Fried Hog Poop – No Charge For The Fold

Another “The Hot Girl -part 3” writing exercise casualty. Dialogue vs Narrative for backstory. Investment Alert – Long Read- almost 3k. Coffee or wine may be required.

Las Vegas – Mid-Summer 1979

Jackson unbuttoned the top button of his collarless shirt and tried to clear his head of the endless piano bar requests for “After the Love Has Gone” before he stepped out the back door of the hotel kitchen with a couple of waiters. One male, one female, the three of them on their daily post-lunch-rush burn one and chill in the heat retreat.

The girl, Missy, was close to his age. Everyone called the guy Five-Oh because he dyed his hair, combed two-thirds of it back in a duck’s butt to cover the tanned or spray painted bald spot, left the front hanging greasy like Jack Lord from Hawaii Five-O. He could have been thirty or sixty. His sun spotted hands looked ancient covered in wiry, salt and pepper hair and they shook, wide and slow like a lazy blues vibrato when he passed the flat joints he carried in his wallet. He was weird, too thin and jumpy, probably a speed freak, but he knew somebody who grew killer, lime green hydroponic weed and he was loose with it.

Missy was too thin herself, wouldn’t talk to anyone but her customers. After her shift she changed into the same long, hippie-print tapestry skirt and a slightly dingy white, cap sleeve t-shirt, hit the joint with them and headed out the alley and west on foot. After a week of everything he said to her running into a wall, Jackson followed her. It felt like she was going to walk them to where the west side of Vegas met the desert if he didn’t stop her.

He caught up at an intersection, pulled out the first conversation starter he could find. “Nice bracelet. Indian?”

“I knew you were back there, space man. I missed the ‘walk’ light on purpose and waited up so we could bale this and stack it in the barn. I don’t need a boyfriend or a new savior or a better job or a better way or better sex or Avon or Amway or the New York City Sunday paper or anything you’re selling. Leave me alone.”

“I asked about the bracelet.” It was thin leather covered) in beads and more of a cuff, almost like lightweight Indian biker wear, and laced on with orange yarn.

“Indian, yeah. I don’t know what kind. It was wide enough for what I needed, and the bead pattern was cool.” He thought she was going to bite a hole in her lip. “I lace it on and forget it. Thanks for caring. Gotta go.” She took off across the street without the walk light, dodged a couple of cars and kept on west. He watched for a minute, jogged in the heat all the way back to his car and drove west on Flamingo. He crossed under the interstate, saw her a quarter mile ahead. He rolled up in front of her, stopped and got out.

“This is stupid. Missy’s not your name, nobody’s really named Missy and nobody in Vegas nicked you with it.”

“I’m not from Vegas and it’s not your problem, is it?”

“I’m from bale it and put in the barn country myself. You don’t talk through your nose, and Missy is still bullshit.” He could see her frustration with him ramping up.

“Do you get away with this, wherever you’re from, talking to girls like we need to talk back and telling us it’s bullshit if we don’t? I told you —”

“You didn’t tell me anything, it’s hot as hell and you aren’t walking like you’re going anywhere. You can ride in the back with the tire iron like the last girl that got in my car, but get off your feet and outta the heat, tell me where you need to go.” They stared at each other for a few seconds. He drummed on the top of his car with his fingers while she fidgeted with the leather cuff. “Hey, I liked that one. Feet, heat.” She still wasn’t sold, but she let a quick, faint smile get out. He was gaining ground.

“What, now you’re some kind of prairie poet or something? I heard twang. Texas? Not tin can enough to be Okie.”

“Okie born and raised. But I’ve spent a lot of time getting it out of my nose and down into a drawl.”

“You’re not there yet.” She gave up another faint smile, crawled into the back seat. “Wow, baa-ad. The air conditioner in this thing works!”

He pulled away from the curb, had no choice but silence since his radio had been stolen, idled them out Flamingo in third.

“Nice hole you have in your dash.” She opened his back window a crack, lit a long, white filtered cigarette and blew “Kansas” out with the smoke.

“No Kansas without a tape player.”

“Me, you Okie clown. I’m from Kansas. Though where I lived? I could almost throw a rock and hit Oklahoma if I wanted.”

In the mirror he watched her make a face while she leaned, twisted, pulled a seatbelt buckle out from under her backside. “Now I’m living across town the other way in a runaway shelter, so you aren’t taking me ‘home’ anywhere around here, if that was your big ‘help Missy out’ idea.”

“Little old for that shelter, aren’t you? Twenty-two?”

She slapped the side of his headrest. “Good guess! Twenty-three. Twenty-four in August. They don’t check ID there, I don’t do hard drugs, and I wash my face with Noxzema to keep up my girlish looks. There’s girls in there not even fourteen look a lot worse than me. I hate the place, but it’s not coed, so it’s safe. Horny mixed up chicks I can handle. It’s horny, mixed up dudes I can do without.”

He checked her taking his temperature over that in the rear-view. “I’m starving. The no feed us rule at work sucks.”

“So does the food, space man. So really it’s like a benefit, you know? Them not feeding us.” She continued to watch him, his eyes keeping time between the road and her in the mirror. “They weigh that shit is why we don’t get to eat it. Every ticket gets a weight and they check it once a week to see who’s skimming. They even weigh those pans under the counter where they throw the fuckups away. The Mafia runs a way tighter ship than the Navy, that’s for sure.” She let the smoke and her mind drift a little, ashed her cig out the window. “I don’t eat much so it doesn’t matter to me. I walk all afternoon, drink a lot of water. My car’s broken, so I walk back to the shelter after dinner shift. They usually have some kind of chunks in macaroni. It’s slimy, but nice of them. And it keeps me from blowing away. But me and food. It’s just…” She watched the smoke curl, dropped the butt out the window, sighed and stared after it.

“I live on this end of town,” Jackson said to the mirror. “Out where they’re building houses. Not many restaurants yet. Not much of anything yet but apartments, stick framed houses not getting finished. The economy is what I heard. I was going to fix something easy. You can bring the lug wrench in with you.”

“You’re not dangerous, I picked up on that. Okie weird, maybe. I’ll come in ‘cause it’s hot, but I’m just gonna watch.”

***

Jackson made quickie stir fried rice with two Uncle Ben’s boil-in-bags, a bag of frozen veg, a couple of scrambled eggs and pepper. He set two bowls on the counter, grabbed Tabasco and soy sauce from the fridge. He splashed a bowl with some of both, forked the rice, shrugged approval. “I gotta do some laundry this afternoon.” He pointed to the main bedroom with his fork. “There’s all kinds of robes in the front bedroom. Take the tire iron when you’re done with the rice, toss your clothes out. No charge for the fold.”

All she could do was snort with her mouth full because he’d let that go without seeing it as a fantastic jest. “I can’t get stuck out here looking at a dinner shift with no clothes and some crazy Okie weirdo who hates radio. It’s not ever going to happen.” She spooned some more of the rice, shot the bowl of it with a generous dose of soy sauce and took it to the big front bedroom, yelled for him from inside. He ambled in with his bowl, watched her through the open double door on the closet while she slowly fanned through several dozen silk robes on plush hangers. She held a simple, long pink one under her chin, took three steps sideways to the full length mirror and whistled soft and low.

“Wowzer…” She hit the light switch that handled the atmospheric indirects, not the overhead “work” lights. “Will you look at that…How the hell do you live here on the piano bar, space man?” She leaned forward, slowly turning her head to take it all in. “Just being in this bathroom has to be a sin. What’s with all the clothes?” She caught a glimpse of both of them in the wall to wall mirror, blushed. “And the perfume and all these lotions and make up?”

“Office supplies.”

“Yeah?” She hung the robe on a brass hook by the door, gave it a loving pat. “Too much. Too-oo much.” He followed her back to the kitchen where she went straight to the skillet and spooned the remainder of his simple chef Chinese into her bowl.

