I arrived as the band was loading in their hulking speakers and keyboards and guitar cases and backpacks and packs of Camels tucked into pockets or rolled up in their sleeves. Hairy dudes, skinny dudes, hairy and skinny dudes with hard women with tattoos and ankle bracelets and piercings and one with her head shaved on only one side like she’d just come out of brain surgery. It was hard to tease the band out of the extensive entourage and later from the crowd itself because every one in the bar kinda looked the same in their quest for individuality and most were young but didn’t look like they would age any better than an over-customized sports car driven hard.
In a bit, the sound check began which signaled an end to any possibility of conversation or even concentration, like trying to enjoy the scenery on the river banks while you’re being washed downstream in whitewater. I could tell by the sound check, that the cacophony – which means really loud, discordant, noise because I recently looked it up and it is a much more interesting word than just saying noise and sometimes women are impressed by big words but only if you use them correctly – well, I could tell that the band was either really bad or really good or so bad that they might be considered good like paintings that are nothing more than splotches of paint that could have been heaved onto the canvas by a group of monkeys but sell for thousands of dollars because some critic sees something that isn’t really in the picture but rather in his head and other people convince themselves that they see the same thing because to express your unique tastes in the world of the cultured means you must conform to the tastes and attitudes of other elites which is like being infected by same bacteria which brings the two meanings of cultured together in my opinion. Their test song to wrap up the sound check, before joining the bar to drink with the customers, confirmed my most prominent suspicion of their unique and horrible, but groundbreaking not to mention eardrum breaking, talent. I’m drinking cheap beer and Jim Beam at breakneck speed like I’ve just been informed that there is a limited supply or a race to oblivion taking place with fabulous prizes like an over-customized sports car for the winner. A young woman with purple hair, not entirely purple just a shock of purple, like maybe it happened by accident, in her bangs over her right eye, is seated beside me and leaning forward with her pretty elbows on the bar staring at her drink like she’s trying to figure out what it is and what she should do with it.
While the band remains at the bar drinking after the sound check, out comes this little, mostly naked, Indian guy in a diaper carrying a big Sitar and a monkey in a vest and a fez hat and the nearly naked Indian sits down and starts playing the Sitar without a sound check having been assured perhaps that there was plenty of sound and without the aid of the mute, massively stupid speakers glowering at the crowd from behind him like those big stone guys on Easter island. I figure he’s the warm up act although how warm can he be dressed in a diaper but who am I to criticize since I’ve never been to India (or Easter Island for that matter) or ever considered a diaper as an viable mode of dress except, of course, in the unlikely event that I might shit my pants which happened once after I’d drank too much and tried to hold it too long and couldn’t find the bathroom. The monkey cavorts on stage, climbing up and over the resoundingly naked Indian who is a glistening, little, dark raisin under the stage lights like an order of tandoori chicken sitting under a heat lamp waiting for the waiter to take it to the table. Climbing on the astonishingly naked Indian’s shoulders and head is the monkey but naked Indian seems not to notice or care and is also seemingly oblivious to the disturbing sensuality of the monkey’s antics and movements which includes grabbing at his privates although I could be the only one with such a concerned assessment possibly fueled by my unprecedented rate and volume of alcohol consumption.
I notice that Purple Hair has placed a hand on my thigh and has turned on her stool to face me and ask my name. I draw a blank and say “Carl” even though that isn’t my name at all but the name of the big, sweaty guy with decaying teeth who had tried to sell me insurance from my front porch that morning after I had foolishly answered the door. I buy Purple Hair a beer and a shot which intensifies her curiosity about me or at least about my willingness to ply her with drink and prompts her to put her other hand on my leg but even if she had dropped to her knees and started giving me a blow job I was reduced to watching her like in a pornographic movie without the ability to participate meaningfully because I was pretty much numb from the waist down and the neck up and beginning to wonder how I was going to transport myself home if I could remember where home was or whether I had a car or anything at all about my previous life. I was thinking of asking Purple Hair if she lived upstairs or next door so I could go home with her not to perform interesting, degrading and possibly illegal acts, which would be my norm, but simply to lie down for a few minutes and get the Sitar and visions of the monkey out of my mind.
It was in the drunk tank after a long and pointless absence from the practical world, missing my wallet, when I finally remember my name.
Young Easter, named for the day of her birth
Rather than religious devotion
Crosses the gravel lane, dust coating
Patent leather shoes
And frilly white ankle socks
Cotton calico dress
Hanging limply on bony frame
The edge of a fallow field
On the disused farm, left wanting
For the callused hands
Of her dead father
Peers into the eye-level hollow
Of the rotting fence post
Sheltered by the big oak tree
A startled mother or unattended
Tiny eggs, blue as Easter eyes
An urge to touch, but fearful
Of disturbing magic
On her frequent hopeful visits
To witness the breaking free
The desperate, lonely, gaping hunger
Easter’s own happy melancholy
Lonely without the eggs
Or her father’s voice in her head
Telling her how to break her own containment
Of frock, field and fear
To teach her to someday
Leave the nest and fly
But on this day, a gray lizard
Slithers down the post into the dry grass
The carnage of shell fragments
Leaves Easter to wonder her role
Through undue attention or neglect
For the wreckage around her
Or the heavy, putty clouds eclipsing the sun
Nate’s first indication that something was amiss occurred at dinner, the first dinner he and Katie shared together. He had taken her to Baci, his favorite trattoria, where she had set upon her bolognese with ferocity. Smacking her lips, growling and grunting in low tones. Nate feared Katie would toss the fork and spoon aside and dig into the pasta and meat sauce with her bare hands. She didn’t look up until she had devoured the dish, had scooped the residue from the bowl with a piece of bread. The waiter, who had arrived at the table with the second bottle of Chianti per Nate’s instructions, stood gape mouthed in amazement.
