, and I know this. And I want to know you for a long, long time. Karen.”

Even if we can’t find heaven, I’ll walk through hell with you’

She could be charming and loving, but she also could turn inward, becoming distant and guarded, occasionally offering hints of deep insecurities and a disturbing childhood. She spoke of a mother who died just before giving her life. She once alluded to a father who had never been around, and of whom she would never speak. She told me the people I assumed were her parents were really her aunt and uncle, and that her sister was in reality her cousin. Most of the time, it seemed to me, Karen was alone. Perhaps it was by design, but she always seemed to be alone, and one song she was particularly fond of was “Lady Samantha” by Three Dog Night, with lyrics like “Lady Samantha glides like a tiger over the hills with no one beside her.”

She had mastered the art of hiding her feelings. I introduced her to my visiting grandmother one evening, just before Karen and I went out. Karen was polite, respectful and thrilled to meet my family, but as we left, my grandmother announced loudly, “I liked your other girlfriend better.”

I was mortified, but Karen looked for a split second as if she’d been stabbed. She regained her composure and we went on our way, but it was clear to me she was deeply hurt and felt unfairly judged. It was obvious her pain was deep and abiding.

She never brought it up again. I never forgot it.

To describe our relationship as tumultuous would be kind. It was volatile, volcanic, explosive, with stretches of love, caring and intimacy punctuated regularly by angry outbursts, betrayals and sullen silences.

We broke up once after an afternoon of arguments and recriminations that began at her house, crossed the street to her best friend’s home and ended only after I slammed the door and drove home, leaving her silent and curled in a fetal position on her friend’s couch. As usual, the argument was about love, commitment and sex.

“Get ready, because I’m about to sock it to ya,” she began, using a common phrase of the day. “How do you feel about me?”

“That’s my question,” I countered. “Every time we go out, we’re 10 minutes into our date and you’re telling me about some guy you had sex with. Then you tell me how bad you feel  about it.”

“I know you’ve got plenty of girls on your list besides me,” Karen pointed out.

“I know. We’re not exclusive. But my point is, you do whatever the hell you want, just don’t tell me about it every time we go out. I don’t want to know about it. When we’re on a date, it’s my time.”

I was angry. So was she.

“Don’t pretend to care if you don’t, unless you want me for an enemy,” she said.

I was running out of argument, but added for good measure, “And I’m sick of hearing about your old boyfriend Bill.”

“What Bill and I had was only cheap physical stuff, for him and for me. I’ve forgotten about Bill now.”

A few days after the argument, she sent me a conciliatory letter, conceding she had indeed been evasive and insensitive and agreeing that “communication is so important.”

“We’ve got to beat this thing!” she wrote. “Hit me, yell at me or something! That’s what I want ya to do!” She quickly reconsidered, “Oh. Wow. I wouldn’t really want ya to hit me or yell at me.”

We got back together. At first, she announced, “I’ve come to quite a few decisions about guys. I don’t trust any boy anymore.”

Later she told me, cryptically, “I can live again, now.”

“I don’t understand. What’s that mean?” I asked.

Her answer: “I could never be myself with you before because I never wanted you to know me before. I like you and I’m not going to put on any acts with you anymore.”

‘When you’re young and in love’

“How did you do this? Isn’t this a new shirt?” Karen asked, tracing the burn hole on the back of my shirt with her finger as we sat on her bed.

“Yeah, the shirt’s new. So is the burn hole. How it happened is kind of embarrassing,” I replied. On the way to her house to see her on this picture-perfect day, I decided to put the top down on my newly-acquired, fire-engine red, ‘62 Chevrolet convertible. The sun was out, Jimi Hendrix was on the radio singing about a purple haze and I was in love. I absent-mindedly flicked my cigarette. The entire hot ash, carried by the breeze, flew off the cigarette and out of the car, then flew back in, going down my shirt and melting a dime-sized hole in the new polyester pullover before the searing pain got my attention.