“I’m only eating because this is the first time any man has ever cooked for me. And I can’t let that one get by, you know? Truly. Never happened before.” She talked around a mouth full of rice and veg, gestured with her bowl. “This could be a bowl of fried hog poop, but knowing a man cooked it for me makes it great, whatever it is.” She swallowed the last of her rice and veg, balled up her paper napkin and dropped it in the bowl. “Seriously. Lay it out, space man. What’s up with the bathroom and the silk robes and everything?”

“This place belongs to seven non-affiliated, free lance hookers. They rented the place right after it was built because it was in the furthest out burbs, no one is looking for hookers out here, and they don’t do business or live in the apartment. They pull up, come inside and prep, walk out dressed up in expensive, real world clothes, climb back in their cars and hit their appointments. Town and Johns are east, desert and construction are west, they live wherever they live. I make sandwiches or omelets, do their laundry, keep the place clean, gas up their cars, glue heels back on shoes, fix stuff. C’mere.”  He set their bowls in the sink, tossed their napkins in a can under it and walked her back into the master bath in the front bedroom.

“See that?” Jackson pointed through the glass surround on a garden tub at a shiny brass shower head the size of a dinner plate. “I put that in for them last week. A hundred and twenty bucks, no shit. From Italy, I think. That paddle thing on the side goes all the way around. From standing in the rain to that little circle of holes in the middle that will beat your ass. It’s —”

She pushed him out of the room and locked the door. Less than a minute later her clothes flew out and the door locked again.

He waited until he heard the bathwater stop before starting the load of hooker office wear and Missy’s clothes. He sat on the couch and watched a video tape of a guy with a foreign accent explain beginner guitar and music theory. He couldn’t keep up with the guy on guitar, yet, but it was good for his brain to stay on top of even simple theory. And the only other tape, the sensual massage lesson, would have primed him to climb, uninvited, into the bathtub with his nameless guest.

***

“Massey, not Missy? Ferguson? Like the tractor?” He leaned his head on the back of the couch in mock shock. “Jesus. Alice Chalmers would at least have been more chick sounding.”

“Hey,” she kicked him on the shin with a bare foot, “there’s nothing wrong with Massey. I just stay away from all of that except for government forms because I have to tell it all, like now. I only told you ’cause nobody else has cooked for me or washed my clothes since mama died.” She pulled he robe tighter, eyed him for a moment with hopeful intensity. “Tell me you didn’t do it ‘cause you’re a panty sniffer, space man. I could use a friend.”

“I only sniff to check for clean or dirty.” He grinned, held up the red can. “More Coke?”

“No. I like to crunch the ice chunks that still have some taste of it. I’ve never, ever seen anybody beat up ice with a hammer before.”

“I don’t like cubes. Don’t know why, just never have. My mom indulged me, so it’s a habit now. When did your mom die?”

“When my dad ran over her with a combine ‘cause she was fucking Nueller down in the air conditioned garage of the Esso. I was twelve then? Yeah, twelve, and just a couple of days before it happened my brother’d pulled a shotgun on dad when he went off on mom, told him not to touch her again, ever. I didn’t blame her when it all came out. Dad’s about a pig and a fucking half. Fat, drunk mostly, showers when he remembers. Nueller was always shiny clean, smelled like Old Spice even on a hot day, always had a crease in his pants and was fucking every woman in three or four counties in two states who had a guy like dad for a husband.”

“Nice work if you can get it.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Not really. He’s dead now, too, Nueller is. The man who owned the Ford lot from over in Anthony waited for him to step out from behind the pumps and ran him down. He was going about twenty-five, nailed Nuellie with the dead center of a brand-new Ford. Backed up over him, ran over him some more. The paper said Nueller was smiling. The Ford lot man’s wife looked a lot like Marilyn Monroe, some kind of hot girl everybody said. I didn’t know her. Nueller probably thought it was her coming for him, not her husband. Happy to dead. Boom.” She covered her knees again with the slippery, oversized pink silk robe. She went thoughtful for a moment, set her glass of ice on the coffee table, looked at him and was surprised he was listening.

“I guess that’s the best way to go, you know, looking forward to something. Mama was miserable and said all the time she only stayed for me. I know she had to have heard that combine, had to know what was coming, and didn’t try to run or anything. Miserable to dead. Boom.” She pulled the sleeve of the robe down over her left wrist where the wide, beaded Indian bracelet lived when she wasn’t fresh out of the tub. “I think that’s why I’m still here. Some days I feel too miserable to die. If I get happy someday? Lightning will strike me, I know it.”

Jackson pulled the sleeve back, looked at all the small, white scars on her wrist. Nothing deadly, just knicks. Manifested frustration. He got up, set his Coke can on the counter. She turned, chin in the crook of her arm, watched him unload the clothes from a dryer in a closet by the kitchen.

“The Indian bracelet you like? I only got it because it stops me. I know it’s crazy, but sometimes I’ll even pinch myself with a roach clip if I’m bummed. I’m right-handed and if I tried any of that with my left hand I’m so retarded I’d cut my arm off. I really sort of need my right one or I couldn’t do anything and then I’d be more miserable and not dead.”

“Cutting your arm off might be a good start on dead.” He dumped the basket of dryer friendly panties, teddies, slips, nothing but lace and hooks bras, a couple of nylon halter top with hot pants onesies along with Massey’s clothes on the big, square coffee table and started sorting. He was almost done, folded her panties, dropped them on top of her skirt and t-shirt.

“How’d you know?”

He held up a small piece of v-shaped lace draped over his finger and her tired at the seams tiger-striped bikinis, raised his eyebrows. He also held up what had once been a bra and was now a lot of stringy elastic and shapeless nylon and cotton. “Your bra is shot. You oughta toss it.”

“And wear what?”

“Go liberated or get in the top drawer in the big bedroom. Probably forty in there. Two of the ladies are about your size. Find one you like that fits. They’ll never miss it, and if they do I’ll tell them the dryer ate it.”

She came back dressed, with an obviously lacy bra under the t-shirt. “You’re a weird sort of guy, space man. You cook a little, do laundry like a Chinaman. You’ll look at my legs and show me the shower but not to make me feel creeped. Where’d you learn to be a house boy?”

“Lived with a girl who failed home-ec. The rest was mom went to work. Simple survival.”

“Same here on the survival. Only my mama was murdered and he got away with it.”

White Lies and Dirty Laundry

 From The Hot Girl – I

Roosevelt Junior High, October 20th, 1971

Deanna clung to her open locker door with her right hand, leaned her head on the shelf inside. She couldn’t go to homeroom. She didn’t want to talk, or smile, or lead cheerleading practice. Or read the afternoon announcements or do anything at all. Just for a day, she didn’t want to be who she was. All she wanted was to be alone and maybe have one real friend she could tell about Gramma Cora. Goddammit. Was that too much to ask, really?

***

Coach Stephens raised his chin in acknowledgment at the growth-spurt skinny eighth-grade boy in his doorway. “Mornin’, Jackson.” He tilted his head slightly toward the wall to Jackson’s left, tossed the blue nylon bag full of his laundry at him like it was a medicine ball. “Some geniuses clogged the shitter in the band room.” Stephens pushed his chair back, hitched up his coach sweats. “C’mon. I’ll get you out through the girl’s side. Grab a hall pass in case you meet a stranger on that side of the building.”

Jackson tore off several pre-stamped with Coach Stephens signature hall passes from the pad, even though, after a year and a half, there wasn’t much likelihood of anyone stopping him on blue bag days. He hefted the laundry bag to his shoulder, followed Stephens to the center of the basketball court, the invisible wall between the only non-coed homerooms at Roosevelt Junior High. Stephens chirped his whistle.
“Heads up, skirts down, legs crossed, ladies. Man comin’ through.”

Jackson knew he’d turned red, shielded his head with the bag and sent his eyes to the floor for his trek through the minefield of girl’s gym homeroom. Damn. They sat on the floor cross legged, or laid on their backs with an ankle on their knee, skirts dropped to almost there. He heard them all shuffling positions, heard the giggles, the murmured comments that followed him across the basketball court until he was out the double doors. Up five steps and he was in the hall headed toward daylight.