After Katie had finished, Nate dabbed at her glistening mouth with his own napkin as though tending to an incorrigible child, his own dish virtually untouched. With the meal tucked neatly inside her, Katie was restored to the engaging, talkative, charming and beautiful woman he had met barely a week earlier. Nate couldn’t fully concentrate on Katie’s monologue with the spectacle he had witnessed crowding his thoughts. The waiter returned to the table on the pretense of refilling water and wine glasses that didn’t need to be filled and asked, for a second time, if the couple would like dessert, perhaps in hopes of provoking a second performance.
Nate drove Katie to her narrow, handsome home in the Riverside district, opened the car door for her and escorted her to the stoop. Her invitation to come up for coffee was the very thing he had hoped for when the evening began but he declined, saying he wasn’t feeling quite himself and needed to go home to rest. He needed to digest the evening in solitude.
At his dining room table, having poured himself a glass of wine that represented an obvious over-indulgence, Nate replayed the meal in his mind. Could Katie have possibly been that famished? She appeared to be living well at a prestigious address with nice clothes and a healthy figure. He refused to believe that such an elegant woman could be devoid of respectable table manners.
Katie called him the next morning to ask how he was feeling. Nate told her he was fine after dealing with indigestion which was, metaphorically, the truth. They agreed to meet at The Ruby Cafe on Friday night to listen to a band.
The band was The Bangers and Nate knew the members well. The Bangers played original music with a few cover tunes mixed in. Prior to the show, Nate and Katie drank beer and worked their way through an amazing list of topics from politics to science to history and literature.
At one point The Bangers began to play a song which was familiar to Katie. A song which must have been a favorite because she began to sing along. Not in the way most people sing along by humming or soft, understated accompaniment but in a voice strong enough to challenge Telford, the band’s lead singer. Katie had a good voice but was ever so slightly off-key. She became the object of attention.
During the break between sets, at Nate’s suggestion bordering on insistence, they finished their drinks and took their leave.
When Katie had exited his car, after another shunned invitation for late night coffee with the excuse of an extremely important, early morning meeting, she bounded up the steps, turning to smile and wave before being swallowed by the brownstone.
Nate hadn’t opened the car door for Katie or walked her to her door. Instead he sat stunned, the engine continuing to run, gripping the steering wheel and staring ahead at nothing.
Perhaps she suffers an affliction like Tourette’s or epilepsy, he thought. A condition she can’t control but which might respond to treatment. But why would she not acknowledge her illness and apologize for the spontaneous outbursts? Was she unaware? Is she in an alternate world when the episodes occur? Nate finished his nightcap wine and went to bed consumed with questions and a resolve not to write her off but to find a way to talk things through.
Katie called the next morning as was her custom. She called before Nate had arrived late at the office after a fitful night. When he saw the message on his desk, his first thought was that he had been busted for his fictitious meeting but, instead, when he returned her call, Katie invited him over for a quiet evening including drinks and a movie. Nate accepted, thinking it would be the perfect opportunity to broach the topic of her errant social skills.
The evening was going well. Kate wore a flattering blouse and jeans. They ordered a pizza. They ate and drank wine while the movie played. He would wait till the end of the movie before he attempted the discussion. He didn’t want to disrupt the comfort he felt with her when she was behaving normally and it seemed a lost cause during and immediately after her fits. It was a dilemma.
There was a sexy scene, bordering on pornographic, in the movie.
Katie stood, abandoning her snuggled position beside him. She stripped to her watch and dropped to the floor on all fours. She put her face into the rug and reached around with both hands to spread herself open, whimpering and mewing with need and wiggling her ass. Nate hurriedly shed his pants and knelt behind her to do his manly duty without first asking necessary and appropriate questions.
After the act, which compared favorably to what had happened on the television screen, they retired to her bed where he continued to explore her in a more dignified and civilized fashion. Nate discovered Katie’s smooth curves and unblemished skin. Her small, firm, prominent breasts. She tasted and smelled vaguely of fresh milk. Her unshaved pubis, rather than a scraggly tangle of tumbleweed scrub, was a lush, silky soft fur carpet that he enjoyed combing with his fingers.
They attended a gathering at Gunnar’s newly rehabbed building in Near North. Nate knew most of the partiers, Katie knew not a soul other than himself despite claiming to have lived in the area for several months. With Gunnar was Maureen, tall and homely and gossipy. Maureen’s recent widowhood afforded her an element of sex appeal in the form of a substantial estate. Telford from The Bangers and Iris were there. Gunnar had invited Telford according to an uneasy truce and the absence of Nanette who had been bouncing between and on the two men’s beds for quite some time. Jeanine, a police woman on the local force was with her fiancé Spence who seemed to survive, even prosper, without a regular occupation. Dexter, an Inspector and colleague of Jeanine’s, brought Heather, a very pretty, young Hispanic woman at least two decades Dexter’s junior. Such was the character of the assemblage which milled about, chatting and drinking and munching the appetizers arrayed along a long table.
