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On Route 66

From Cimarron Man and other stories: link

CImarron-Man

June 8, 1953

“Believe me, fool, there’s ghosts in this place. I dare ya to go in there. I dare ya.”

Johnny looked at his friend, the always dirt-crusted and foul-mouthed Jim Tavor, whose eyes were so dark it made him look like a sheik, and gave a hard shrug. “It ain’t haunted. It’s just a heap, that’s all. I hope they get rid of it for that new park.”

For at least a good five minutes the boys took in the exterior, not talking, only doing human stuff like chewing grass and spitting and swatting at flies. The wind ran cooler right there by the Staffelbach, a structure so worn down it appeared gray. White paint clung to the clapboards the way snow or frost clung to a blade of grass in the wintertime. All the doors and windows had been boarded shut.

There was talk of tearing it down, but no one seemed to have the heart to do it. That old whore Ma Staffelbach was said to haunt the place. Maybe people were afraid she’d set a curse or something.

Johnny didn’t believe in ghosts, but still, the air sure did run cold right there. He stared and stared, bike straddled between his thighs. “Hey, why you so worried about me goin’ in there?” he said. “It’s you that’s curious. You go on ahead, and I’ll wait.”

Jim swallowed hard, shifting the little Adam’s apple in his throat. “Aw, hell, sounds like you’re chicken. I would go in there, but damn, I’m kind of thirsty right now. You wanna get a pop or something?” Jim avoided Johnny’s eyes and peeled off down the street.

A board fell, something crashed inside the house, and it sent a chill down Johnny’s back. He jump-started his bike and caught up with his friend.

“I ain’t chicken,” he called out. “I’m cool, Johnny Cool, and I ain’t afraid of nuthin’.”

Not afraid of Daddy, not afraid of old whore ghosts, nuthin’. Absolutely nuthin’. He always found out that if he stood still, real still, and kept his eyes closed, the thing, that feeling, stopped. If he ever got sent to war in Korea, and there was a big shootout, he’d do just that: close his eyes and wait.

They rode a few blocks down along Main, dodging Chevy’s, toward the Royal Drug Store, though they could have gone to its rival the Palace Drugs just across the street. The reason they didn’t was because it always filled up with miners out on lunch, and there was nothing more annoying than a bunch of men shaking lead dust all over your food. Not only that, those men smoked. A miner could suck the holy life out of a Lucky Strike. The Royal wasn’t as bad as the Palace because it only filled up halfway. People said that was because the coffee was stale, but since he and Jim didn’t drink coffee, they was good as an ace.

Inside the Royal, the boys cut through a line of folks waiting to pay, and went straight to a booth in the back corner. It wasn’t clean yet, but it didn’t matter. Johnny picked up a spent matchbook and rubbed his thumbnail across the flint strip. It made his nail hot. Jim shoved a plate of half-eaten fried catfish aside and leaned across the table. “What’re you orderin’?”

“I only got money for a Pepsi.”

“If I order a plate of fries, we can share both. The Pepsi and the fries. What you say?”

“I say, fine.”

Johnny scanned the diner and didn’t see his father among the smudged faces of men. It was always a fear that that they’d end up in the same place together unknowingly. Once it had happened at the post office, and a few weeks later at the IGA. He didn’t mind the proximity, it was merely the element of surprise Johnny didn’t like.

Donna, their waitress, came swaying up. “What do I got here today? The cleanest faces I’ve seen in hours, but your shifty little eyes say you’ve been up to no good. What’s the matter? You boys been running the Red Hot or something?”

Johnny and Jim eyed each other, and flushed deep. The Red Hot was the name of a road that ran from Galena to doomed Empire City, with all sorts of illustrious and illegal activities sprinkled in between. Jim stammered but Johnny cut right out, “Hell, no, we ain’t been on the Red Hot. We’re too young.”

Donna laughed. “But you sure know what I’m talking about.”

“Ah, shit,” Jim said into his chest.

“Can we just order our food?”

“Sure you can. What’ll it be? Veal, prime rib, lobster Loraine?”

“Just a Pepsi and fries,” Johnny said. “And don’t chintz us with too much ice. You always do that and then we only get five sips of pop. It’s a rip off.”

“Listen here, the real rip off is letting you two sit at this table and order only two things, that you’re gonna share. Then you’ll leave me a penny tip, if any. That’s the real rip off.”

She was right, and the boys shut up before she kicked them out for another set of diners. She certainly looked to be in the mood for it. When she left, Johnny whispered, “What a bitch.”

“Yeah.” Then Jim covered his buck-toothed grin. “But she’s got huge tatas.”

They laughed real hard until the man in the booth behind them started coughing up a lead lung.

“I ain’t never working in those mines,” Jim said. “I’ll open a shop or move outta here to Kansas City or St. Louis.”

“Yeah, me either.”

The miner coughed, incessantly, until their order arrived, and when he left the place grew deathly quiet. Most of the miners were now outside, talking at the curb, leaning half-in their cars and trucks, half-out, headed back for another shift of digging. Working in the mines was the easiest way for a man to make money. Johnny heard they hired you no matter what, because all you needed was a strong pair of hands. Johnny looked at his own and thought they were far too fine for a pickaxe. In eleven years he had only collected a few scratches: one from a stray cat, and the other from the day Mama’d thrown Daddy out and Daddy’d tried to take Johnny somewhere else all for his own. Otherwise they were perfect, and he didn’t want to mar them up just for lead. He wanted to do something fantastic with his hands—with his life. Something unbelievable no one had ever done.

If only he could figure out what that was.

“What you got that strange look on your face for?” Jim asked.

“I don’t know. Just thinkin’.”

“Are we going into that house tonight?”

“I’m game for it. Told you I ain’t chicken.”

“Me either.”

Johnny held out one of his perfect hands. “Hand me the pop. You’ve sucked down about ten cents worth and now there’s almost nuthin’ but ice.”

“It’s ‘cause I’m so thirsty.”

“Well, I am too.” Johnny sipped hard and it wasn’t long before the fateful sound of empty air erupted from the bottom of the glass. “It’s all gone. You asshole.”

Exiting the Royal later, he was surprised to be grabbed by a set of hands, big hands, black and dirty as the deep end of a pond under the shade of a sprawling willow tree. He stammered and looked up into the coal-smudged face of a miner. The profile he knew, but not the eyes. They were dead eyes, as dead as anything, and they was scary as hell.

“Boy . . .” the man said, slowly.

Johnny wanted to do his trick, the brave trick, but he couldn’t. His father had a good grip on him, in ways a person couldn’t escape. A shaking started, from his feet to his chest, and all he could do was wait. Wait for release. Wait for someone to say something, anything.

He rose up one of his lily-white hands to pry his father’s away, but the grip was tighter than anything he’d ever known. It was like being caught in a web, or in a thatch of seaweed down in the bottom of the ocean.

Urged on by another miner, Johnny’s father let go and stumbled across the street. Lead had made a black crown around his blonde hair where a helmet had once been.

“Hey, who was that?” Jim asked after it was over, mouth full of ice.

Johnny didn’t answer. He squeezed his eyes shut. Too late, but at least he’d remembered.