He shifted the bag, raised his eyes, and noticed an open locker opposite from where most of the hall was blocked with junk that had been pulled out of the janitor’s closet to go deal with the clogged band room commode. All he could see under the locker door were sweat socks and girl’s saddle oxfords. Cheerleader gear. Great. And coming down the hall from the other direction, on a collision course with him and the cheerleader’s feet was Mr. Han, the asshole French teacher and hall pass Nazi. Shit.

Bonjour, Mr. Han.”

“Always halfway clever, Monsieur Jackson. You and the bag say it’s Wednesday but on the wrong side of the building. Something to do with who we have at their locker that should be in homeroom?”

Jackson stepped into the narrow space between the cheerleader’s open locker door and Mr. Han, swung his laundry bag around his right shoulder, knocking the unseen girl backward into her locker. He was chest to chest and almost eye to eye with Han, butt facing the cheerleader. In near-zero personal space, he managed to lift a hall pass out of his back pocket with a thumb and finger, held it under the bag, and waited until he felt her grab it.

“She was with me, Mr. Han. There’s shit, uh, sewage all on the floor by the band room on our side, and Coach sent her to escort me out the girl’s side. So I wouldn’t do anything stupid or talk to anybody. And, um, anyway, she needed a book, that’s why he sent her with me. And, uh, she ran ahead of me. To get her book.”
The girl pushed the crumpled pink slip past the bottom of the blue bag for Han, who snatched it, gave it a cursory glance.

“Don’t you have somewhere you’re supposed to be, Mr. Jackson?”

“Yes sir.” Jackson stepped off in a hurry, just under the ‘don’t run in the hall’ rule, didn’t look back. Han followed him with his eyes until Jackson and the blue bag were around the corner.

“Miss Collings, are you feeling alright?”

“Yes. And no.” Deanna brushed her butt, checked her effort and the pleats of her skirt over both shoulders. “My grandmother’s funeral was yesterday. I just didn’t want to talk to everyone…Anyone. That’s why I, um, ran to my locker, like he said. I’ll be okay. Really.”

“I understand. There’s never a good time for a funeral.” Han glared down the empty hallway. “Or Jackson.” He flicked the pink pass in his hand with his middle finger, handed it back. “Someday, Stephens will learn to put names and dates on his hall passes and sign them like the rest of us. Why he’d send someone like you out with that kid and the bag is beyond me.”

“Well,” she waved her hand under her nose, “there is some really gross shhh…Poop. And stuff. All on the floor on their side and Jackson can get in trouble. I mean pretty easy, and kind of a lot. And I did need my book.”

“As usual, Miss Collings, everything you have said is true.” He pushed her locker door closed. “But homeroom young lady. Now.”

“Yes sir.” She smoothed out the hall pass, put it inside the history book she wouldn’t need for four hours. Blue Bag Jackson had spare, stamped hall passes from Coach Stephens? Slacked her hassle with Han before it got started and covered her, no big deal, no stupid guy conversation, no junk? Even if he was kind of a jerk, knocking her on her butt…But still. Cool.

Strays

If you’ve read any of this blog, you’ve met Deanna Collings. Meet Jackson, the other star of The Hot Girl.

Long Beach, CA. Summer 1981

“Sky? Whoa. S’up, kid? You’re a ways from San Diego County. Your mom know you’re here?” Jackson backed away from the door of his apartment to let his ex-neighbor by. He recognized the electric guitar case almost as big as the girl, took in the dirty converses along with the red eyes, pink nose and windblown hair. “Hey, hey. Whoa for real to you.” He put out his hand and tried to stop the giant, filthy gray dog right on her heels who ignored him, followed her inside, sniffed up his small living room and flopped on the old hardwood under the open living room window.

“S’up yourself, Jackson. No. Mom doesn’t…I took the bus. I hate San Diego. Fucking hate it. And I, well not me, some total jerkface broke my guitar and it’s all mom’s fault because this jerkface she was dating has this kid, he’s the first jerkface I said, and he twisted the tuning keys too much and some other stuff and the whammy bar is all loose and now my guitar is all messed up and will never be okay.”

“Broken axe is no reason to bail on home. You know you can call me, we’ll deal. What else you got makes a bus ride from SD worth it?”

“Mom said I was stupid for wanting to play softball. With you. But everybody says I’m good. And I really need help with my summer school English teacher, Jackson, ‘cause she hates me. Everybody messes with me all the time down there and everybody hates me…” She leaned her electric guitar case on the couch, sat down next to it and started to snuffle. Jackson didn’t like to deal with women in their twenties to nineties crying. Almost thirteen broke his heart.

“Coke? I have the brownies you hipped me to from Stenson’s, some stale cinnamon rolls Logan brought from the good Lucky’s in Brentwood, and Oreos.”

“Coke. Please. And an Oreo?” She huge snuffled. He set a box of Kleenex next to her on the way to the fridge, dropped the storyboard for the commercial he’d been working on in the kitchen. Like him, it wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

“I like your new couches, Jackson. And clean pillows and stuff. Dash’s stuff was gross. I’m sorry I’m here, but I couldn’t do it anymore, and you’re like the only real runaway I ever met. So…” The tears came again, big and round, without noise.

“I’m not a real runaway, Sky. I guess I was, in a way. I waited so long to leave I had to run and I did do a pretty bunk job of it.” He squeezed her shoulder, handed her a Coke with ice and a straw in a tall, real glass, set the Oreos on the end table. He’d helped her through enough homework afternoons when she’d lived next door to know Sky and one Oreo wasn’t going to happen.

She snuffled again. “Cool! Real glass? For me?” She looked at him, big red eyes and a little bit of snotty nose. She started to wipe it all on her sleeve, he caught it, gave her a dish towel with a damp corner he’d brought with the Cokes, nudged the Kleenex box toward her.

“Not much longer on the glass, kid. Twelve is done and you’re done. I save the plastic ones for grownups.”

“Then I won’t have another birthday.”

“Yeah you will. You can lie and tell me you’re twelve when you’re not. I forget about birthdays and how many of them. Stupid, huh?”

“Yeah, kinda. ‘Cause everybody has one. Mom says hers have stopped but that’s BS. Don’t tell, but she has gray hairs now. She has to dye them.”

“Call her for me? You might be responsible for some of those gray hairs.”

“‘Kay. In a minute.” They sat in silence with their Cokes, interrupted by occasional snuffle recovery nose blowing.

“Where’d you get the dog?”

“From around the corner by the bus stop. Like it was waiting for me.”

“He stinks.”

“Yeah, but she’s really nice, and she scared off the Deja Vu parking lot pervs.” Sky tossed a twisted off Oreo top to the dog who caught and inhaled it.

“Jesus.” Jackson leaned onto his knees, put his hand on top of the case. “Show me your guitar?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry he broke it. Jerkface. I haven’t been to my lesson in two whole weeks.”

She popped the case latches, lifted the lid. He was expecting a hanging headstock, splinters, guitar guts. What he got were three broken strings, a bent tuning key and a loose whammy bar from the missing strings.

“Nothing major, but it’s still a pisser, huh? Only a head case would mess with your axe that way. What’d your mom say?”

“She said one day I’d understand that girls need some attention certain kinds of ways and she, well, she was sorry and she’d wait till I was older. For men and stuff to be in the house again and everything, and she was sorry, too, ‘cause anybody who’d break my guitar was stupid and maybe dangerous and I didn’t need to be around people like that.”

“Good for her.” He waited, let her snuffle a couple of times.

“Mom said I was the only thing she ever did right, not letting me be her ‘nother abortion, and nothing better ever happen to me ‘cause I was her gift. Her one little ray of hope that someday being a girl wouldn’t be so screwed up, even if I cuss too much and I get mad at people for acting stupid.” She snuffled, smaller this time. “Can you believe she said that?”

“Yeah. Truth? It took serious mom guts to tell you how much she really does love you all rolled up in that. Don’t worry about the cussing and getting mad. I know a couple of girls a lot like you, didn’t seem to stop them.”

“Did they grow up okay?”