“Oh, my poor Dennis,” she said before giggling. “It serves you right. You don’t throw a lit cigarette out of a car.”

“I didn’t…” I began, but she interrupted with, “Here, let me make it better,” lifting my shirt and kissing the minor burn on my back. I stopped talking.

Karen had enrolled at the same university I attended, so we now met almost every day. We knew each other’s schedules, walked with each other between classes, ate Cheese Frenchies after school at a nearby diner.

My school attire usually consisted of jeans, moccasins and tie-dyed shirts. Her outfits included peasant dresses. We were a couple of Woodstock wannabees. She was gorgeous and I was with her.

I joked for years that, when Karen and I walked by, I actually could hear other guys gritting their teeth. I would have wagered they were asking each other, “What does a beautiful girl like that see in a guy like him?”

She brought her quick wit to college, attracting admirers as we sat in the student center, trading opinions and witticisms over coffee and doughnuts with our group of friends. In my more pretentious moments, I fancied our group as a collegiate version of the Algonquin Round Table. I felt confident Karen could easily fit the role of the clever, quick-witted Dorothy Parker, while I would be Robert Benchley.

Karen sat next to me one day, a half-smile playing on her face, as one earnest young man tried to impress everyone with his opinions on life, death and everything in between. I thought he was an ass, and clearly involved in a transparent attempt to impress Karen. He ended his verbal assault with a dramatic flourish, reminding her and everyone within earshot that, “Someday we will all die.”

Her response came quickly: “And on all our other days, we will not.”

Her half-smile remained as he got up and left the table, angry that she drew chuckles from the rest of the group. She turned to me and whispered just loud enough for me to hear, “So there.” I laughed. Now we were both smiling.

As my feelings for Karen grew deeper, she seemed to become more serious and more vulnerable.

“A certain part of me will always be a child,” she admitted once. “I can feel it when I cry, because child-like thoughts enter my mind when I cry.”

“But we’re human. We both protect ourselves and we both keep our feelings hidden,” I told her. Then, she surprised me.

“This is my idea of God. He is so sweet, so eternally wonderful. And this is how you are to me. I love you. I think of your eyes and your face and I know this. I could never fully describe the way I feel about you. It’s too deep.” She paused and added, “Now do you know how I feel about you?”

Her dark eyes smoldered. “Dennis, I mean what I say.”

‘Are we out of the woods yet?

The hill glistened with several inches of snow, it literally glistened, and Karen smiled.

“It’s perfect,” she said.

We had decided to cut classes to come to this park. We brought a sled and I brought a flask of Phillips Sno Shoe Grog, a concoction of brandy and peppermint schnapps purchased, despite the fact we were both under age, to keep us warm.

“You’re trying to corrupt me. I’m innocent,” she chirped, giving me a smile and a wide-eyed look she liked to use on me to stop my heart. We were both shivering, both chilled to the bone but we were both laughing as we warmed our hands and fingertips on each other’s bodies.  We really weren’t interested in sledding, but it gave us a reason to be close to each other, to laugh, to do something childish together.

The sled remained unused as we sat in the car, sipping the alcohol and chatting about nothing. I realized it was the first time I had ever seen her unguarded and happy. I wondered why she liked me so much. I knew I loved her and I knew I could never let her go.

I decided just before Christmas that I would ask her to marry me. I was still seeing the attractive, intelligent and loving girlfriend who planned to become a teacher, but I was no longer certain she and I belonged together. Karen had, little by little, changed my viewpoint on everything from politics and religion to sex and life. In short, she had changed everything I felt, everything I thought and everything I believed. I now believed Karen needed me and wanted me. I felt the same way about her. I would defend and protect her with my life.

I decided I would propose to Karen after a Christmas-break party that would close out 1969 and greet the New Year 1970.

Karen was, as usual, stunning. I was cheerful and nervously guarded my secret plan to ask her to marry me. At some point during the party, Karen disappeared. Perplexed, I approached the party’s hostess, a friend who broke into tears and confessed Karen had slipped away from the party with the hostess’ brother.