They hopped on their bikes and headed for the Staffelbach for a second look. Once there, they leaned into its slated windows to peak at a veil of sifting dust inside a cavity of darkness. “I don’t believe in ghosts,” Johnny said, and his breath fogged the thick pane of the window. He could just as well have said, I’m not afraid of ghosts, but he’d already said that. It was apparent what he was afraid of; it breathed and it could grab you.

“I don’t either,” Jim said. “But if they do exist, this’d be the place to find ’em.”

That night after meeting near the Owens’s trailer with its pink plastic flamingos stuck inside a plot of tulips, the boys headed down Main on foot, heads low and hands shoved inside their jacket pockets. A trickle of sweat trailed Johnny’s neck toward his banded collar. When they arrived, he was soaked as a dirty mop, but for some reason he didn’t have the nerve to unzip his jacket and take it off, or even do anything—anything but just stand there and discern a cavern of darkness that was like psychic darkness, evil darkness. Darkness that spoke to you. Invisible eyes that stared and knew all your thoughts.

Jim’s eyes were terror. “I don’t know if we ought to do it. I bet there’s rusty nails. That last tetanus shot I got hurt worse than the devil. They stuck it right in the wound. I got bad feelings. I got the same bad feeling when my cousin said he was going to the lake, and then he almost hit his head on a rock while diving.”

“But he didn’t die,” Johnny said.

“The same bad feeling.”

Johnny rattled the corroded brass knob until the door released from its frame. A smell of dry rot came out; the decay of wood and textiles. A stale, dusty air.

“Are you really goin’ in?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Because, it’s so dark.”

Inside, Johnny stepped onto a pile of something gritty. Crushed rat bones. Dead beetles. The grit of existence. Of Death. It made his teeth hurt, like someone rubbing steel wool together. Oval-shaped pictures with ornate frames had been arranged on the fireplace mantel, all covered with grime. He twisted to see Jim at the open doorway; the boy’s silhouette consisted of a rectangle head because of his buzz cut, rounded shoulders, and Levi’s cuffed two times at the bottom. “Jim, shut the door.”

“Shut the door?”

“So Pickering won’t get suspicious.”

Pickering was the only cop in town, a tough bastard who’d give you a ticket for not closing your fly, if he felt like it. Jim shut the door. “I feel sick.”

The carpet had gold fringe on it. No one respectable bought carpet with big braided gold fringe or hung a painting of a bare-breasted woman above their couch. Johnny looked to the narrow stairwell.

“You ain’t goin’ up there—”

He had to go up there. Something called him to do it. Johnny reached to his back pocket and pulled out his old rusted knife, and held it in front of him while taking each step. He didn’t know what he wanted to see, but it sure would be an adventure. He’d long outgrown Howdy Doody and Lassie and warm milk with cornbread dipped in it, and now he was heading into a den of sex from way back, from when women were women and the men were all John Wayne. He whistled that old favorite song of Mama’s “I got the lovesick blu-es” to distract himself, but cut short when he heard someone whistling along, two steps behind.

“Is that you, Jim Tavor, playin’ tricks on me?”

From downstairs: “I ain’t playin’ any tricks. I’m just standing here holdin’ in a mass of pee.”

“So you weren’t a-whistlin’ right now?”

“Hell no, not me.”

Johnny stood at the upper landing and peered through black licorice darkness into a hall with three doors, one of them wide open. “I’ll be damned if ghosts can whistle.” He headed for the door. “Of course ghosts can’t whistle, and there ain’t no such things as ghosts.” He stepped into the room. “And if there were, they wouldn’t be in Galena, they’d be someplace else.” He was halfway inside when the door shut behind him. Just shut. Without him touching it or anything.

Johnny rattled the knob, but the damn thing wouldn’t budge. “Jim, you asshole. Let go of this door.”

A feeling, like iron nails dipped in ice, ran down his back, and then the room filled up with a luminescent blue. “Oh, holy shit, Jim, open this goddammed door!”

Jim answered back, but it was from faraway, not outside in the hall. Johnny squeezed his eyes shut. He thrashed his knife at anything that might try to get him. He just kept thrashing and stabbing to give it the idea that he meant to kill.

Something knocked the knife from his fingers, and it flew, blade tip down, into Johnny’s left pinky toe. He cried and opened his eyes to look at it, because he’d never had a knife in his toe before. What he saw was a white mist that floated immediately before him, and if anyone were to draw a picture, or try to explain what a definitive ghost looks like, they could use his mist as a perfect example. It even had a face. Not a pretty face. It didn’t have any eyes. Just sockets. Billowy, kohl colored sockets of forever which he averted his eyes from the second after he saw them, because if he looked too long, he might die or something.

It was a woman. Jowly and breasty. She lifted one of her fog-like hands to touch his shoulder, and Johnny felt a chill go all the way through to his innards. It froze his muscles too; he couldn’t move, and he couldn’t scream. It was a terrible feeling. The worst feeling he’d ever had in his life. Like when you hit your funny bone, but your whole body is the funny bone. Then, as he stood there paralyzed, the mist of the woman opened her corset and let him see her breasts, then she leaned in and gave him a kiss—right on the mouth. His lips, the only thing he could move, started kissing her too. A ghost, he was kissing a goddamned ghost! She made a horrifically ethereal sound that was all pleasure and sadness, and in a moment she faded.

The door opened wide and the cold feeling went away.

He had a boner, the first real one of his life, and it took a whole ten seconds to settle down.

Later, after Johnny had plucked that old switch knife from his foot and hobbled down the stairwell, he looked at Jim and headed straight out of the house.

“What happened up there? I heard ya scream and then it went quiet and I wondered what in the hell you were up to. Sure as hell wasn’t gonna go up there myself. I ain’t chicken, but I ain’t stupid either.”

“Shut up, Jim. Just shut the hell up.”

“Did you see anything?

“Yeah, I saw something.”

“What was it?”

“Can’t tell.”

Pickering swung around the corner in his zebra car, cigarette in hand. Johnny’s father sat in the back seat, drunker than anything in this world. There was a strange, greenish tinge to his washed skin, and his head was laid back, mouth wide open to flies.

The two boys fell into the ditch and grew silent. Johnny spit at the car’s fender as it went by. They were most likely headed for the station. Another night in the clink. They’d call Mama and want her to pay bail, and then Mama wouldn’t be able to buy cake for Johnny’s birthday. Worse, it would wake her and she’d discover that he wasn’t in bed. “Aw, hell.”

“What is it, Johnny?”

Johnny stood and kicked a hollow box of Lucky Strikes out of the way. His father didn’t look so fearful with a clean face. But the question was, why did he stop him earlier at the Royal? Why did he grab onto him like that, and what was it he’d so desperately wanted to say?

It pained him that he’d never know, just like he didn’t know what the future was, or why a ghost-woman would just up and kiss him for no reason. Maybe there were things in life you weren’t supposed to understand, at least, not now.

“Well anyway, I saw her.”

“Who?”

“The woman. Ma Stefflebach. The whore.”

Jim stopped picking at his elbow scab long enough to give the effect of being truly frightened. “Fer real?”

“Sure as shit.”

They walked on the loose gravel road, Johnny limping because his toe was hurt and bleeding.

“What did she do to ya?”

Johnny didn’t answer. Ghost breasts.

Mama yanked Johnny through the front door the second he got home and gave his face a hard, effective slap.

“I’m sorry, Mama.”