Katie was smartly dressed in a simple dress that displayed her fabulously tapered legs and ankles and hugged the tight, round bottom that Nate had trouble driving from his memory. She sipped a martini whipped together for by Iris who had extensive bar tending experience from her prior years at The Ruby. Katie munched delicately from the buffet table without incident. Nate was allowed to relax and let down his guard.
Nate was reminded of the high pitched squeal of a whoopee cushion ending with the flubbering sound of air being released from a balloon. The noise was coming from Katie. They were soon enveloped in a fetid but not entirely unpleasant cloud while the guests looked on with astonishment. Katie smiled like a baby relieved of gastronomical discomfort.
Heather, the Latina, laughed. Not a cruel life. Not a mocking laugh. An honest, good natured laugh. Katie began to laugh with her. Soon the other guests were laughing and Heather took the initiative to issue forth her own modest toot. The laughter built. Gunnar stepped forward with his drink in hand, his other hand extended toward Katie. Gunnar asked Katie to pull his finger. Gunnar’s fart rumbled like a thunderstorm and soon most of the guests had managed to join in the septic symphony.
Nate had arrived home after depositing Katie at her brownstone. He sat in his familiar place at the kitchen table and out of curiosity adjusted his posture so that he could break wind. It seems, he thought in good humor, that we are mere bags of constrained flatulence most of the time and we would be better off physically and spiritually letting nature take its course uninterrupted.
Nate arrived at Katie’s door unannounced. He was without a plan. He might tell her that it was impossible to continue the relationship, which hopefully would open the door to the discussion they desperately needed to have. Or he could ignore it all and ask her to marry him which was the stronger of the two impulses fraught with danger though it was.
Katie was not home. Nate sat on her stoop to wait and think for a moment. A black cat strolled in his direction. The cat smartly looked in both directions before crossing the street, walked to him and studied him familiarly, rubbing herself against his legs before climbing the few steps to jump on his lap. Nate kneaded the nape and ears of the appreciative animal. The cat curled into a comfortable position. Nate stroked the cat’s soft, silky fur while she flexed her paws in his crotch. And began to purr.
His mother held on until her 80th birthday, a few weeks ago, although he wasn’t sure if she had much enjoyed it or even if she was sufficiently aware. She couldn’t blow out the single candle shaped like the number 80. The next target had been the nation’s birthday which held no special significance beyond it’s face value but when you’re dying you need to focus on small, short term goals like a drunk lurching from lamppost to lamppost to get home. Margaret, his mother, didn’t make it to the next lamppost so Telford found himself drinking, more or less in her honor, though that was a poor excuse since the drinking was not that unusual nor requiring of any outward significance.
Telford takes out his wallet, a billfold his mother would have called it, and from a small compartment produces a key. He opens the gate and walks into the courtyard, to the back where there is a fountain in front of an ivy covered wall. Water spurts from the top of the fountain, runs into a collecting bowl which overflows and cascades to the pond at the bottom where a pump pulls it back up through the column and out the top in an endless cycle. Or so he imagines. The fountain is a mossy green and looks very old but you can never tell because new things are sometimes made to look old and old things are reworked to look new. We should make up our minds.
He takes a seat at the wrought iron settee closest to the fountain, the hard seat pressing against his tailbone as he slouches to put his feet on the opposing chair. The air is warm and humid though not as much so as yesterday and he is a little bit drunk and has no difficulty drifting off into a shallow sleep.
Telford heard the voice, a female voice, as if from a great distance, thinking it came from his mother. He had been dreaming but the images flew from his mind as he opened his eyes after the nudge at his shoulder. She stands before him wearing a robe, his mother would have called it a housecoat, cinched at her waist. She is neither particularly young or especially old. Hints of grey in her hair, a few creases at the corners of her mouth and eyes. Attractive, still and all, with a pretty smile and kind, expressive eyes. She introduces herself as Claire. Extends her small hand which Telford examines before he takes it in his own.
“Are you okay?” Claire asks.
“Just resting. I remembered the courtyard. In passing. ”
Telford straightens himself. Takes his feet from the chair across from him. Claire sits.
“How did you get in?’
“I have a key.”
“So you live here. I haven’t seen…”
“No. I live farther down the boulevard. I lost my keys. My real keys. The apartment keys. Most likely at Ruby, the cafe, which is closed now. I’ll just rest here until sunup. An hour when it’s suitable to contact my landlord and gain entrance…. Or I’ll kill time till Ruby opens at eleven.”
“…” Claire’s mouth is agape. She looks as if she is about to speak but holds her thoughts.
“It’s not the first time this has happened, I’m afraid. Misplacing my keys. I lose things. Often.”
“I knew a couple who lived here.” Telford points to the building adjacent to the courtyard. “They gave me keys to look after the place and walk the dog while they were away. They moved. I kept the courtyard key. I like it here. It’s peaceful late at night. I hope you don’t mind. Are you going to report me?”