He thought about that one for a few ticks. “I think growin’ up is something we do forever.” He sipped his Coke while he waited for that to hit. “Your mom doesn’t want you to play softball?”

“Only at the park with the little league mixed team. Not with you. She says I’m too young and too much trouble and shouldn’t bother you with all my junk and the only reason is ‘cause I want to hang out with the TV people I saw you with in the paper. And that’s BS, too. ‘Cause I can play okay for a girl and your team’s all girls mostly and I’m not too much trouble. Except for mom. And summer school. Since we moved my English grades suck again and my teachers all hate me ‘cause I’m flippant. That’s what they all say. Flippant.”

“You look it up?”

“It means smart ass when you can’t say smart ass.”

“There you go. It’s like skin, kinda. Get used to it, ‘cause it stays with you, trust me. And look, people make excuses for you not being able to do stuff without really getting to it. Your mom works some Saturdays and it’s a haul in all the traffic up to Long Beach or Santa Monica from SD. Ask her about that, see if there’s something you can work out. Better grades and sitting on flippant might net you a ride.”

“You think?”

“Duh.” He grinned, clinked her glass. “You get square with your mom and summer school. You show, you can play.” He’d never thought of charity softball being used as academic performance leverage, but here it was. “You know why we play softball?”

“For some charity, mom said.”

“That’s right. It’s the ‘somebody always has time to help girls with troubles’ charity. Call your mom, tell her where you are. I’ll talk her down and you go wash your face. We’ll get right with your mom first, then we can go get your guitar fixed, grab an In ‘n Out. We can hit that English workbook in your case if you want. I can even run you back down there later if your mom needs me to.”

“Like right now? My guitar and everything? We can do all that?”

“Yep.” He dropped the lid and latched her case. “From here you look a lot like one of those girls with troubles. And I look like the somebody who needs to have some time.” He took her empty glass, left an Oreo on the table, tossed one to the dog. “Go call your mom.” He checked the stinky mess of gray dog again. “Before all her hair turns gray.”

***

Jackson slid Sky’s guitar case in and down, eased the hatch closed on the new Corolla hatchback that had replaced her mom’s gasping Pinto. Watched in silence while Sky tugged on her mom’s arm, showed her the one hour photos. “No shit, Mom! Look! Honey Muffin from Skanque! She helped fix my guitar! Mine! Can you believe it? She used to live here, ‘member?” He walked around the car, got a big hug from Sky and a one-armed upset but thank you mom-ish hug from Star.

“Thanks. Again.” Star tilted her head toward the passenger side of the car.

“You’re welcome.” He closed the car door, leaned down into the window. “You two cut each other some slack, okay? You’re all you’ve got for family, and lonesome sucks.”

“We got you, too, Mr. Jackson. And now you got us and that big, stinky dog.”

“I come out ahead on that deal, even with the dog. Sky?” He put his finger on his temple. “Hit record, print this. Call me before you ever get on a bus again.” He waited until the Corolla made the left toward the ocean in the Long Beach twilight before he turned around, looked at the tall, matted, gray haired dumpster stank with four feet standing in front of him.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with you?” The Wolfhound put its front paws on his shoulders, licked his nose. He glanced down, did a gender check. Sky had been right about he being a she. “Just what I need in my life. One more female runaway.”

Photo Credit- Gresham Guitars

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It’s Instant, Okay?

Houston, Texas. On and around Valentine’s Day, 1979 

She was sitting on his knees, maybe the top of his shins, he knew that, and she was totally involved in whatever she was talking about. He wasn’t alert enough to make much sense of it. She either thought he was awake, or needed to be awake, or at least she needed to be talking to him because she was awake. What he noticed was the lavender bathrobe loosely wrapped around her small frame and on a hair-thin gold chain hanging below her throat a tiny cross and diamond caught the morning sun and splashed her walls with rainbows.

Her big blue eyes sparkled under a morning-esque cascade of dark waves while she emoted and asked him, “This way…or…this way? Which one is more believable?” She had somehow rolled modern dance from a class she’d been to before he arrived last night, theatrical and everyday body language along with linguistics into a single thought that needed to find a way out of her head at six-thirty in the morning. He was pinned beneath her and her bedspread while she let that thought and everything it brought along with it out into the bright sunrise of the day after Valentine’s Day Gulf Coast morning. Her voice was light, she was completely engaged with herself and her audience of one and it was important to her that what was on her mind got worked out, and that he heard it. He let her voice wash over him and tried to participate.

“I’m not sure,” he said, thinking that safe and maybe he’d get an explanation or a repeat that would bring him up to speed.

“Of course you are! Subjectively. You know what’s sincere and what’s contrived. Now that you’ve thought about it, though…” she looked down at her hands on his thighs with an air of disappointment, didn’t let it stop her. “Here. I’ll do it again.” She emoted and said “I love you” three different ways. She was playing with him and thinking about something deeper than messing with him at the same time and he couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“Well, one was just TV phony, you know.” He thought a few seconds.  “And the other two might both work. It depends on what sort of reception you wanted.”

She looked at him, he thought to gauge his comment for bullshit factor. “How do you mean?” Yep.

“Well, one of them is romantic and the other seemed more substantial. Infatuation, hearts and flowers. The other was like maybe you were sitting on a park bench or the beach somewhere and wanted to let someone know you just got eaten up with the fact that you loved them.”

“So in one it’s partners and in the other it’s sort of one-sided?”

“No. Sort of.” Shit, girl. It’s too early. “Like in one you hope they’re listening and in the other you know they are, so there’s more of you and less Hallmark moment ‘love’ drama getting tossed out to see what comes back.”

“Of course! One is completely fake, we knew that. One is mooshy and one is like, ‘Hey, you. Love ya.’ But which one was which?”

“Does that matter?”

“Of course it does! We play games with each other all the time. And dance, everything really, needs to be authentic. That’s what we worked on last night, where I went that you had to wait before you could…come over.” She seemed to get flustered a little with “come over.” “She talked to us about the need to be authentic last night, so if it’s anger or love or whatever the choreographer wants, it has to be believable, unless it needs to look contrived, and as dancers we need to know the difference. Did you know that most people think the most contrived is the most believable and that the real one isn’t emotional or theatrical enough? That’s pretty bad. So if I danced ‘I love you’ and wanted everyone to get it I’d have to do the fake version. Anyway, that’s what we worked on last night. Before you, and…I have a teapot, or maybe a saucepan and instant coffee, I think. It’s A&P. When I was a little girl in New Orleans they’d grind it at the A&P right on the counter. It smelled so-o good.”

He didn’t think they ground instant coffee at the A&P, and he usually drank a Coke or Pepsi, nuked one of those local apple fried pies at the U-Totem by the video studio where she was temping and he used to work. The same at the Totem in Tulsa, down in the Montrose or Del City. Coke or Pepsi and a fried pie were ubiquitous. You could find all three in places that were hours from an Egg McMuffin. It was a road food breakfast habit he’d developed since his first band guy homelessness years ago.

“Sure,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “Coffee is coffee.”

“Me, too.”

He was trying to discern how “Me, too” was an answer or even a response when she hopped off his legs and disappeared through the bedroom door, the loose lavender robe flowing but never getting too loose, the dark waves bouncing on top. Where the hell was he? Her apartment?

***

Yesterday. He’d played a show-and-blow hard hat soundtrack gig at a video studio in southwest Houston. He’d been late, something that never happened. In the parking lot he’d talked to the girl with the Porsche from GDL&W and they’d bitched about VW engines vapor locking in Houston. His van, her Porsche, same engine, same problem. She’d been a daddy’s little rich girl cheerleader in Tulsa, a last stop hippie holdout town they’d joked about, a place he’d escaped from once already. Now the people who had failed him in Houston and run home were trying to suck him back. He’d thought about hitting on Porsche girl a couple of times, she was friendly and receptive enough, but things were never in sync. Nothing was in sync lately.