“You’re damn right, you’re sorry.” Her eyes were opossum eyes, spitfire and haste. Her face had taken on a swollen appearance.

“Guess they called, huh?” He rubbed at his cheek.

“Johnny—Johnny, they say your father died. He’s done had a heart attack and I’ll have to pay for the funeral.”

The phone was off the hook. The line hummed to itself. No one answering, no one ending the call. Just a hum. An empty bottle of gin sat next to the receiver. More and more she drank that stuff and it only seemed to be making her less and less like herself.

“Is he really dead, Mama?”

“Dead as a ghost.”

His toe hurt. If he asked her to put iodine on it, she might use cyanide instead, she was that upset. Sometimes he just wanted someone to give him comfort, and that person wasn’t around.

Mama crossed over to switch on the record player. Frankie Lane wailed out some lonely tune and she fell into her rocking chair with her body all sunk like it was made of foam. She began to cry.

“Please, Mama, don’t do that.” Johnny hesitated then walked over and threw himself into her lap. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He felt guilty for his erection. Maybe that was the cause of all this bad luck.

Her hand brushed along his hair and it felt good. It didn’t reach far enough into that empty spot that seemed to grow and grow like a picked mine, but it did fill it slightly. It filled it enough, just enough to get by.

He kept his face in her lap and smelled her musky sweetness while listening to the deep warm sound of her voice sing ‘The Wayward Wind.’ He wished it were a different song, though. It often had the effect of making him want to hitchhike somewhere and do wild things—who knows what and who knows where. Somewhere that went forever. Only, he couldn’t tell anyone that or they’d think he was nuts. But still, it had that effect.

Years later, he received a postcard from Jim Tavor. “Remember the Staffelbach?”  That’s all it said. Johnny found out Jim had died two days after posting, shot dead in Tien Jiang. So the letter was a ghost-letter, and wasn’t that ironic? The letter, it sent strange feelings through him, of coldness, of his own sexuality just emerging, and the smell of his mother’s lap. And of his father’s coal-black face, the only face he could seem to remember.

 

The day after Mama’s funeral, Johnny laid her belongings in front of the old trailer and had an impromptu sale so he could buy a Ford advertised in the Thrifty Nickel. There was no use keeping any of Mama’s stuff, because it was all outdated and half-broken. Things no one wanted, but he managed to unload most of it before three p.m. The record player and her vinyl collection were the hardest to depart from, he’d have liked to keep them, but what the hell use did he have with those things anyway? A fat senorita bought her dresses and shoes and coat. What’d it matter that it was leaving like a breath in a gust of wind? Johnny took the money and said nothing.

Mama wasn’t in those clothes or records. She was somewhere beyond. The same place Daddy’d gone. And now there was nothing left to hold onto, except his own self, and a dream.

A week later, a tornado skidded up and damn near tossed him and the whole trailer into the sky. It’d scared him. He had to get out of Galena.

Johnny bought that car and drove through town one last time. Past the Royal and the Steffelbach, over the bridge that separated them from ghostly Empire City, the mines—the Red Hot. He’d never see any of it again.

What was a person, really? Lonely. You ended up in a coffin alone. No room for two.

Hollow.

Like the core shaft of a twister, empty and sucking.

He lit up a joint and kept along Route 66, heading west for California.

super-hyper-most

Janisfeathers.png“Man, I’d rather have 10 years of super-hyper-most than live to be 70 by sitting in some goddamn chair watching TV.”

Woodstock, Janis, and a Time Machine

Forty-eight years ago today a mass of people, all kinds of groovy people, gathered together to celebrate peace, love and rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t know about you, but I would buy a time machine just to experience something like that. Problem is, there ain’t no time machine I know of, and if there was, Napoleon Dynamite already showed us the hazard of such folly.

timemachine

Napoleon fries his balls off in an effort to escape high school

The next best thing is being a writer.

Or a reader. If you want to experience a tiny part of the festival, and if you love Janis Joplin, and everything awesome, then I hope you read this story. It’s about a DJ named Johnny Cool who travels around, gets a gig to interview the queen, Queen Janis that is, and falls in love. I hope you enjoy the read. Thanks for stopping by.

On Yasgur’s Farm

August 15th, 1969, Yasgur’s Farm

JanisJ

“Hey, man, like where do you want me to put this mic stand?”

A slender college-aged kid with an outside-of-the-lines goatee, no shirt, and sugarcoated eyes, pointed to an empty spot next to a set of Marshall amps.

“Are you sure? I’ve put it three places already and someone always comes up to tell me I gotta move it. I’m not even part of the crew; I’m here to interview Janis. I want to be cool, man, but I’m done messing with this microphone.”

“It’s fine there, man. Just put it there.”

Johnny let go of the stand and raised his hands high. Done. Washed of. “Hey, kid, where is Janis anyway? Is she sick or something?”

“She’s gettin’ ready.”

“When does she go on?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Any time. Real soon.”

“Soon, like in a few minutes, or soon like in an hour? People are asking.”

“I don’t know. Soon.”

“I’ve been waiting three hours.”

“Yeah? Well, I’ve been here days and haven’t seen shit except for wires and chords and amp shit and a whole bunch of naked people but I know she’s here anyway.”

“Maybe before midnight?”

“Yeah, maybe that.”

“Where is she?” Johnny asked.

The kid pointed over his shoulder. That meant somewhere out back where it was calm. Out front was chaos. You could tell the difference in drugs too. Out where the fans hung it smelled like watered down weed. Out back was expensive weed, real skunk with its tail raised. Johnny bet if he sniffed hard enough, some caviar priced ‘gold dust’ would be in the air as well. He heard Janis liked all of it.

Star102 in San Diego had set this thing up, given him a pass and everything. Janis, fucking, Joplin he’d replied when they told him his assignment. So far he’d covered a few garage bands and the cat from a setup called The Grateful Dead. From Jesus radio in Iowa, to slinging hits in sunbathed San Diego, how did someone like him get lucky enough to score an interview with what folks liked to call ‘the white man’s Bessie Smith?’

It must be luck, pure and simple. He was lucky.

Okay, maybe he’d begged to do the interview. Maybe he’d lied and said he’d quit if they didn’t set it up because New York was calling, calling. He’d even mentioned Rolling Stone.

Do you know anything about Karma? His ex-wife had always talked about karma.

Karma sounds like a boring chick.

No, karma is a thing. And lying is bad karma. Constant lying to get what you want.

I don’t lie.

She divorced him in ten months.

Karma was swift.

Did karma ever stop? Did it have a lien release?

Johnny followed the kid’s finger.

After a few dozen tents he heard a woman’s soft cackling and the lower, static sound of a guitar being tuned. Greasy, hippy freaks hung out near the entrance, some clutching the album she’d made with Big Brother and the Holding Company, a band she’d recently parted from. Johnny walked past the queue and straight to where a man he could only attribute to being a direct descendant of Attila the Hun sat atop a chrome stallion.

“Hey look, man, I’m here to interview Miss Joplin. I’ve been waiting hours because no one knows what the fuck is going on. Her manager said I could do the interview before she does the gig. So here I am.”

You’ve got a chip on your shoulder, Johnny.

“You got a pass?”

“Sure, it’s on my shirt.”

“Move your hair.”

Johnny reached up to move his blond hair to the side. “See? I’m legit.”