Where did she go? Why did she go? Why would she do that? I had questions. No one had answers.

Weren’t we together? I asked myself. The only answer seemed to be – I guess not.

Enraged, devastated, confused, I finally realized we had a problem. More specifically, I had a problem. With Karen, there would always be one more betrayal, one more confession, one more argument, one more round of recriminations, one more request for forgiveness. The realization stung, and it cut like a knife. Karen might love me, but she could not help herself.

I made up my mind that evening in the three hours I waited, humiliated and angry, for her return.

“I brought her here and I will take her home,” I told the hostess. “But I will not be played for a fool.”

When Karen and the hostess’ brother returned, I was calm but seething as I dealt with my internal emotional firestorm.

“Man, I’m sorry,” the brother told me. “I didn’t know she was with anyone.”

“I know you didn’t,” I replied. I knew Karen well enough to believe him.

“I’m sorry,” Karen said, beginning her explanation. “He has an apartment. I wanted to see it. Then we started playing pool at his apartment…”

“Save it. I don’t want to hear it,” I interrupted.

We went to the car.

“Here’s what I don’t understand…” I began, and Karen cut me off with, “Save it. I don’t want to hear it.”

We rode in silence. I dropped her off at her house and kissed her goodbye for the last time.

I saw her a few times at school. We would not speak to each other and she would never meet my gaze. She began dating Gary. I began dating Konni. A few months later, Karen lost track of Gary and I lost track of Karen.

But Karen’s influence remained. I broke up with my attractive, intelligent and loving girlfriend. She eventually married someone else. Konni and I got married and left town. I became a writer.

Years later, I finally admitted to myself and to everyone else that I never did stop loving Karen. The feelings of betrayal were replaced with a sense of sadness and, surprisingly, gratitude. I decided, “Even though we could not be together in the end, I’m glad you were a part of my life.”

What changed? I did. It took a few years, but it finally occurred to me that Karen and I were very much alike.

Remember the attractive, intelligent and loving girlfriend who married someone else, the young woman relegated to a bit part in this little theater of pain? She loved me and was rewarded with a sudden, agonizing and unexpected betrayal – a breakup — by the guy she thought loved her. Really, how is that different from what happened between Karen and me? It isn’t.

I know I never meant to hurt that young girlfriend, but through the deceit, thoughtlessness and evasions of the 20-year-old me, I did. I came to the conclusion that a troubled 19-year-old Karen similarly never intended to be hurtful.

That’s why I reached a point in which I fervently hoped Karen had finally resolved her demons, found the life she was looking for and was living happily ever after.

Will you lay with me in a field of stone?

A few months after my father died, I had a dream in which he approached me with a big grin and announced, “Guess who I ran into?” A youthful, smiling Karen suddenly appeared with him.

“We’re going to a party,” Karen said. I walked with her toward a brightly-lit mansion, making small talk. She was happy to see me, but stopped me at the door, looking genuinely sad.

“You can’t come in,” she said, but added impishly, “Everyone will think you’re my grandfather.”

A few days after the dream, I learned she had died.

I found it devastating to stand at her unmarked grave. No headstone. No apparent survivors other than her daughter. No other friends. As alone in death as she seemed to believe she had been in life.

Karen, I never told you this. I wish I had. Consider this my apology: I actually did care about you. I forgave you over and over again and stuck around when everyone thought I should leave. I loved you even when you gave me every reason not to. I tried to be there for you and when I finally let you go, I let you go with love.

After her death, all I could ever learn was that Karen was married for a short time, but something happened. She had been sick and lost custody of her child. Investigators believed Karen had been dead for a few weeks before anyone noticed.

I found a few of her letters, a few of her poems, her high-school commencement program and a couple of her photos. I gave them to someone who would make sure Karen’s daughter received them. That young girl needed to know that her mother was creative, smart, often sensitive, and — forever in my mind — a wonderful creature.