Commuting between Tulsa, OKC, Pasadena, Montrose and Southwest Houston. Occasional Little Rock and Dallas trips thrown in. Living on couches, floors and in a van just to play music, smoke free pot and be a one man soundtrack machine was getting out of hand. He’d fucking had it with everything but the live soundtrack guy in a van. His old girlfriend quit her job and cancelled the lease on their apartment in Houston without telling him and that had lit the fuse on his “fuck it.” She’d gone back to fucking everyone in Tulsa with a dick and a heartbeat, giving away his shit she’d said he could store in the duplex he wouldn’t move into with her. All because he never said he’d marry her except once when she’d fed him ‘ludes and sexed him to the edge of consciousness. He’d have admitted Disco was his fault that night and he’d told her as much. Then there were the festival stage managers, caterers, dealers. All wanting to hang, talk shit, shoot pool, get high, ask him to improvise his one-man Tangerine Dream shtick or restaurant air cheese new age gig. Or play prog rock for Jesus one night and high heeled guitar band for topless dancers the next. Fuck it. All of it. All of them. Except his bass player. And GDL&W Porsche girl and he didn’t even have time to work that because they’d both vapor locked and were running late. Happy Valentine’s Day! He’d felt the same on New Year’s only now his van would start before it vapor locked. Slush in Pasadena, Texas and a dead van in front of a Jack in the Box for New Year’s Eve. His bass player had told him it had to get better, hang in. Right.

***

She was temping at the front desk when he walked in. Way pretty. Too pretty for this gig. Blue eyes the size of quarters, long, wavy dark hair. A small framed, tan, blue eyed gypsy movie star looking girl in a summery dress. He was toast the second he saw her. His keyboard rig got wheeled in from the van past her desk with a few theatrical bumps with the dolly, and he did the gig. Didn’t hang for touch up or additional drops in the control room. He left his gear set up, waited out his audio to video marriage approval in the guest chair in front of her desk where he pretended to read a leftover newspaper and flirted his ass off. He tried musician, office guy, professional guy, cool guy, nice guy. She wasn’t buying. Plain old conversation that he used as piano bar guy was up next.

He turned a page of the paper he wasn’t reading, shook it. “So you’re new?” Lame, lame, lame.

“Yes. Kind of. I’m a temp.” She kept typing. “I heard about you coming today. You were late. Jan sure seemed glad to see you.”

“Who’s Jan?” Smooth.

“Jan. From GDL&W? The blonde with the black sports car thing? You talked to her in the parking lot?” The parking lot comment came out wrapped in “duh?” and the typing never slowed.

“That’s her name? I call her the GDL&W Porsche girl. We were talking about how her expensive little car sucks as bad as my big cheap one in the heat.” He thought for half a beat, added “My VW van has the same Porsche engine in it as hers. Can you believe that? Like a Porsche van, with the wrong logo.” He wasn’t sure it bought him any cool points but he was clutching at straws. She was way too cute, smart and disinterested.

“Mmm.” She checked a page she was typing from with her finger. “I guess. That’s why you were late? My car overheats sometimes.” She continued to type. He flirted. She answered the phone, got instructions from the regular receptionist and office manager who glared him out like always. He flirted more. He talked about what was in the paper, what she was doing, where she’d gone to college, worked in all the are you married or have a boyfriend questions. She answered no to them all and worked questions of her own along the same lines into those answers, typed like Bach at the harpsichord on crack and didn’t have to look at the Selectric while she did it.

“So a temp, huh? Like Manpower? For girls?” Ouch. “Is that like Girlpower? Or Womanpower?” He followed that with a weak laugh. More ouch.

“No. Lollie Lowe. They’re small and specialized and pay more for college degrees. And they get me better jobs and nicer clients.” She looked at him, never stopped the blaze typing. “Usually.”

He caught that one, grinned in spite of himself. “Where’d you learn to type like that?”

“In high school, first. My mom went to a secretary school in New Orleans, before she and my dad started having babies, and said I should learn. And I worked as a medical transcriptionist for a while. With the Dictaphone things? That’s where I learned to type fast for real.”

“Like typing boot camp? I need to go. I play keyboards and I still can’t type for shit.”

She snarf laughed, caught it with the back of her hand. It was beautiful, though. Just what he needed and it dropped him right back in the toaster.

“Some of that medical stuff was pretty bad.” She made a small yuk face. “I learned to type really fast so I could get through the gross body parts stuff, I think.” She was getting lighter, Valentine’s Day started to look up.

***

 Two weeks later, after making almost daily and nightly phone calls from wherever he was and two one night trips to Houston between rehearsals, gigs and Hotel Oklahoma floor and couch surfing to see her, she stopped him in the little alcove between her bedroom and bathroom. She had mastered the loose, but not loose enough for exposure, unintentionally sexy robe wrap. She was nervous, her hands started talking before she did. When she did start talking she was more serious and worried than he’d ever seen any girl, but she had a rare depth, and her emotions were right on the surface. On top of that she seemed almost apologetic for being about to let go of her real feelings. Again. She let them go whenever she felt them, didn’t sit on them. He always listened, fascinated by her. This was something way more than dance and music and poetry and wine and love making.

“We,” she unfolded her arms, held her hand between them, took a deep breath, sighed big. “We can do this. If you want to.” She looked at him, big blue eyes wide open. “This…us. What we’re doing.”

“Okay.”

She put one hand on his flannel robed upper arm, stared at it while she caressed his arm with her fingertips. “Because of you,” she looked up at him again, nodded towards the bedroom, “and that. I mean really be usIf you want to.”

“Look, I’m not driving ten hours to see you and then turning around just for sex. There’s more going on.” He wanted to say something about how relationships, including a marriage, had always been a dead end pain in the ass, how sex was an equational, simple tap and go most of the time. But that she wasn’t tap and go, or simple, and was the uncommon kind of girl he wouldn’t, or shouldn’t say that to, so he left it.

“Alright. But… ” she was lost in her fingers and his arm again.

“But?”

She squeezed his arm, looked him in the eye, let it out in a rush. “When I want to get married I want to get married, and when I want a baby, I want a baby, okay?” She paused, the worried seriousness ramped up. “Or we can’t…do this.” She looked off toward the bedroom again. “I can’t. Not with you.”

“That’s okay, too.”

For the first time in nearly ten years he put his arms around a female because he meant it. He didn’t try to kiss her, distract her, ignore her, heat her up. He held her. This wasn’t the game he’d been playing since a girl taught him when he was seventeen that really caring was a deep hole of one way stupid in the female culture of opportunistic, reward based convenience. This girl? The looking for herself college graduate video studio temp out of nowhere? He’d never met anyone like her. Passionate, talented, smart, caring, spacey. Sexy, pretty, petite and shit free. With a classical sounding name. Self-admittedly she wasn’t much of a cook or a housekeeper, and her laundry skills were laughable. All of her white undies were light, “Don’t laugh, it works out for ballet tights” pink. She liked real wine better than Mateus, shrimp pizza with Alfredo sauce and veggies, books and dance and classical music. Could play the violin and dance and write, hated nail polish and plants grew when she walked past them. She’d said she loved him. He wasn’t letting her go unless she broke both his arms.

“You have to mean it.” She pushed back, coy, sparkling and ridiculously feminine.

“I do mean it. Pick a day if you want.”

“How about July? The fourteenth?”

“Fine.”

“You mean it? I just made that up, the July thing. We don’t have to use it. Really?”

“Really.”

“Good! Us is us.” She hugged him back before the loose lavender robe and dark, unbrushed morning waves stepped around him, flowed and bounced their way to the kitchen. “Coffee? It’s still instant.”

“Sure.” He followed her, his hands on both sides of the kitchen entry. “I need to go back, get some things. It’ll take me a couple of days. There’s not, um…I don’t have much left. How do you feel about waterbeds?”

“Don’t know. If you like them we can try one, I guess.” She was opening drawers and cabinets and then closing them like the coffee had sneaked off somewhere new since the last time he was there. It might have, the way she used and cleaned a kitchen. “Do you really have one? A waterbed I mean? I’ve never really…” Slam. “That’s okay, the waterbed. You can bring it if you want to. Something new. Have you seen the fucking coffee?” Slam. “No, I guess not, huh.” Slam. “Well, shit.” She stood up, glared tight lipped around the kitchen, landed on him. “Where’d it go?”