“No. i like it here, as well. I’m an insomniac.”
Claire says this with the solemn seriousness of someone declaring themselves a recovering alcoholic or a Jehovah’s Witness.
“They lived in unit 4,” Telford says referring to his friends. “Until they divorced. Jimmy moved first and then, later…”
“You knew her?”
“No. I live in her apartment now. Well, it’s not her apartment now. it’s my apartment now. And I live there….instead of her. I get pieces of her mail now and then. Junk. Nothing important. Solicitations from the cable company, banks offering credit cards, that kind of thing. I throw them in the garbage.”
“I imagine people in big companies writing the solicitations and sending them out and someone at the post office sorting them according to zip code and they end up in the bag of my postman who probably knows Linda no longer lives here but he has choices. He can return the letters to the post office and explain their undeliverability or he can toss them in the garbage himself, which he probably isn’t allowed to do, or he can put them in my box for me to dispose of. And most of them, these people handling Linda’s unwanted mail, believe they are doing work. A job… For which they get paid.” Words erupt from Claire like water pumped through a fountain.
“Jobs and money. So they can continue to live and get unwanted mail of their own.” Telford looks, unblinking, at Claire who doesn’t respond. “I lost my mother recently not to make an excuse for my behavior,” he says.
“I’m sorry. And here I am talking about mail.“
“No need to be sorry. It’s just that your story reminded me of the futility of life is all. And yet we cling to it desperately.”
“My oh my! What happened? I mean, I assume she died. Your mother. I assume that’s what you are referring to. But I mean how and …why/“
“Hollowed out by cancer like a fallen tree trunk in a forest. A rotting log. A modern disease, is cancer. A result of our poisonous air and water and food. Stress. Or just living too long. The why is a question out of my jurisdiction.”
“Do you want coffee?”
“I wouldn’t mind.”
Claire gathers her slight self from the chair and walks away. She returns several minutes later carrying an an old electric percolator, like the one Telford’s mother had used, and two small cups. She had changed into a pair of jeans and a light-weight sweater so thin that the pert nipples on her small breasts provoked the material. It wasn’t a come-on, Telford thought. Claire just wanted to be comfortable.
Claire pours two cups of coffee. Telford puts the cup to his lips. Sips carefully. Too hot to drink. It smells like real coffee you drink in someone’s kitchen at a dinette set on a floor of linoleum instead of the harsh, burnt liquid you order from the chain store after you wait behind the girl ordering a tall, skinny, latte with a caramel drizzle.
“I lost my mother about a year ago,” Claire says. A third and final stroke. I’d come back from living in Paris. For seven years. Almost seven years. To attend to her. I’d been back in the States for barely a month. I went in, in the morning, with her tea, I thought she was still asleep. I put the tray on the nightstand and called to her. Then I nudged her before realizing she was gone. I mean she was there in the bed but she was no longer in there. Not, no longer in the bed but in her. So I sat down and took her hand in mine. It was still warm. That was how close I had come to seeing her one last time. I mean I saw her but it wasn’t her by the time I saw her. She really hadn’t been her for some time. The strokes and all.”
“I’m sorry. I do this some time,” Claire says, lifting the coffee to her mouth.
“What I was doing. Rambling like that.”
“Have you ever seen the old t.v. show Green Acres?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
“Zsa Zsa Gabor. Eddie Albert.”
“Yeah. Maybe. I think so.”
“There was a character. Hank Kimball. He was always correcting himself mid-sentence.”
She looked at him vacantly.
“I sat and drank her tea while I waited for the life squad,” Claire said.
“Not a life squad exactly because she wasn’t alive… But that’s what they call it. A life squad that often comes to collect the dead.”
“Not a bad way to go,” Telford says.
“What do you mean?’
“In your sleep. Perhaps not knowing what is happening. My mother died an excruciating death.”
“I don’t think there is a good way to go.”
“I suppose not but, you must admit, some are better than others. Freezing to death, for example.”
“I hate being cold.”
“But you’re only cold for a little while. Then you go to sleep. And never wake up. Versus say fire. Hideous pain, I would imagine. Likely why hell, which I don’t believe in, by the way, is depicted as a place where you burn eternally.”
“Can we talk about something else?”
“That’s why I came over and nudged you, you know. I’m sorry to have awakened you. I was checking. I don’t have my glasses. I couldn’t see you breathing. I was checking to see if you were alive, you see.”
“Otherwise you would have to find a way to dispose of me. Like Linda’s mail.” Telford can visualize Claire in her glasses, her hair pulled up on her head, wearing a smart, conservative dress.
“Something like that,” Claire said.
“Do you feel cheated?”
“By your mother. Luring you home from Paris by her sickness only to die right away.”
“I never thought of it that way. I’ve thought about returning though. To Paris. To my art. I probably will. Eventually.”
“You’re an artist.”
“Of a sort.”
“I’d like to see. Your art, I mean.”
“I sold what I could and left the rest behind. Gifts to friends. I haven’t worked since I returned. I mean I’ve worked. I’m working at the art Museum. Administratively. Events.Tours. Photographing exhibits. I mean I haven’t worked as an artist. Since Paris. Since I returned to America. I can’t seem to paint anymore than I can sleep. We’re out of coffee. Should I brew more?”