I met a psychic a few years ago who told me Karen “wants you to know she’s happy now.”  The psychic described a radiant young blonde with impossibly straight hair and startling dark eyes who was dancing in the light. I accept that, perhaps because I want to believe it.

Konni and I decided we would get Karen a headstone if no one else would. Eventually, someone did.

It reads, “In loving memory.”

 

-END-

***

Dennis Friend 2 17 17

Dennis Friend has been a reporter since 1976. He has been writing poems and short fiction for his own enjoyment since high school. “Smolder” is the first time he has written a true story from his own life.

A Stranger Come Home – by HIRO TSUKINO

 

Stranger Come Home

by Hiro Tsukino

 

 

The guy with the window seat smiled and shaped his hand into a gun. He put the barrel against his neck and fired smoothly, gesticulating the glory of the blow out the other side onto the woman sleeper between us. He did this in slow motion and with grace (hand model or magician?). His fist mimed the unfurling violence—blood spray, tubular bits transmuted into globular muck from the heat and force of the bullet, neck bone fragments wild—in a gesture of sprawling digits and a snaky curl of the wrist.

The ten-hour flight from Tokyo to San Francisco would be painful, but not suicide. For me the opposite.

“Bitchin,’” the weirdo said, smiling. He showed teeth.

“Thank you.” I comprehended at last that he’d complimented my tattoo. The Death Star is tattooed on my neck, mid-detonation.

But writing this, months later, I am uncertain if the weirdo meant that his “bitchin’” explosion resembled my tattoo. He’d dropped his head back after the initial shot, then tapped his neck again with the barrel, and dropped his head back and performed this motion a third time (or have I rewritten in recalling?). Meaning (possibly): How bitchin’ would it be to shoot through all three of our necks so the bullet exits your tattoo and bursts into the center aisle to initiate further gore?(?)

It was a long flight. Even I was not myself.

The tattoo was done here, I confessed.

“In the air?” He wasn’t joking.

“In the U.S.—San Fran—” I said— “when I was fifteen.”

I am not the kind of person who chats with strangers on planes, yet I pushed through my introversion and spoke of my teenage rebellion, my hope that my father would not carry me back to Tokyo so irreverently marked. He did so and worse. Those were long days inside skyscrapers that blotted out the sun, and me lost under the lengthier shadow of my father. A matrix of shadow. Deep was his, and so un-there was I, that at night I seeped through the cracks of this steel trap into punk and electronic shows and the life underground. Never long—kidnapped at daybreak by heavy-handed limo drivers. My father being who he is, etcetera. Tokyo was a fun-house mirror and a charcoal suit I will not miss, I explained. I was returning to the U.S. for good, or maybe I would not stop wandering now, I told all this to the weirdo on the plane in not so many words.

I wanted to be a good listener, who I see myself as, so I asked, “What about you? Business or pleasure?”

“Exquisitely inseparable in my book,” he said.

I remember this is what he said because I’d never heard a person use the word “exquisitely.” I smirked in return.

“Talk—tell me about yourself,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket. Three travel whiskeys lay in my lap (magician).

I began and, despite my introversion, could not stop. This was a cliff’s edge time for me, running on a new life. Not new—deep me, 24/7.

I did not speak of the patriarch. I told the weirdo a little about my music and much more about the zines I had written for and published. Conspiracy zines. With expats. The one I put most heart into was a meta zine on conspiracy and knowledge. Its title: Dietrologia.

“’Nothing you can believe … is not coming true,’” the guy said. He dipped his finger in the air at the word “not,” made squiggles in the air of the rest. I had not seen him drink. Though languid, his motions were precise.

This quote is from Don DeLillo’s Underworld in which he writes of the search for hidden motives. Exactly where I had stolen the title.

“People don’t want to hear it,” I said, meaning the truth, excited that we shared this language. I immediately became paranoid: A coincidence? Was he sent to interrogate me? By my father? The U.S. Government? I was one whiskey in, a lightweight.