Attila eyed the pass and raised his caterpillar brows. “Go on in. You got five minutes.”

“Five minutes?”

It’s going to get you in trouble one day.

“Janis says she only got that much time to talk about herself, her parents, and how she got to sing the way she does.”

“It get it, man, but five minutes?”

“I might give you four.”

Johnny headed in.

She sat amid an altar of flowers and candles, no chairs, just the dirt floor and a patchwork of Turkish rugs. She was wild hair and beads and squinty little cat eyes and a bulbous nose that was ugly and cute, and she was little. Bessie Smith comes out of that? Johnny approached quietly.

The purple and pink feathers in her hair made her look like a lit roman candle, and there wasn’t an inch of her arm without some sort of adornment. How many beads and feathers could one person wear? She reminded him of The Empress, from his ex’s tarot cards.

I am The Empress, and you’re supposed to be The Emperor.

Well, what am I really?

 It’s real funny, Johnny, but I always get The Fool card with you.

Karma or Fate?

“Miss Joplin? I’m Johnny McCool from Star102 in San Diego.”

“Sure you are, honey. Sit down.”

“Sit here?”

“Hell, I don’t care. Anywhere. Just sit.”

She handed him some Southern Comfort. “You been watchin’ all this?”

Johnny lowered, jeans straining against his knees and ass. “Parts of it.”

“Then you’re watchin’ history. Those pigs and suits can’t figure it out. It’s a trip, man, a real trip.”

“It sure is, Miss Joplin.”

“This is real beautiful, all of us together. No killin’, no money, just love. Can you dig that?” Her voice had the limp of a willow tree branch. In it, Johnny heard a kind of raspy despair. Her highway face tried, but couldn’t hold in, every secret.

“Uh, yeah, sure I can. I dig it, alright.” Johnny returned the bottle after only one swallow. There wasn’t much left and it was expensive.

She set it down between her legs. There were rings on every finger. Every thing about her made noise, shifted, jangled. A short explosion of laughter was the most jangly thing of all. It cut through the raincloud in her eyes. “That is groovy.”

“What?”

“Your hair, man. Your hair. Your face. You have a nice face. It’s different. So what’d you come in here for?” Her eyes were pink sugar-glazed doughnuts.

“Like I said, I’m from Star102, San Diego—to interview you. But if it’s a bad a time?”

“Interview. I don’t like talking about myself, but you’re here so go ahead.”

Johnny pulled a pen and a spiral notepad from his shirt pocket. “You don’t like talking about yourself, Miss Joplin? How come?”

“I just don’t. Is that your first question?”

“Yes, I guess it is.” Miss Joplin is shy. She didn’t appear shy on stage. But good music brought people together, erased walls. “Are you reclusive by nature, or by choice?”

A wallop of liquor went down her throat. “All sorts of reasons, honey. All sorts. Good and bad. I was born to sing, not talk. It hurts most times. It hurts and I don’t like it.”

She really was like a child. A little beautiful witch-doctor girl with a freight-train voice.

He saw track marks under her loose sleeves. Many. So many it was sad. If he pretended, they could be light moles.

“If you don’t want to do the interview, I can stop now.” And tell what to his manager back at the station? Johnny’s lips puckered—time to kiss this job goodbye. He didn’t like the coffee anyway. Always stale. Always lukewarm.

Miss Joplin reached behind to grab a box of smokes from a bag of purple leather. “Aren’t you going to ask me who I’m sleeping with or why the band split up?”

“I planned on getting to that.”

“Well get there faster.”

“Okay, so who are you sleeping with, and why did the band break up?”

“Honey, I sleep with whoever I want—ain’t no particular man, because life is too short and some people are too tight to commit, that’s why. They want to own you. About the band, too.”

Miss Joplin is independent. “Are all of the other members here tonight, in support of your solo career?” He liked strong women. The stronger the better. But some women were so strong they wrestled you, and themselves, into a ditch.

“Some. I ain’t seen ‘em. What’s your name again?”

“Johnny.”

“Johnny? Everybody’s a Johnny, a John. You don’t look like a Johnny. You look like a Joe.”

“You can call me Joe if you want to.”

“Oh really?” She lit the cigarette; smoke floated up. “But that ain’t your name, so I can’t call you Joe. You think just because I’m a star I can call you whatever I want?”

“No. I didn’t know what to say. I’m nervous.”

“I make you nervous.”

“Well, yes.”

“Shit, honey.” She smoked. “But it’s your name. The name your mama give you. See, now, you don’t even look like a Joe anymore. I wouldn’t know what to call you even if I was that pretentious.”

There was a pause and Johnny knew he’d lost the interview. “Uh . . .” He could never go back to that station.

Janis stuck out a tongue. “Ah Christ, you are some kind of an amateur. You haven’t even complimented me and said how wonderful I am and all that.”

“You’re wonderful, Miss Joplin, and that isn’t a lie.”

“Thanks, Joe.”

She handed him the whiskey again.

Johnny.” Now her expression, supine.

He drank and was happy for it. The liquor going down his neck inside wasn’t as hot as the embarrassment going up his neck outside.

“Hurry up and ask me another question.”

“Okay—where do you think you’ll go after this? Another festival?”

“After Woodstock . . . I don’t know, maybe Caly-forn-nigh-eh. Maybe Why-ooh-ming. Ain’t thought about it yet. My manager would know.”

“What do you think the impact of this festival will be on the younger generation—the people listening to your music?”

“Good. It’ll be good. It’ll help folks see we got a voice. That we got something to say. We buy music, we buy the news, we contribute, that we don’t want this fucking war. We’re just different, that’s all. I think that’s what it’ll say.”

“Do you think they’ll listen more if they see different parts of society can get along?”

“Sure. If they see that negroes and honkeys and chicks and cats and pigs and straights can all sit together and listen to music, then they’ll have to believe that we can do it in the real world too. But some folks are stubborn. They only see what they want, and no one’s ever going to change their mind. We can sit here and hope they’ll change, but likely they won’t. The ones changing are already halfway there, the others maybe never.”

“Do you really believe that. Miss Joplin?”

“Yes, I guess I do.”

“Well, that’s sort of fatalist. What’s the point of an event like this festival if nothing is achieved from it?”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s worth trying if you think it is. But I can’t change people. I can’t change the war. I can’t change anything. I can only sing and live and die.”

At 26, Miss Joplin has already figured out the complexities of life.

“Look, Johnny, I’m just not feeling this tonight. Sorry, but I-I can’t answer any more questions. This whole show has me rattled. There’s something in my bones that don’t feel right, and there’s not enough time to figure out what it is. Anyway, I gotta build up that feeling, and it ain’t built up yet. I gotta conjure something, some emotion, to sing. Hell, maybe all those good people out there stole my vibe. I can’t figure it out.” She flipped her hair back. A feather fell out. “I don’t wanna do this no more. I told my manager I wanted a break and he signed me up to do Woodstock—someone’s farm in the middle of bull-shittin’-nowhere and I just can’t sing tonight, Johnny. I just ain’t feeling right.”

“But you have to, Miss Joplin.”

“Why do I have to?”

“I don’t know. They’ll be upset.”

“Who’ll be upset?”

“Your fans. They really love you.”