“Not unless you want more. I’m fine. Excuse me.” Telford can hold it no more. He walks behind the fountain where Claire can’t see him and relieves himself on the ivy. Washes his hands in the fountain.
“I’m sorry. When you have to go you have to go.”
“You could have gone upstairs in my apartment.”
“Urine is good for plants. The ammonia. Like fertilizer.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” Claire says, laughing for the first time since they met.
“But you’re a woman. You’ll have to be careful with the cactus.”
“How did you know I have a cactus?”
“I didn’t. I just… It was a joke.”
A cat has entered the courtyard. The cat stops to stare at them. Claire extends her hand. The cat comes forward to sniff her. Rubs his cat-head against her leg. The cat looks at Telford suspiciously. Possessively. Then slinks away.
“That was Tom. The community cat. A stray.”
“He looks well fed. Cared for.”
“We all feed him. The neighbors I mean. When the weather turns cold I take him in. He appreciates the warmth and food but he gets restless, wants to be outside. Free.”
“I’m going inside. I need to force myself to sleep for a bit before I have to go to work.”
“You can come in and sleep on my sofa if you like.”
“Thanks but I’m fine. I like the sound of the fountain and the crickets. I like the warm breeze.”
“You’re like Tom.”
Claire stands and walks to the building. Before she enters she turns and says, “It was nice to meet you.”
“As well,” Telford says and waves.
He puts his feet up on the chair Claire vacated and closes his eyes.
The Puritans had settled on a broad, fertile plain beside a rich and fruitful river. The river cascaded as a waterfall at the edge of the plateau into a lush valley where the Magoondi lived. The Magoondi, though near-sighted, couldn’t help but notice the Puritans residing on their sacred land but they had watched and deliberated for several moons before making contact.
The Captain, a grizzled veteran of conflict, armed or unarmed, civil or mean spirited, foreign or domestic, had arrived with his Magoondi interpreter in the nick of time. The Captain rode into the Puritan camp on a half-blind quarter horse. He wore a worn hat, a dusty duster and ornate, nearly new, though already scuffed, cowboy boots he had won from a dwarf, with oversized feet and ambitions, during a card game at a saloon in a city far away on a nearby continent.
A pair of Magoondi emissaries had come calling, communicating with the Puritans through the Captain’s interpreter. The Captain respectfully listened from a listenable distance. The Captain had extensive knowledge of the ways of the Magoondi. When the Captain had heard enough he pulled one of the Puritan elders to his side for a private conversation.
“They offered us food,” said the Puritan excitedly.
“So I heard,” said the Captain.
“How generous of them.”
‘What? The food?” asked the Puritan. “Why would they…”
The Captain spread his arms expansively. “You’re trespassing,” he said, “This is Magoondi land.”
“But there is so much room. And so much food,” said the Puritan referring to the abundance of edible flesh of the furred, feathered, finned and fruited.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” said the Captain.
“So, I’m to refuse the offer of food.”
“No. Look.” The Captain handed the Puritan his field glasses and pointed into the distance. Through the binoculars the Puritan could see an encampment of painted and armed Magoondi warriors.
“What does this mean?” asked the Puritan.
“Refusing food is an insult. An act of ill will. A declaration of war. The Magoondi would slaughter you. That’s if you’re lucky. They’re capable of much worse.”
“What could be worse?”
“How they go about murdering you. Like rendering you blind, deaf and mute and allowing you to wander senseless among the carnivorous beasts… for a very short while. Or impaling you through the anus on poles and letting you dry in the hot sun like a cored apple. Or skinning you alive while you hang upside down. Or emasculating the men and leaving them to spend their lives gamboling about as a merry gang of eunuchs.”
“What would they do with the women?”
“You don’t want to know. They could…”
“Stop. I don’t want to know,” the Puritan said, “At least, in any event, we’ll be joining our Lord above.”
“Tell him I said ‘Hi’,” said the Captain turning to walk away.
“Wait! Wait! So we accept the food but don’t eat it?” said the Puritan.
“That would be equally offensive. This is a test of compatibility. Of accommodation. Of proper manners.”
“But they aim to poison us.”
“Look at it this way. You’re new to a neighborhood. A neighbor comes calling, with food. What do you do?”
“Of course not, idiot. It’s poison. Again. What do you do when a neighbor comes calling?“
The Puritan, slack mouthed, shrugged.
The Captain was all too acquainted with the atrophied reasoning powers of the pious.
“Listen. We don’t have time for school.” The Captain sighed visibly. “You invite your neighbor inside to share the meal.”
“They’d poison themselves in order to poison us?”
“You propose a grand feast for all and you provide the food,” the Captain continued. “Puritans are so stupid,” the Captain mumbled. But the Puritan didn’t take offense. He hadn’t noticed the slight since had been lost in his thoughts.
“Poison food! We couldn’t…”
The Captain looked at the Puritan incredulously. Shook his head in disgust and frustration. “Of course not.”
“Ah, I get it. Get in their good graces. A gesture of goodwill.”
“Hurry back to the meeting. Convey the invitation through the interpreter before it’s too late.”
The Captain sat stirring the dying embers in the fire pit. He brushed the dust from his fancy cowboy boots. He read a black bound book and sipped at a bottle of whiskey he had retrieved from his saddle bags.