“Too afraid?” he said.

“The opposite.” I said this much less excited. “The concept is not scary enough.”

I thought I would say no more.

The weirdo stared at the headrest of the seat in front of him with a crazed grin as if gazing through it, through the skull and brain of the person in front of him, and entertained by the picture show of his or her dreaming mind.

I then shared what I’d learned after years of working on zines. When I published about the secrets of space travel acquired from little gray men from outer space, locked in cells under the Pentagon, people bought. When I wrote about Cthulhu cultists performing virgin sacrifices in high power high-rises of Dubai, about the living city of Atlantis leading sensitives to its rediscovery through ESP, and about the death of American rappers linked to the Illuminati, people bought.

When I published about the immorality of the 1%, about political parties as pro-corporate puppets exploiting labor at home and internationally, about the zombie-ing effect of “present culture” (see titles of current “Top 100 Songs”) to prevent labor from seeing its disempowerment and capitalism’s future catastrophes as inevitable, about our inability to conceptualize the lasting effects of parties and politicians for more than five years forward or backward, about the inability to see that as a problem, about the underfunding of education globally so that the unprivileged are learning less in classrooms about how political and economic systems operate, about these schools serving only to conform us into spectators and not actors, about racism and sexism and classism as subversive tools that keep us blind and divided, about how we uphold these inequalities through fighting and not talking, and about why this is happening, about power securing power, stuffing bank accounts at the cost of human dignity, then no one bought.

“To sum it up—” I said in a sweat.

“Please,” he said.

“People want mystery. If they know what is happening in the world…” we looked to the window simultaneously—high altitude darkness circumscribed by a soft rectangle made of white plastic, “the interest is not there.”

“Suspense!” The guy rocked in his seat and patted the sleeper’s leg encouragingly. I am certain they did not know one another. “Suspension—the state of—disbelief,” he rambled.

“Something like that.” I wiped my eyes, bleary from an unexpected sadness, two whiskeys in. The lost and those not wanting to be found, acquaintances, awaited me in this country. I was not even awaited.

Most passengers were asleep or attempting to sleep at this time in the flight. We both became aware of it and talked in a lower volume.

“What does one do with truth?” he asked. “What do you do with it?”

“Avoid. For a long time. The truths about myself.” Was I still by running from Japan and my father? I didn’t know. I didn’t wholly want to.

“Ever open your eyes at night in bed? Try it sometime. Tonight!” the guy said. “One eye sees darker than the other. Close one, open the other. The rods and cones are different, each eye degenerating at different speeds. Eyeballs are hardware, you see? We are devices of input, and we compile one dark image, one lighter image into a single 3D illusion. So let me ask you: Which eye sees the world as it is?”

The question was very rhetorical because he continued before I understood his point (slow with drink). He’d skipped several logical points ahead as if missing a teleprompter.

“You compile your own—or so you think. Your own Meaning of Life. In you, for you. But what of outside you, now? Outside your little life with its little meaning—what’s the bigger fish, the system that you, we, as data, compile into?”

“I don’t know. Life?”

“Whose objective is?”

“There isn’t one?”

He raised a finger.

“Whatever we make of it?” I answered.

The finger went limp, and his smile sagged into distaste.

He told me to drink the last whiskey and, after, when I’d enjoyed my “brief escape” and sobered up, to get serious about the “red mountain in the room.”

He put in earbuds, and we did not talk for the remaining hours of the flight. My answer, or lack of one, had disappointed him. So I did not (yet) understand the hidden meaning of reality. I knew myself. Didn’t I? The sadness returned. I could not finish the drink. I expected we would shake hands at the gate. I became anxious over it, considering what I would say to make things right, as they had been. To make a friend.

Upon landing, he got up (no bags) and passed me the way one does not see a stranger.

***

Hiro Tsukino is an artist and activist living in San Francisco. He is the editor-in-chief at Future First Magazine and was born in Hiroshima, Japan.