“You think they do? They’re stoned, just like I’m stoned. Maybe the world will end tomorrow, Johnny, and I can get myself some rest. Sometimes I dream of that. It sure would be nice to get quiet and have no one telling me what to do. I dream of it, the world ending, but it never happens.” Her eyes closed forever. “Hey, now, you could come with me—if the world ended.” Something inside her shifted. She opened her eyes and gave him a smile. Big as Yasgur’s Farm. “Wouldn’t you like that, Johnny?”

He tried to imagine her and him and no one else. No voices screaming outside the tent. All peace and quiet. Real peace, not conjured peace. Not Coco-Cola peace that lasted thirty seconds with a nice jingle attached to it. No naked stoned hippies with muddy dogs and kids and vomit on the ground. No Vietnam of music.

“Sure, I’d like that.”

“Why did you come here?”

“Why? To interview you.”

“Is that all?”

“Sure, that’s all.”

Janis came around and stood right in front of him. Her bell-bottomed jeans swayed at the ankles, were tight at the hip.

“Johnny?”

A flower had been painted on her left hipbone. A yellow flower. Like curry.

“Let’s pretend the world has ended and it’s just you and me and nobody else.” She slid a foot to his thigh. Rings on her toes. Outside, a thunderclap of voices had stealthily erupted, calling her name in pulse. She lowered into his lap, took his notepad, and pencil, and placed them on the ground. “I’d like to forget where I came from. Tell them I’m dirt. Tell them I’ve I left and will never come back.”

She had beautiful breasts. Johnny could see their outline perfectly through the thin fabric of the loose blouse she wore. He hesitated before touching her. “I can’t do that.”

A mutual feeling erupted between them. The pulsing. Her whiskey breath permeated his nostrils, and her jangly laughter, his ears. “I sing too loud, Johnny. I cuss too much. I do all sorts of other things.”

Johnny cupped her little face in his hands. “That’s what makes you beautiful.”

She kissed him so hard he felt her soul. He’d never been kissed like that.

A childhood rejection seems to have molded Miss Joplin into a Cleopatra, an over-the-top flashy beauty, yet at heart she longs for love and simplicity.

Johnny’d had sex plenty of times, but this was far past being good and way beyond the usual ‘come and go.’ Janis devoured him, took his soul, chewed on it for a while, rode and writhed, orgasmed, then injected his soul right back into his body with a big, happy, toothy smile on her rock and roll face. Whatever it was that had been eating at her, had been temporarily erased.

For him as well.

“Goddamnit, boy. I think I just fell in love with you.”

Johnny tried to speak, but his words were ghosts. He watched Janis arrange, prim and flex, before heading off. In a few minutes, history wrote itself.

There wasn’t a single word on his pad of paper.

 

March 3, 1970

When Janis begged him to join her on tour, Johnny said yes. What else did he have to do that was better than following a rock goddess back and forth across the U.S.? Janis was funny, warm, and she knew how to screw. She was a real woman, the kind who told the truth and didn’t put up with anyone else’s bullshit. And yet her heart was as open as the Great Divide; it left her victim to betrayal, but she still kept giving, giving. When she sang, she gave. When she talked, she gave. And when she screwed, she gave.

Sometimes Johnny felt like all the planets had come together and created another Big Bang, and her name was Janis.

The only one who couldn’t handle her, was her. The needle, once a part-time, past-time devotion, begged her away more and more.

Watching her shoot up was akin to watching his mother drink gin. It began to depress him; and yet it was a silent issue, like a snake with its head reared up and ready to bite. What? Ask her to stop? Tell her to stop?

Lose her.

But still, he felt he had to try.

Reclining with her one afternoon inside the Chelsea amid feathers and printed scarfs, he ran a warm hand along her back and approached the topic. Her skin was warm and tacky with sweat because they’d just made love.

“Hey, Pearl, we need to talk.”

“We do?” She turned on the bed and the ends of her brown-gold hair fell to the silk sheets. “Come on, Daddy, don’t be strange. You wanna ask me for some money? You wanna leave already? Is that it? Well, leave, Daddy. You’re free.”

Johnny dropped his hand. “No, no, baby, that ain’t it at all. It’s something else.” He put his hands to his bare chest. “I don’t want to leave.”

Dammit, why did she always have to go that route? The, you’re just another lover, route? He didn’t want to be free. He wanted to be with her.

She looked at him with her river blue eyes and spoke with an oft-used W.C. Fields incantation, “Just tell mama the truth, daddy, or go get me a drink.”

Johnny got up off the bed and reached for an empty glass and the Southern Comfort, but then he decided to put them down and opened a drawer on the bedside table instead. “It’s this, Janis. The needle. The smack. I love you and want you to stop using. I’ve got a bad feeling that I can’t seem to shake. This stuff’s gonna kill you. And if you don’t believe me, go ask everyone else. They’re all saying the same thing. Your manager, the band. We’re all afraid. And we all love you.”

Laughing, Janis rolled over the mattress, stretched a leg out and shut the drawer with her big toe. “Hey man, I’m quitting after the tour.”

“Really?” Relief filled Johnny like a warm drink. Thank God. There would be no arguing. But it wouldn’t be easy. Going cold turkey would change her. Might make her go on different avenues, thoughts. She may not want him, or anything she was used to, after it was over. That was the real-side affect. But at least she’d be alive and he wouldn’t have to worry anymore.

In exchange he’d stop with the cocaine, or it wouldn’t be fair. Sure would save him a lot of dough.

Johnny rejoined Janis on the bed and pressed his face into her hair. Patchouli.

“Yeah, daddy, I decided to quit after playin’ The Fillmore. All those newspapers sayin’ we sounded like shit. The whole thing’s been on my mind.”

“I hope you do. You’re softer when you’re not on it. You open up more. You’re not so afraid. I mean, what’s life if you’re always afraid, you know? Anyway, I love you, Janis. I really do.”

I love you too, Daddy.” More W.C. Fields. “Now, hand me that drink.”

When Janis stopped using, she became all those things. It was like watching Mona Lisa step out of the confines of oil and turn into a real, live, breathing chick. Soon there was a new band, one that knew how to follow and not lag behind, and a new record. Everyone around her vibrated with an electric bubble of hope. Janis was happy, Janis was clean, Janis wouldn’t die.

The problem was, the more she stepped into her own, the less she believed it. And Johnny, who had the privilege of knowing her beyond the ghostly veil of her own paranoia, knew the truth.

A door had been opened and in stepped the Devil.

That fear in Johnny’s gut turned into a full-out panic by fall. She called him less, seemed to go into a bomb shelter of her own making. But at least she wasn’t using.

“Go to your class reunion, Pearl? Well, that’s just, that sounds crazy. You don’t need to prove anything to them. Weren’t they the ones who called you ugly? Listen, why don’t you come back to New York and stay with me for a few days? I’m bored, and I bought you something.”

“Really?” her voice lilted up, like that of an expectant child.

Johnny’s hand fell into the back pocket of his Levi’s. A small box with a big ring had been shoved inside. A little ring wouldn’t do. It had to be Mount Everest or go home.

Maybe if he asked her to marry him, she’d find peace. It was the last straw in a bale that’d been ripped to shreds.

“Yeah, but it’s a secret. You have to come see me to find out what it is.”

A long, weighed breath came through the receiver. “Actually, Johnny, I’ll have to meet you some other time. Save that gift—whatever it is. The reunion is somethin’ I just gotta do. You understand, man. I want them to see me the way I am now.”