After a while, the Puritan returned, smiling. “I see you’re reading the good book.”
“I’m reading a good book.” The Captain sucked hard at the whiskey.
Seeing that he had misjudged, the Puritan said, “Let me give you a copy of the best book ever.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
The Puritan ignored the retort. “Anyway, it worked,” he said, brightening again, “We are feasting with the Magoondi the day after the morrow. Praise the Lord. How can I thank you?”
“I’m afraid there’s more,” said the Captain.
“They’ll bring magoondo.”
“No, magoondo is an alcoholic beverage. You can tell its importance to the Magoondi by its name. It’s a disgusting elixir. You don’t want to know how it’s made. The yeast comes from their women’s nether regions.” The Captain shook his head, kicking at the ground with his boot.
“We don’t consume alcohol,” said the Puritan.
“You will this time. Otherwise…,” The Captain pointed to the warrior encampment.
“We’ll sip a little, out of courtesy, and pray to our Lord for forgiveness.”
“It won’t matter. You’ll all be drunk, happy and horny by nightfall. Especially your men and women of breeding age.”
“Our sons and daughters are chaste.”
The Captain looked at the Puritan through steely, blue-grey eyes that conveyed more than the Puritan’s experience could interpret.
“They’ll be chased for sure. You see, the magoondo is alcohol laced with a powerful aphrodisiac.”
“Good Lord!” said the Puritan.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” said the Captain.
The Captain continued to look at the befuddled and frustrated Puritan.
Sensing he was not finished by the look in the Captain’s eyes, the Puritan asked, “There’s more isn’t there?”
“Alcohol, aphrodisiac and fertility booster. Many of the women, yours and theirs, will be impregnated. The knocked up women will join their new husbands in the appropriate camp, yours or theres. It’s how they assimilate. They need to refresh their bloodline. The eyesight, you see.”
“I can’t accept any of this,” said the Puritan.
The Captain pointed toward the warriors in the distance.
“We’ll break camp first thing in the morning and be on our way to a more Godly region,” the Puritan said.
“The Magoondi are watching. They’ll be on you before you can cross the river.”
“I thought they wished us gone.’
“Perhaps in the beginning. Not now. They have examined your young men and women. Especially your women. In their bonnets and long, drab dresses that mute their soft, shapely… ” The Captain halted when he saw the stern countenance of the Puritan’s face dissolving like heated wax.
“You speak of them as cattle,” the Puritan said.
“Of a sort.”
“I must pray and sleep,” said the Puritan as he rose to retire to his tent.
The next day was consumed with preparation for the following day’s feast. Hunting, gathering, slaughtering, slicing, pickling, marinating and whatever else Puritans do to prepare a meal. Plus the felling and sawing of trees to build banquet tables. A laying out of their Sunday best which was no better than any other day’s best given the harsh, unsanitary life of a Puritan, even on a fertile plain with a beautiful, abundant river. The air was thick with tension although the Puritan had not shared his knowledge of the ways of the Magoondi with his brethren. The Puritans accomplished all they had intended and slept soundly if not securely.
The big day was upon them. The sky bright and cloudless. A big cat roamed the perimeter of the Puritan camp, eyeing a toddler lurching about with a poop-full diaper drooping on his fat thighs. His mother snatched him away.
“You’ll want to deal with that one,” the Captain said pointing to the cat, “She has tasted human flesh.” He cinching the saddle of one of the two ponies that had arrived with him.
A young woman carrying a bundle walked toward them. She was tall and thin and swayed like the mesa grasses in the breeze. She smiled at the Captain, touching his arm affectionately, before tying her bundle to the rump of one of the ponies.
“What is this?” asked the Puritan looking on.
“She’s leaving with me,” said the Captain matter-of-factly.
“So you’re taking Chastity?”
“Literally and figuratively.”
“But her parents! They’ll…”
“They’ve been told. She’s of age. She doesn’t want to be a Puritan anymore. There’s nothing you or they can do.”
Chastity hoisted herself upon the pony.
“The interpreter will stay,” said the Captain. “He’ll be of assistance. He’s one of them.”
“You don’t want to wait and see what happens? To try to help us?” the Puritan implored.
“Not on your life.”
In the rain, the water dripping from the rim of his fedora. He stops anyway, fumbling in his pocket for loose change. The man always asks for a quarter knowing that, if he is to receive anything at all, it will likely be more. What is his name? Telford tries to remember. Charles? They are out, the more ambitious or desperate and is there really a difference, even in such weather.
Thunder rumbles. Lightning streaks over the rooftops. The rain has slowed to a drizzle.
There are fewer these days, in Near North, as the neighborhood gentrifies, slowly at first but recently picking up steam. Ragged men, some women, dig through garbage for scraps to eat. Sleep in doorways. Harassed by the police, ridiculed by the newly arrived, wealthy transplants. They are, these men, as they have always been, both prey and predator.
Telford finds a loose dollar in his pocket. Hands it to Charles? who blesses him and ambles along.
Telford can see Iris at the stoop, her key inserted in the lock. Waving and waiting. Smiling and patient, pleased that he has accommodated Charles?. They have arrived simultaneously. She from working late, he from The Rook Pub.