“Someplace.” He got a knitted eyebrows look. He was laughing at both of them, not out loud. He’d already seen it. “If I were instant coffee, I’d be on top of the fridge. Don’t ask me how I got there.” He got a quick waist high hug and more of a kiss than he deserved for finding coffee. “Sorry I got all sailor mouth, but some times, you know?”

Yeah, he knew. He’d said “Okay.” To married. To baby. Those hadn’t been on his calendar, but then he didn’t have a calendar. He had a front pocket full of business cards and bits of paper with notes on them. It was her first gift. His was no shit going to be the barely used Mr. Coffee he’d left sitting in his bass player’s girlfriend’s garage.

Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

I was a twenty-year-old kid, fumbling around, knowing I no longer belonged to a life I’d thought all those twenty years was for me. Knowing my fairy tale had taken a sharp turn on a dark, rainy night, skidded off the road and gotten mired in the mud. And I sat there, spinning my wheels in 1973 from late May until November 28th. That night, at the Fairgrounds Arena in Oklahoma City, I sat on the seventh row, on the floor, just in front of Greg Lake at an ELP concert. Not long after they’d changed formats, going live with the Brain Salad Surgery album. Chapter one of the rest of my life.

I walked out of the arena and said, “That’s what I’m gonna to do.” Not that I was going to be Emerson Lake and Palmer, something I considered only briefly early on and discovered wasn’t going to happen, but it sent me down a road I’d seen the signposts for that night. I told people about it, what I was going to do. Build a pile of keyboards and rock the world. They said you have responsibilities, you can’t do that, you’re nuts. Sure I was. But I’d already punched my ticket to ride right on out of the mainstream, so why not?

The fastest way to get to be Keith Emerson, or someone like Keith Emerson, aside from piano lessons and a good left hand, was to buy a Moog synthesizer and learn how to use it. I’d already taken piano lessons, so I put my MG Midget up for collateral at the bank across the street from the deli where I was making sandwiches for my old classmates in their office tower clothes and bought the second Mini Moog to hit the state of Oklahoma. Only hours behind the first one that went to a lounge band. I laughed. Screw those guys. I was going to be a synthesist!

Like the man said. Now I are one.

emo adFor just over six years I was the North American Product and Artist Relations manager for an Italian company that built digital pianos. Innovative and unique digital pianos. They were a small company and didn’t pay anyone much for endorsements or ship tons of gear to artist’s doors. They built an instrument, that’s it. Keith Emerson was one of our first “endorsees.” He sold a lot of pianos and got a few free ones in return. And he brought a number of great keyboardists with him. All unpaid, all friendly, all brilliant and talented. Keith or his tech Will would call, “I need a piano to meet me here or there.” Fine. Keith rode motorcycles with the Italian guy who owned the company. Through the desert, the wine country. “No problem,” I’d say. “Give me an address.”

All of that leads to me sitting with Keith in a Holiday Inn restaurant one evening, drinking way over-priced Kendall Jackson grocery store quality wine and, surprisingly, being roundly ignored by passers-by. I’ d often thought of telling him before, but that evening after enough of that expensive cheap wine, I informed him that the lost years of my mid-twenties were his fault. I told him about Oklahoma City, about how my screeching MiniMoog made my neighbors on 32nd and Barnes think I was sacrificing cats. Or worse, practicing some form of Godless Voodoo after I’d figured out his steel drum sound. More importantly, that I’d wanted to be him when I grew up. He laughed, said don’t blame me, and if trying to be him ever netted me any female companionship I owed him. For getting me out in front with the guitar players who, up until Emerson, invariably got all the girls. I told him that if I had to pay him what I owed him for that business I’d be way more than broke. He laughed again, we drank more wine, told more stories. I didn’t tell him that as disrepectful kids we often joked that ELP was what happened when Paul Revere and the Raiders discovered crack. If anyone still thinks that, it’s an urban myth and nothing more.

Keith was an uncommon man whose stiff-necked, iron-spined, no-holds-barred and totally uncompromising approach to rock ‘n roll changed the way the world looked at keyboard players over the last forty years of the Twentieth Century. He had ganglion cyst surgery, piano lids crashed down on his hands, roman candles hooked to a ribbon controller blew his thumbnails off, but the show we were always welcomed to always went on. Emo was the Jimi Hendrix style showman of keyboards and, as I said, he helped an entire generation of dorky piano lesson boys get off the bench and put them in front of serious guitarist’s electricity. The Moog went from Switched on Bach and the hallowed halls of academia to switched full-on rock. We were a legion, the Emerson-ites. A legion of white pirate shirts and vests, all of us turned up to eleven. Our old piano teachers covering their ears, spinning in their graves. It wasn’t about the chops as much as it was about balls. It was about relentlessly pushing the envelope. Turning three guys into five. It was putting ten pounds of music in a five-pound bag and keeping it from exploding. If you blew it up some nights getting there, that was okay.

The show that never ended, that we were all welcome to attend, has now come to a close. Suddenly and violently, just as the finale of Karn Evil 9.

I’ll miss you, Keith. And I’ll say “Thanks” as well. For making me miserable when I was young, making me laugh as I grew older, for being the tow-rope that got me out of the mud and back on the road when I was aimless and sightless. For being the inspiration that forced me to be better than I was. For setting a standard. For setting me on the path that ultimately led me to the rest of my life and for mercilessly demanding better than mediocrity. For making mediocrity, often my own, so easy to spot.

I blew up a studio monitor the other day listening to “Knife Edge” after I found out Keith was gone. It felt great and sounded magnificent even after I lit it up. You might consider trying it, if you have a fire extinguisher handy.

 

 

Locked Out

“Pretzel, Neeko?”

Neeko eyed the plastic wicker-look basket on the bar, full of nothing but miniature pretzels. “No ChexMix?”

“Nope.” Lamar smiled more with his eyes than his mouth, raised his chin a little toward the bartender who stepped to her left, reached under the counter and held up a small bag of miniature pretzels with a chip-clip on top. “Low sodium. She likes me, I can tell.”

“Like she likes her grampa. You always have been able to talk to women, Lamar, I’ll give you that. What’d you say?”

“She came down, stood right in front of me after you left last time. I was startin’ to get up, thought I’d mine the last of the pretzels from the ChexMix before I followed you out. She puts her hand with the towel in it on her hip, puts her other hand on top of mine, locks it in the bowl, cocks her head a little and says, ‘That’s not really playing fair. You know that, right?’ I was trying to dust off my talk to a strange woman chops when she smiled, like to have knocked me off the stool forty years ago. ‘You don’t like my ChexMix, or what? It insults a girl when you dis her snack baskets.’ And now it’s worse because she’s got a deep, movie star voice to go with the rest of her. So I say ‘It’s got nothing to do with you. You’re a lovely, attractive woman and I’m sure your heart is in the right place, but I’m a pretzel man, always have been. I’m not gonna sell-out now for a potpourri of crunch and flavor all goin’ off in my mouth.’”

“Jesus, Lamar. You can still spread more shit than a whole crew of landscapers. So that ‘lovely, attractive woman’ business netted you your own bag of pretzels?”

“Nope. She snort laughed some, said I must have been a real pain in ‘attractive women’s asses’ when I was young. She did that quotes thing with her fingers when she said ‘attractive women’s asses.’ I denied that and she called bullshit. Said she could see it in my eyes I was lyin’, so I told her that it never goes away, all that pretty girl shit. The only thing that happens is the box it’s in gets beat up like something fragile for your wife in a UPS truck at Christmas time. She laughed then, told me all she wanted last Christmas was one of those big-assed Vitamix blender things like the one here at work and she cussed a streak because it showed up in about forty pieces. See she free-lance bartends and caters some not-too-big weddings and graduations, business receptions. Charges a small fortune, and I can see people payin’ it because she wears a nice, tastefully sexed up evening gown and a push up bra, looks like a million bucks, and knows just what kind of music to have playin’ on this Bluetooth thing from her phone. Got a complete little set-up. Showed me the pictures, has a website and everything. She’s a single mom, her kids come along and help. That Vitamix and some more work blouses like she’s wearin’ is all she wanted for Christmas and had hell gettin’ either one.”