“The way you are now?” Johnny wanted to smash the phone against his kitchen wall. He closed his eyes. “Ain’t it enough to show them that on TV? Hey, listen, if it means that much . . .”

“It really does.”

He placed the ring on the sink.

“Pearl, you have fun at that reunion, but don’t, you know, don’t let them get too close to you. Remember, it wasn’t you that needed to change, it was them. Just remember that.”

“Sure, man, I’ll remember.”

The phone chord hadn’t wrapped around his neck, but it sure felt like it.

He found out a few weeks later that the reunion had been a failure and that Janis was back to shooting smack. Their last phone call that day, had become their last ever.

Johnny returned the engagement ring, and waited. When her manager called the night of October 4 to break the news, that Janis had been found face down in her hotel room wearing only a nightie after an accidental overdose, it was as if he’d had a wide awake premonitory dream. He’d known, yet wasn’t ready at all.

The worst part was that she’d been alone.

The Bessie Smith, the Big Bang, the goddess, the Mona Lisa, alone.

27.

Dead.

That’s when he really began to run. To chase the ghost.

He fell in love with someone else, but not the same kind of love. Then he got married. And divorced. And repeat.

The same lesson, over and over. Different people, same results.

Always, always chasing that ghost.

Free starting August 16: Cimarron Man and other stories.

CImarron-Man

Dear Cuttlefish, Dear Cuttlefish

Right now there is a magnificent light show going on deep inside Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. With bright, electric flashes and flamboyant patterns, the cuttlefish, a squid-class of cephalopod, meet up for mating, only to die off afterwards as the new generation supplant themselves into the coral. The sadness of their impending doom is far outshone by their brilliant way of showing themselves off. I’ve wanted to see it for years now, but the best I could do was write about it. This story snippet, included in my book of shorts titled Cimarron Man and other stories, is free for the next few days (starting tomorrow the 25th). I hope you download the book, and enjoy the stories. And don’t eat cuttlefish. It makes me sad.

 

Dear Cuttlefish, Dear Cuttlefish

 

Dante approached her because he liked the vibrant pink hair and the little tattoo on the left forearm of a yellow star. Elegant. He hooked a sneaker into a stool rail and ordered a beer. Wheat. And then he tapped her on the shoulder, gently, next to the star. But not on the star.

“You here with anyone?”

She turned to sneak-a-peek over her shoulder, yet didn’t make eye contact. “No.”

“So you’re alone?”

“Correct.” Her drink of choice was a Bloody Mary. She tipped her head back and swallowed until an olive came close to her lips, but she didn’t let it slide in. When she put the glass back onto the counter, the olive slowly sunk down into a cloud of red.

“I’m alone too,” he said. The bartender, a rail-thin tattoo canvas with a scraggly beard, slid a beer across the counter to him. The bartender’s fingers read, Love Sucks, but when Dante combined the digits, it read, Luck and two s’s and the ove. Dante wished the extra letters made a real word. “I like the star,” he said.

The girl rubbed a casual hand over it, like it would brush away. “Thanks.”

Voses.

Not a word.

“Hey,” Dante said, planting his ass on the stool, “what’s wrong? You always this sad?”

“Not always. Just tonight.”

“How come?” He nudged a thigh with a knee. “What’d the world do to you?”

Her eyes were green, like sea glass. Maybe it was the pink hair in contrast, but at that moment they were the greenest green he’d ever seen.

She sighed. “Have you ever heard about cephalopods?”

“Uh, maybe.” He searched his memory. He’d heard the word, but couldn’t recall any facts. Cephalopods, cephalopods.

“Cuttlefish.”

Dante pictured two trout hugging each other and then cleared his head.

“Yeah, no. I don’t remember.”

The bartender ran a hand through a frizzy beard. Sucks.

“They live in the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, and also Indonesia,” she said. “A class of squid.”

She waited for him to look excited, but he couldn’t muster it.

“Sorry, don’t know anything about them.”

“A lot of people don’t,” she said.

Dante took a sip of beer. A long one. Half of it was already gone. He’d just been to his uncle’s wake. And now he was lonely. Lonelier than ever.

Uncle Rev Gone.

How gone was gone?

He eyed the chick again and wondered if he had the drive to ask her home. So what if she didn’t accept? Sometimes he felt so wiped.

In the hospital, Uncle Rev would tell him he was tired, but not too tired to talk. His face had been bone and yellow, jaundice chicken skin. He’d say, Come sit by my bed, Dante, and we’ll shoot the shit. Needle in his arm and nurses coming and going.

Weeks and weeks of chemo, and he’d see something on TV about a dog getting abused by some asshole, and say, Poor thing.

Evoss.

Dante drained that beer like it was an IV hooked to his mouth.

“Tell me more. Tell me about the cuttlefish.”

“Okay.”

He motioned to the bartender.

Another.

“They survive by using chromatic aberration,” she said. “That means they’re electric chameleons.”

“Oh really?”

Sometimes he felt like a chameleon.

The last three months had been a dry spell. A desert. Uncle Rev. The breakup. Regina hadn’t liked Dante’s new job. Didn’t have the nerve to say she just didn’t like him. Trouble was, she liked someone else.

Maybe this chick could crack it, crazy as she was, knew how to crack the dry spell. If she didn’t, he’d head down the street to Amo’s. Try his luck there. But nothing new happened in that bar, only drinks, a few wings and a fight. Chicks didn’t go to Amo’s.

There was nowhere else to go but here.

“And, oh, my name’s Dante. What’s yours?”

“Lola.”

“Nice to meet you, Lola.” He thought of the Kinks’ song. La, la, la, la.

Lola.

Lola.

“Why do you like these cuttlefish so much?”

“Because they’re beautiful.”

“Beautiful, like you . . . Lola?”

She didn’t look at him after he said it. And then he wished he hadn’t said it.

“Tell me more about them. I really want to know. Honest.”

She twisted on the stool. “The cuttlefish are a direct symbolic representation of everything in our life, Dante. Once I found that out, it was as if I knew what God was, or Jesus, or Santa Claus. I just knew.”

There were shadows under the sea glass.

“Knew what?”

“That life is short.”

And blue veins showing through pale skin.

But she smelled familiar.

What was it?

What did she smell like?

Vesos.

“Well, yeah,” Dante said. “It is for some folks, I guess. Although, I’m going for a hundred.”

“They live only two years, tops. That’s not very long.”

“Hey, it’s better than a fly.” Gone.

“But to them it feels like forever.”

Another dude walked up and hovered next to Lola on her opposite side. When he whispered something, Dante cleared his throat. “Hey, Lola, can I buy you a drink?” He didn’t like the look of the guy. Scrawny. Strange.

“But I haven’t finished this.” She still had the olive.

“I know, but it’s almost gone. Last chance before I revoke the offer.

“All right, then. A beer this time.”

Dante signaled for the bartender to bring two, one for him and one for her. The other dude got the hint and headed to some other chick. Some chick with normal hair and no star.

Success. “So, they don’t live long,” he said. “That’s how nature works. You can’t be sad about that.”

“But I am. It’s July and July is mating season. They’re all dying now.” Lola rubbed the star again. It played peek-a-boo between her long fingers. “But first, they mate.”