Inside Iris props her umbrella into the corner at the foot of the stairwell. Telford shakes off his wet fedora.
In bed. He on his back looking out the window to the sky and the lightning. She on her side facing away from him. She flips onto her back.
“Is the storm keeping you awake?” she asks.
“Of course not, storms relax me.”
“Thinking about something then.”
“No. Not really.”
“I always admired your ability to sleep. Whenever and wherever.”
“One of my many talents.”
“You should list them sometime.”
“Where would I start?”
“Is that his name?”
“I’m not sure. It’s his name for the moment. Until I learn or remember otherwise. Don’t credit me with qualities I don’t possess. And, by the way, I consider compassion an attribute rather than a talent.”
“I think it’s both. I saw you hand Charles? a dollar.”
“To get rid of him. So I could be on my way. Out of the rain.”
“I don’t believe any of that.”
“You’re neglecting my destructive past.”
“We can change. Evolve. Some of us, at least.”
Iris moves closer. Fluffing her pillow in the process. She puts a dry, warm palm on his chest.
A roll of thunder. Telford reaches over an traces the scar on her cheek. It’s an affectionate gesture. A reminder that he loves her because of the scars not in spite of them.
“Should I open the window?” she asks.
“Will the rain blow in, if it starts again?”
“I don’t think so. It isn’t windy.”
“I haven’t seen lightning in a while. I wish I knew more about the weather. Meteorology and all that. The relationship between thunder and lightning and rain and wind.”
“You would want that, of course.”
“I always took things apart to see how they worked. In my youth. As a child and a young man. Problem is, once you take something apart to see how it works it doesn’t work anymore.”
“You can always put it back together.”
“No. No you can’t. It doesn’t work that way.”
“I wish we had met earlier. In our twenties perhaps,” Iris says.
“It wouldn’t have worked. I was different then. Restless. Volatile. Destructive.”
“You still were in a way. When we met, I mean. It worked anyway. In the long run. Still, I wish we had met earlier.”
“Yes. If it would have worked.”
“What regrets do you have?”
“That I wasn’t more restless.”
“And more destructive?” Iris laughs.
“I’m not sure the two qualities have to be paired. Like thunder without the rain.”
“Or the lightning?”
“Again. I don’t know how the weather works. I should have traveled more, for example. Read more. Wrote more. Met more people.”
“And fucked more?”
“Yes. Of course. But less…….. storm-fully.”
“We have time.”
“For travel. For fucking. For all of that.”
“Less time than we think. There’s always less time than you think.”
“Meaning we have less time to waste. We should leave here. Move to another country. Mexico perhaps.”
“Iceland. Uruguay. Denmark. Portugal. Someplace civilized.”
“What’s happened to this country?”
“It doesn’t work anymore.”
“Rich, powerful people took it apart. They don’t care if it works anymore. At least not for everyone. Only for them.”
“That’s called selfishness. You’re going to find selfishness everywhere in the world.”
“But in different concentrations. In different proofs. We’ve achieved 80 proof selfishness mixed with greed and anger and fear. A poisonous stew.”
“Let’s leave then. Iris concludes. Always a decisive woman.
“We’ll start planning in the morning.”
After a long pause that he thought indicated sleep, she says.
“How long will it last?”
“Will what last?”
“It has lasted this long. It’ll last as long as we both want it to.”
“But it has to be both of us. I’m tired of the off and on relationship. Let’s leave it on.”
“Right. That’s how it works. Both of us.”
“Your track record is poor. On the ‘both of us’ thing.”
“That was before. When I was more restless and volatile.”
“And destructive. When did you stop being volatile?”
“A few minutes ago.”
She snores. Softly like a kitten. Iris is a light sleeper so Telford slips from the bed on cat feet. Pulls on his trousers and shirt. Carries his loafers to the door. Slips the shoes on without socks. His watch says the pub is open for at least another hour. Telford takes his wallet from his pocket. Counts out three fives. Leaves the wallet behind.
The rain has stopped but left its aroma.
Charles? isn’t on the street. The Rook is nearly empty. Dan, the bartender, pours a Guinness as soon as Telford enters the door.
“Sleepless night?” Dan asks.
“No. Just restless.”
“So you thought you’d have a pint and think about things.”
“You got the pint part correct. My thinker is broken tonight. It doesn’t work.”
Christie from the neighborhood sits at the other end of the bar. She once worked at the other bar on Rubicon Boulevard. She used to be married to one of Telford’s band members. But things have changed. Now she’s just a bar hag who hangs out at The Rook. Christie greeted Telford with a wave as he came in.
“You in the mood for company?” Christie asks, carrying her drink with her as she deposits herself on the stool next to him.
Telford looks at her and smiles.
“Not really. I enjoy your proximity but I’m not in the mood for companionship,” he says, not looking at Christie directly.
“What’s that supposed to mean? You used to enjoy my company. A lot.”
“It means nothing. It just means don’t expect much in the way of conversation. Is that okay?”
“I suppose. I miss the old times though. I had a rough day too, you know.”
“Another time, perhaps.”
“Another time for what?” Christie’s voice is hopeful.
“To talk about your rough day.”
Christie takes her drink and rejoins the small group at the other end of the bar.