“She told you all this over a plastic basket with a disproportionate amount of missing pretzels?”

“She did.”

“She’s not old enough to have helpful sized kids, is she?”

“Thirty-one. Kids are fourteen and twelve. Boy and a girl. Got knocked up as a junior in high school. Boy’s parents were dicks about it, she said screw him, she shouldn’t have fallen for the tall, shallow blonde with sideburns thing in the first place and kept the baby. She had three sisters who didn’t shun her for having sex and they all pitched in and got her through high school. She got pregnant again first guy out of high school, married and divorced before the baby got there. Went histrionic for about six months then took the kids off to New Mexico, sat on a rock for almost a year while she worked at a hospital with free daycare and pulled her shit together. Been around some, no men because of the kids. Here she is.”

“You tell her your life story, too? I guess not, you’d have been here three days just for the Reader’s Digest version.”

“Nah. The funny thing is that all came out because of some sexist trash Fontaine and I threw back and forth about high school.”

“Not more Jaclyn Werther nonsense. Neither one of you went there unless going there was sacred and God froze your tongues after, because both of you jokers would have let that out.”

“No, none of that. Watch your bartender down there bend over.”

“Shit, Lamar, I’m too old for –”

“No, I don’t mean check for camel toe or groove on thoughts of her ass, watch her as a person, check out her clothes.”

Lamar watched Neeko get that serious look he got about everything when he thought it might be against some moral code while the bartender reached for glasses, bent over the ice bin, squatted, reached way over the bar to drop an extra cherry or olive or take a credit card handoff.

“So? Come on, Lamar, this has to do with Fontaine how?”

“Gettin’ there. Bend over, pull up your socks. Not like an old fart, Neeko, bend over, all the way.”

“Goddam, Lamar. Ow. What is this? Stupid stunt Tuesday?”

“Look at your shirt tail, brother.”

“Shit…I might need to unbuckle to fix this. Lamar, Jesus…”

Lamar drank some lemonade in his nonchalant way that always got to Neeko. “Hers didn’t do that. You missed it?”

“No, I didn’t know I what I was supposed to be looking for.”

“When you look at a woman, Neeko, you look at all of her. Taking nothing away from the memory of your late wife, but it’s no wonder you’re still single ten years on. I see your daughter at the bank all the time and she says you told her I was a player in the land that time forgot and she asked me would I please teach you some things sometime so you didn’t die droolin’, horny and alone. That was lesson one. Women are a whole thing. That’s how you talk to a woman, about all of her, you don’t just make some shit up and hope she buys in. We got to talkin’ because I asked her where she got locked out 2the body shirt. She gave me one of those ‘why was I looking so close’ looks like they get these days and asked how did I know. I said what was a real pain in the ass back then wasn’t me, it was going out with girls in those damn body shirts. I told her I thought they had to have been designed by some girl’s mother who was a ‘you’ll be a virgin till you’re out of my house’ Nazi.”

“How’d that go over, her getting pregnant in high school and all?”

“Didn’t know that yet. That’s when she said she wished they had them when she was in high school, she might be two kids lighter and a maybe psychologist, but that’s how it had played. That’s when her story started to come out. She said body shirts were hard as hell to find these days, mostly they were sexed up see-through things with matching underwear, useless as a steakhouse in a vegan commune to her right now, that she’d tried a couple of vintage ones from resale shops and the thought of where those snaps had been, well, she donated them all back. The other option was leotards but skin tight with her figure wasn’t where she was at. She found a specialty place online that had body shirts, kind of utilitarian looking, but they were okay. Notice she dolls them up with a scarf she stitches down. Thought she might find out where they were importing them from and design some for lady bartenders, casino dealers and other women who had to move when they worked. I told her like tuxedo shirts maybe, with those little skinny bow-ties gamblers always wore in westerns. She laughed and sketched a couple out on napkins. Place was dead, she was supposed to be restocking, but we talked about it for a while, let her work it out on me. That’s why the pretzels.”

“Fontaine was in this somewhere and now I’m lost thinking about body shirts and you shooting the shit with my bartender all afternoon about it, trying to get my head around how you watch women way beyond tits and ass which we all thought that’s what you were, you know, a tits and ass bullshit artist.”

Lamar smiled a little, kind of tight. “Fontaine writes to me about how we were back then. How the biggest problems we had were new-fangled front closure bras, stupid body shirts that snapped in you-know-where and zits. ‘Wash your face with shampoo’ he told me back then, I was on my own with the other two. I bought my girlfriend some matching sets of that sheer, stretchy lingerie that hooked in back and I wonder to this day what her mother thought ‘cause my wife would have lit up like downtown if she’d found that shit in my daughter’s laundry basket. Anyway, I didn’t encounter front closure until my wife. But that body shirt business? I promise you, those things cut me out of a lot of loose change because a girl could say ‘no,’ and you could try again, and no matter how hard you pulled all you were doing was giving her a front door wedgie and pissin’ her off because the shirt tail wasn’t coming out.” Lamar got a quick, faraway look and a grin like he’d just replayed that very scene on the big screen in his head, date complaint and all.

“So you know Fontaine, he’s like you, Neeko. Give him a puzzle, he has to work on it. We went back and forth with all these different scenarios, even found some old body shirts we sort of recognized on the internet. What we discovered, after a number of tries, was that there is no answer to the ultimate body shirt mystery. After all that obvious and impossible and what’s left over Sherlock Holmes junk and spreadsheets with countless possibilities, we had ourselves an unsolvable conundrum, and how all we could ever quantify was how much fun those damn things cost us.”

“Now I’m really lost.” Neeko had absent mindedly loosened his belt and was stuffing his shirt tail back in. “What’s the big damn mystery to body shirts?”

“Neeko, look here. You’re seventeen. Our bartender down there who is wondering why your pants are unzipped and who also has no real need for the push-up bra is seventeen, too, and she likes you. Not super likes you, but she’ll make out seriously with you, fog the windows. You roll up somewhere, maybe even the drive-in, you get friendly and she’s all about how nice you are to her twins, and you’d like to get to know them better. No buttons. Shirt tail isn’t giving it up. She likes you, you like her boobs, she’s willing to give you some northern exposure, but you’re not southern material, so how do you get to what you can get to if you can’t get to the lock that will let you in? You can’t. For as long as you’ve got that evenin’ you warm her up through the shirt, you can for sure tell how much better it would be without it and you are locked out like a dog that shit on the carpet. I hated those shirts.”

“This kind of thing keeps you and Fontaine up nights, doesn’t it?”

 

 

 

 

 

Cross-eyed Cupid

Now most times when I tell this story I try to be clever with how I start it. I’ve tried lots of ways, but lately my favorite is callin’ it The Cross-eyed Cupid. Like this one time he got his bow and arrow out and hit a couple of people in the shoulder. Close enough, but no cigar. It goes like this.

“My girlfriend will be there with some other girls,” the big guy said. His name was Jeff and he was the second string football center at OU. We were workin’ this summer construction job, I guess that was the summer my old high school girlfriend and her mom shut that down between us. I mean lookin’ at it, they were right. A lot of us got that year, year and a half, maybe two in high school with a regular date, some finding out about sex in awkward places. But it’s always got a sell-by date. Just when we’re kids we don’t see it, can’t hear our parents sayin’ it. Like we think we invented all that, the same way we tell our kids they didn’t. I’m sayin’ that because when something ends and you think it’s the end of the world some other thing has you in the headlights like a slow deer on a country road. For some reason we’re so blinded by whatever happened we don’t see that train a comin’. Or maybe, like me, just a little dumb-blind. I think we all are, a little. Dumb-blind. Me, I’m some kind of poster boy for it.