“Oh, really?” Dante asked. “Tell me about that.”

“Well, you see, the procreation field is composed primarily of the male cuttlefish. When a rare female approaches, the men go crazy, flashing their lights and patterns, all in an act to impress her. If she isn’t impressed, she won’t mate. Typically the largest male wins out. But once the female signals an invitation, there’s trouble.

“The males go into battle, grabbing onto each other, pulling and twisting until the weaker one gives up. Then, the winner takes his prize, the female, and off they go.”

Her fingers came together to demonstrate. “The male wraps his tentacles around the female, forcing her to face him, then he inserts a sperm sack into an opening near her mouth. It doesn’t sound romantic, but it is. Sometimes a smaller male cuttlefish who’s disguised his body to look effeminate will come along, and while the larger male is tricked, the smaller one mates with the female too. It’s done to ensure both large and small specie propagate. I figure the larger male understands, or he wouldn’t allow it happen.”

Lola turned to Dante.

“Cephalopods die after procreation. Slowly at first, then in lighting speed. A matter of days. The colors fade, the eyes go cloudy. It’s as if all their life force is gone, just because of that one mating session. But it’s the most beautiful thing. A moment of completion; of purpose. Without it, their entire existence would mean nothing.

“They do it willingly. She knows. He knows. Cephalopods have a very short life cycle. It’s their fate and they wouldn’t have it any other way. Do you see what I mean that we’re all like the cephalopods? Do you see what I mean, Dante?”

Dante slumped on the stool.

“So, Lola, thanks for teaching me about the cuttlefish. Now when someone asks me, I’ll know.”

Goodbye, pink hair. You’re beautiful, but I can’t handle this. I need to be around someone who doesn’t talk about death. Someone that’s here.

CImarron-Man

Amazon link

The factor of two

I was watching a dud of a movie last night on Netflix starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and was reminded how much chemistry this real-life off-screen couple had on screen. Despite the poor script these two made every scene they were in something to enjoy. The way he touched her neck, the way she tried to resist yet was drawn closer and closer, all the while both of them speaking their lines as if in a trance, yet perfectly executed. It was magical. I love that these two stayed together until the end, had children, created charities and produced such a vast body of work. It’s totally inspiring. They’re one of my favorite couples from the days of Hollywood’s glitz and glamour. Both of them seemed far too down to earth to be movie stars, and yet it’s clear to see the star appeal.

Here is an early clip of them taking a try in the mystery seat on the show “What’s My Line?” It’s clear to see how much they love each other here.

 

 

From The Starlights, free today.

“What happened to your face, Keith?”

“Oh, I—I got in a fight.”

“Another one?”

“Yeah, another one. Sally’s okay.”

“Do you want a ride?”

Do I want a ride? It’s the question of my life, like asking if I want eternal youth or a million dollars. Do I want to get in a car with the other woman I love, or do I say no, because no is the right thing to do, even though it will shove a blade into my heart so big I’ll never recover?

“Why didn’t you call me this week?” I ask. “You could have called. Dialed my number. Looked me up in the Yellow Pages. Once. Not twice or three times or any amount of times, just once. All I wanted was to hear the sound of your fucking voice, just once.”

“Ah, Keith, baby.”

“Don’t call me baby. I ain’t your baby.”

“I couldn’t call, because Sasha came home. I thought you understood.”

I start walking and she’s rolling alongside. “I didn’t know.”

“Well now you do. Are you really that mad at me?”

I am. I don’t love her. I never really loved her. I just wanted her so bad.

I was gonna do the tongue thing. She didn’t even give me the chance.

 

When your best friend is a zombie

The Starlights is a bromance and a romance . . . and a romance. You’ll understand once you read the book, which is currently free until Friday. I know writers aren’t supposed to say they love their own stuff, but I love this book. Love, love, love. Keith’s best friend attempts suicide, and if that isn’t enough he has to deal with college applications, a needy girlfriend, and that needy girlfriend’s needy mother–sexy Suzanne. Swirling around all of this is his love of the band Rush, which is the only thing he should be concentrating on, IMO.

But first it’s a bromance.

 

From The Starlights:

I’m outside the front apartment entrance after school, and after taking that test, when Mark’s dad pulls up in an old station wagon. Mark leaves the car, walks over the curb and hits me in the arm. He doesn’t say thanks for saving my life, or glad to see you, or anything like that, but I know that’s what he means with the slug. His hair is wet, like he just washed it, and he doesn’t smell like weed. He smells like Lifeguard.

I hand him the key and we go inside into the hall.

“Is your dad going to sit out there the whole time?”

“Yeah. He’s listening to a game.”

“How much time do you have?”

“He said ten minutes, but I can stretch it to more and he won’t care.” We’re at his door and he sticks in the key and twists the lock. Booger comes running. Mark grabs her and looks around. I feel weird about cleaning the place, but maybe he likes it. I can’t tell. He turns on a few lights and feeds Booger her Kal Kan and then walks around grabbing stuff and shoving it in his jacket pockets. Loose change, chapstick, a comb, a paperback, he’s shoving it all in. He sees the unfiltered Marlboros and looks at me.

“I smoked all yours.”

“These are tough shit, man, but I’ll have one.” He lights up. He opens a drawer in the coffee table that I never knew existed before and slides his hand in. Out comes a little baggie. He shoves that in his jacket too.

“I told Birdie you wanted to hang out.”

“What she’d say?”

“She said . . .” I hate saying it. I’m really gonna give it to that chick next time I see her. She wasn’t the one to find Mark dying in the next room with an empty bottle of pills nearby. She wasn’t the one to call the cops and drag him into the hall. She didn’t have to feed his cat, or see him stuck with tubes and peeing in a bag. She doesn’t know shit about anything. “She said she’s got a boyfriend.” And now I really hate her because she’s forcing me to lie to my best friend.

Mark takes a puff and shrugs. “Those never bothered me. I’ll win her over, wait and see.”

“Man, why do you want to see her anyway?”

“I don’t know. I just like that name. It’s a cool name.”

“But she’s a bitch.”

“Most chicks are.” Mark bends down to grab Booger and gives her a million kisses on her furry neck. “I missed this fucking cat so much.

“So, where’s this girl of yours? Didn’t she come over?”

“Not today. I had to make up a test.”

“Well, you’d better hurry ‘cause I’m back next week. Is she close?”

“Does she live close?”

“No, is she close? Close to doing it?”

“I don’t know, maybe. How do you tell?”

“They can’t stop touching you, that’s how you tell.”

I think of Sally’s hand under the table at school. “She might be close.”

“She must not be if you don’t know. Hold off for a while, make her want you real bad.”

“Man, I can’t hold off. I’ve held off for two years already.”

“Hold off. I’m serious. Give her the cold shoulder a day or two and see what happens. She’ll come running.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“But you just told me to hurry ‘cause you’ll be back next week.”

“I’ll lend you the place if you need. I’m just trying to help out.”

“All right. Cold shoulder. Shit.”

Mark walks over and looks through the draperies. “Still listening to that game.” He flips on the TV and sits down to watch. “They’re all over me at home. Asking about what I’ll do with my life, where I’m headed. I’m going fucking insane. I just wish they’d shut up and let me finish my week without all the hassle.”