The dry thunderstorm continues. The thunder follows Telford down the street but asks for nothing that he can comprehend. In the apartment with the curtains drawn open, the moon, shining intermittently between passing clouds, provides sufficient light to undress and rejoin the bed.
This time Telford can think. About Iris. And Christie. And Charles? And Mexico. And lightning and thunder. And how to be restless and volatile without being destructive.
And without taking things apart.
Lance and Bruce are out for the evening in their new cowboy outfits. To the OK Corral to listen to a friend sing. They are greeted at the door by two men. One tall and thin, the other a dwarf who stands only to the thin man’s hip. The dwarf is muscular with an over-sized head and thick, powerful thighs and forearms.
“Check your weapons at the door,” the thin man says.
“We are unarmed,” says Lance.
The thin man reaches over and lifts Lance’s left arm.
“We are without weapons,” Lance says, laughing.
“They all say that,” says the thin man. “Frisk them Shorty.”
The dwarf frisks Lance from the waist down, stopping to fondle Lance’s new Lucchese boots. Beautifully ornate. Works of art. The dwarf moves to Bruce’s lower torso. Bruce wears matching boots which the dwarf again lovingly inspects.
“I think the appropriate term is Little People,” Lance says to the thin man.
The dwarf produces an I.D. which identifies him as Shorty. Thin man lifts Shorty to chest height. The little man frisks Lance from his hoisted position, then Bruce. From Bruce’s vest Shorty retrieves two Montecristo cigars.
“For later,” Lance says.
“Yes. Thank you,” says the thin man.
Bruce, ever the pacifist, looks over at Lance and shakes his head. Let it pass, they’re just cigars, he is indicating.
“What’s your name?’” Lance asks the thin man trying to establish cordial terms.
“You certainly are the literal type.”
“No. I don’t read much.”
“Is Kitty here?”
“Cats not allowed.”
“Dogs, though,” clarifies Shorty.
“Kitty, the singer.”
“Oh. The lady singer.”
“I think her name is Molly,” Shorty says.
“Yes. Kitty is her stage name,” Lance says.
“Yeah. She’s her,” says Slim.
Customers, mostly men, sit at tables in groups playing cards and smoking. Lance and Bruce take the only empty table, far away from the stage. A middle-aged woman with a large, high riding chest comes over to them.
“Whatcha drinking?” the chest asks.
“Sarsaparilla,” Lance says jokingly.
The chest leaves and returns with two glasses and a bottle of Rot Gut Whiskey. It says so on the label.
‘That’ll be twenty dollars.”
Before Lance can protest, Bruce gives him the look and a shake of his head. Lance produces the twenty.
Bruce feels something at his feet. He looks down. Shorty has crawled under the table and is kneading his boots. Bruce kicks at him. Shorty crawls out and slinks sheepishly away.
Two men in cowboy hats, yoke shirts and a deck of playing cards take a seat at their table. The one with the cards and a huge mustache places the cards on the table.
“What’s your game?” the mustaches asks. “Five card? Seven card? Texas hold-‘em?”
“Canasta, I’m afraid,” Lance says.
“So. Your with the show?” says the man without the mustache. He mimics the playing of canastas, opening and closing his hands in the air.
“No. The card game,” Lance says to the men. “This is a nice place,” he continues, trying to repair his reputation.
“It’s OK,” says mustache cowboy. “The pace down the road is better.”
“What’s it called?”
“The Better Saloon.”
Mustache man grabs the bottle of Rot Gut. Puts it to his mouth and takes a long swallow. Sets the bottle back on the table. Collects his cards, rises and leaves. The other man is still pretending to play canastas.
The lights dim. Kitty comes on stage with a man who sits at an old upright piano. The playing and singing begin. Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is?
After the song, Lance and Bruce applaud enthusiastically. The card cowboys turn and stare. They do not share their appreciation. Lance and Bruce take hard swallows of the Rot Gut which makes their eyes tear but gradually settles their nerves.
Slim and Shorty stroll by the table smoking aromatic cigars.
Kitty does a few more numbers to no greater effect. She is replaced by an old guy with a guitar. The old guy sings a song, that neither Lance nor Bruce have heard before, about pick-up trucks and rain and mama being run over by a train. The card cowboys are hooting and hollering and singing along.
Kitty has joined Lance and Bruce at their table. She is clearly distraught. She finishes the bottle of “sarsaparilla” and orders another one. The men try to compliment Kitty on her performance but she will have none of it.
The card cowboys are getting rowdy. Bottles clink. Some fall to the floor. The saloon is filled with tobacco smoke and loud cursing. A fight breaks out over a poker game but is quickly quelled. The mustache cowboy comes to the table and pulls Kitty roughly to her feet, trying to dance while drunk to a tune never meant for dancing. Lance rises to her defense but Bruce grabs him by the arm and gives him the look and the head shake.
Soon enough Kitty is back at the table. Her hair partially unpiled from her head. Her lipstick smeared. The front of her dress soaked and stinking from a spilled bottle of Rot Gut.
Kitty, Lance and Bruce stagger to Bruce’s car. Bruce is in stocking feet. They climb into the car and start the engine.
Shorty is waving bye from the front of the OK Corral. The top of the boots ride to the dwarf’s crotch, engulfing the entirety of his short, stocky legs.