I hesitate before sitting down. It’s hard to pretend what happened didn’t happen. We’re never going to talk about it straight on, but it happened.

“What’s Birdie’s last name?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

“Well ask tomorrow and then give me a call. I’ll take it from there.”

I change the topic. All this talk about Birdie is making me nauseous. She’ll take Mark, and she’ll wreck him, like a car into a tree. And then she’ll leave. I can’t let it happen. “I learned a new song. A Queen song.”

“Great.”

“I might try to write one tonight.”

“Go for it.”

“Do you think we could still be The Starlights? I got a new guitar.”

“Man, you did?”

“Yeah, to replace the old one. So that means we can still be a band.” I grab a smoke, light up, and pretend not to feel the burn.

Mark shakes his head a lot. “Just you and me? Man, I don’t know. That’s not much of a band.”

“But you said it was a good idea.”

“That was before.”

“Before what?”

“Before I found out life sucked and I was a loser.”

“Who told you that?”

“Oh nobody.”

We both shut up to watch some afternoon game show. A car horn blasts outside. Mark checks his watch. “I guess he’s had it.” He grabs another smoke. Leans back. “What a fuckin’ mess.” He doesn’t say he’s sorry he did it, or that he’s glad to be alive.

“Are you sure I should wait?” I ask.

“Wait for what?”

“With Sally—what if she’s ready now?” I can’t keep smoking the unfiltered. My lungs are fire. I crush it out in the ashtray on top of all those nudie magazines.

“She ain’t. You’d know, and if you don’t know, she ain’t. Give her time. Really psyche her out.”

“Okay.”

He finishes that smoke and gives Booger a million kisses. We go outside and I lean up against the apartment’s concrete entrance while he gets in his dad’s car and drives off. I don’t know why I feel lonelier now after seeing him, but I do.

 

Free Novel Today

A voyeuristic view of life inside a small American town, one household at a time. Free today. Amazon.

Woodsocketusanew

 

The Mickey Mantle

Baseball season is upon us so I felt it appropriate to post this snippet today. I remember well my brother playing baseball May through August, and me, sitting in the stands with my mother who wore a bright yellow t-shirt reading: I’M POOR AND LIVE IN JOHNSON COUNTY. An in-joke, if you know how affluent our zip code happens to be.  And us, scrapping every week, barely making it on government cheese and powdered milk. But alas, there’s always baseball to carry one away from life’s little miseries. This story, from a book of interconnected tales amid a fictional Midwestern town, concerns two brothers, Saul and Pete. Saul is angsty and wants to escape before anyone else makes a grab for his dignity, and Pete, older and wiser, is helplessly tied to the surroundings via Vera, an amazonian sex-starved pistol wielding girlfriend. A missing Mickey Mantle card might be the ticket away from all this chaos, but who’s willing to sell the remnants of their soul to get it?

From ‘Woodsocket, U.S.A.’ Free for download for the next two days. As always , thanks for reading!

Woodsocketusanew

 

The Mickey Mantle

 

“Bases are loaded,” Saul announced, loaf of French bread raised to an angle. “I’m gonna hit this sucker into the meat department and have myself a home run. You got that, Pete?”

Pete shook his head real slow. He drew his arm back for the pitch then spun forward, releasing a tangerine bullet. Saul’s eyes locked onto the citrus. He took a swing and stumbled. The two of them watched it fly over their heads in a perfect arch. It could get real quiet in the IGA at eight a.m.

In the next aisle a painful cry rang out.

Pete and Saul ran to see.

Mrs. Kuhn stood in a green moo-moo rubbing a hand at the back of her neck.

“You all right, Mrs. Kuhn?” Saul was trying so hard not to laugh.

“I don’t actually know. Something hit me. Out of nowhere. I—I was just reachin’ for a can of tuna.”

There was a red mark the size of a baseball on her neck, and a juicy tangerine at her feet. Saul watched Pete’s boot tip punt the thing so it disappeared under a nearby shelf. “Maybe something fell off a row here, Mrs. Kuhn. You should be more careful.” Pete grabbed some Fish of the Sea and put it in her cart. “Tell the girls up front that this is free, okay?”

Her eyes darted back and forth between the two brothers. “That’s nice of you. How you two boys doing? Your father is sorely missed in this town.”

Pete got real shy when folks mentioned Dad. Saul just felt like smashing stuff.

“We’re just fine, Mrs. Kuhn. Don’t forget to tell ‘em it’s free.” Pete shooed her off and the two of them stood in the aisle for a moment.

Saul hauled up and hit his older brother in the shoulder. “You think we can go to the Pit Stop tonight instead of eating that hamburger you left in the fridge?”

“No. It’s goin’ rotten and we gotta use it up. We can go to the Pit some other time. I don’t wanna be hanging out there anyway, not with Vera coming around with that pistol of hers. She didn’t take so well to me and her breaking up the other night.”

“Well, maybe I’ll go and you can stay home.” Saul really wanted to go to the Pit Stop. He didn’t enjoy hanging around the house every night watching the boob tube. Living with your brother was supposed to be fun, not like being married.

“Go on then, if you dare, but she said she might take aim at you as well. She’s plenty pissed.”

Saul started to rethink his plans. Vera, when vengeful, would torture a man until he’d beg for a kick to the crotch, just for mercy. Just then he heard a shuffle coming from the next aisle. Sharon Wilke turned the corner in heavy white sneakers and pants too tight for someone to be wearing with a rear end like hers. Sharon was the direct opposite of someone like Vera, and was as soft and malleable as veal. He loved to tease her.

“Wallomp, wallomp,” Saul chanted.

She stopped in place and turned around real slow. She raised a nervous hand to her neck. “Good morning, Saulie.”

“You’re too fat for those pants. I can see your underwear.”

Her bottom lip trembled. Saul pretended not to see the starving way she looked at him in his jeans. He threw a fist into his other palm, like an invisible mitt was there. “Don’t ya got anything insulting to say back to me today, huh Sharon?”

She sniffed a second, then threw a hip out and reached inside her shirt. “Yeah. Look what I got, a Willie Mays. A real, honest Willie Mays. Got it in the mail yesterday. Pretty, ain’t it?”

“Ah hell, everybody’s got a stupid Mays. Show me a Mickey Mantle and I’ll get excited.”

“Maybe I have one of those too. Maybe there’s one in my house right now, you never know.”

“I’ll bet there ain’t.” Then he called her something terrible. The worst word of all.

Punt.

She looked about to cry. “Well, there might be.”

“Might or is?” He was a little worried she might get him fired for using a word like that, but he was almost past caring. She hadn’t earned that manager job, she’d been born into it just because her uncle owned the store.

She stuffed Willie Mays back into her bra and stopped pouting. “You’re right. I don’t have a Mantle. I was just bullshitting you for fun and you almost fell for it. Guess I’d better go open those front registers.” She shuffled off, shoes leaving a squeak with every step.

Saul emptied two boxes of legumes before he said anything to Pete. “I bet she doesn’t have it.”

“Bet you’re right.”

“‘Cause if she did, she’d be waving it in my face.”

“Mmhmm.” Pete was probably thinking about the hamburgers and how he could dress them up with red onions, Vidalias, like they’d put out the day before.

“But if she does have a Mantle, why, I might go have a look in her house just to see. What do you think?”

Pete shifted his legs. “I think you’re crazy.”

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