The big guy and his tall, skinny friend with the pickup, they’re from Edmond where we’re doin’ this work, where they went to high school. So the girlfriend, or girlfriends, they’re like a year behind and they haven’t put a stop on it yet like what happened to me. I still don’t know why we’d be working and these girls were in school unless it was summer school, or maybe Christmas break but it was hot as hell, so I guess summer school. I followed them, my Edmond partners, in my own car. I still had that orange POS, the one that looked cool once I got all the wheels on it to match, with the six-cylinder stick and my name on the back in chrome letters where the Chevy sign went. It was bad-ass to look at and ran like a tractor and to this day I don’t why I was so damn proud of it.

Anyway, these extra girls they said would be there were from Edmond, some place I’d never met a girl from, so I thought, you know, twenty, thirty minutes up the road, how different can they be? I’d met this girl from Kansas and a couple from San Antonio, one even from this little town called Washington, in North Carolina. That girl, her name was Melody, like a song, and she coulda read the phone book with that voice of hers and people would have listened. I would have. I’m just sayin’ girls seemed to be girls back then. Just without that regular once or twice a week-end sexing it up, I was kinda frustrated. Getting to know somebody, blind dates, double dating, hoping you’d find a girl on your own, smoke a joint, get that way with them. Seemed to happen to everybody else. But lookin’ back I think a lot of those jokers were lyin’, like young guys do about sex and weed and how fast their car is.

We pull in to the Bonanza right there on the extension. I know the place. In high school I went to a yearbook how-to at that junior college, ate lunch there with this girl, we did the yearbook together. We made out in the parking lot after, and a couple of other places before we made it home. And she was driving. That sort of thing went on a lot. In the back of my mind I knew my old girlfriend and her mom had read my book. Once I graduated and wasn’t underfoot all the time she’d protect her baby from me, get me off the tit, so to speak. It worked to some extent, but I wonder sometimes if girls’ parents realize it takes two to tango horizontally. Moreover, did they know that a guy didn’t need to be regular bowler to be knocking the pins over as history proved out to be happening. Parents of daughters listen up right there.

In the Bonanza the girls, maybe five or six, seems like one or two guys, I may be wrong about that, all sittin’ on one side of a long table. Now there’s only three of us, the big guy, his tall, skinny friend and me. By this time I had longer hair, got some looks from the Edmond boys in their polo shirts. I got used to that look, but it took me forty years till I just didn’t have much hair. We’re all dusty and crusty, dried sweat and that sandy red dust you get north of the city, and it was expected we sit across from them for the sake of sanitation I suppose. I don’t know the players in this game so I wait. The big guy sits across from his girlfriend, the skinny guy next to him across from this other girl. I’m not going to sit by them, across from some girl looks like the church lady and scowls me out, so I skip a chair, knowing this is a long nowhere lunch for me. One in a long line of them.

The girl across from me, she’s cute. I’d say pretty. She smiles, kind of shy. She’s got the biggest brownish-hazel eyes, the kind of hair we’d all kill for. Thick, a little wave. Miss Breck ad hair, that perfect ski jump nose. I could have picked a lot worse chair. But she’s shy, or disgusted. I never really could tell with girls and me, and she doesn’t talk much.

We eat, there’s enough talking from the people who know each other, dating each other, their friends chipping in with some comment. The shy girl doesn’t talk that much, she has a nice smile, not too big. Her voice, she’s no life-timer in Edmond. Turns out she has some boyfriend, he’s her age, still in school, plays football. My luck.

Her name is Deb, Debbie. She said it’s Debra, De bra, not like she’s talkin’ underwear, just sayin’ it, how it is. I ask “Deborah, though, spelled the regular way?” And she says “Yes, but say it like I said.”

Here it gets interesting because Debra, she has a bent earring. It was a gift from the boyfriend. She has to see him later, doesn’t seem all that excited, and really wants that earring fixed. Maybe he’s the kinda guy will thump her, she screws up the earrings. It goes all the way around the table, the clean guys, my two work guys, the girls. Everybody sayin’, well, no, need some needle nose pliers, need a clamp, can’t bend it, need this tool or that. I’m no mechanical genius but I get geometry, always have, so when the earring makes it to me, last call, I see the problem. I ask Debra, I called her that properly, would she unroll that extra red napkin and hand me a clean fork and the knife. She wants the earring fixed more than she wants to ignore the sweaty shaggy guy, so she gets them for me. The fat part of the fork at the back of the tines is just right, so I open up this one part of her earring with the knife, park it over the fork, squeeze the snot out of it, and there it is, no needle nose pliers. I see why they wanted some, they were just seein’ it as a man-handle it project and I applied some finesse. Probably used my lifetime supply of it right there in that Bonanza in Edmond, Oklahoma.

I said, “Here ya go,” hand Debra her earring back, my hands are clean, it’s okay. Now I’m some kind of hero, even for the girls down the table. The big guy Jeff, and the skinny guy, they’re suddenly glad they know me, the clean boys not so much, but they have to be good sports, the girls down on that end liking me a little. The guys get jerky they’ll be dry and lonely like me this weekend. Debra is flustered a little, maybe I’m not the guy should have fixed it for her, maybe all the attention from her friends. Anyway, she knows it’s fixed, keeps being distracted and can’t stick it in her ear. For the second time I say, “Here ya go,” like I did when I gave it back fixed, only this time I get up, we’re almost at the end of the table, and I walk around and say, “Pull your hair back,” and she does, looking at me as far sideways as her eyes will go. She’s got it in, the little thing in the back isn’t cooperating is all. I’m not a moose, so I don’t rip her ear off like I’m sure she’s thinking I might, you know, me being all dusty and shaggy. I say, “I got it on there now, but you should push it tight. I don’t want to be the stranger who smashed your ear.” I’m being funny, the other guys laughing, the girls with that worried look. “I’ll hold your hair back, you do it.” I hold it with a finger of my left hand, she gets it right this time. I ask “Okay?” She says, “Yes,” I let go. She brushes her hair out with her fingers, not like I got it dirty but that way girls do getting it back together.

Down the other side this girl says, “Well tell him thank you, Deb,” and a couple others say something, she looks at me, tries it, gets flustered. I say, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it,” offer her my other hand for a girl handshake, take her fingers, a light squeeze. She squeezes back, looks at me with those big eyes like she has something to say but doesn’t. I know that look, the girl wants to talk to the shaggy guy like maybe he’s not like the boyfriend or somebody else, but you know, mom and dad, her friends, not this guy. Mostly for younger girls back then. Give it a couple of years when they want ‘em out of college, out of the wallet, I’d be okay. A pretty senior in high school, republican parents, horses. I was the plague in jeans.

Here’s the kicker. Two years later I’d go on a blind double date with this same earring girl and end up marrying her. She confessed to me before the wedding how her cute, perfect little ski-jump nose wasn’t really stock, and showed me the place where she was kneeling when the horse kicked her in the face. Told me she had a real shnoz, kinda like mine, so we made “we’ll have kids with clown noses” jokes. Hell, I was nineteen and dumb-blind. Closest idea I had to marriage was a couple of apartment weekenders. Pizza and sex and too embarrassed to hit the toilet hard until they went back to the dorm, or in her case, Stillwater. Clown nosed kids was funny if you didn’t have some idea of what that was really all about.

When we did get married the preacher must have gotten into the champagne a little because he put the date on the marriage license a day off, and scratched through it. It was hard to tell what day it was. One time I looked it up, to see what day it really was. It wasn’t like we celebrated it much. Maybe once or twice, if, you know, so I wouldn’t have it committed to memory. That marriage wouldn’t last but a couple of years, both of us not having any idea what the hell we were doing. Victims of that classic line from our parents, “You can be anything you want to be, get good grades, stay in school.” That was a great line, got them off the hook. But for a lot of us, what did we want to be? We’d take tests, talk to vocational counsellors about civil engineering or law school or biology, journalism, psychology. I didn’t give a damn about any of that. Thought I should, tried for three years. She was the same, taking art history, art, wanting to be a sculptor maybe, or work in a museum. We got stoned, and married, and lost our way in the culture of be somebody, be yourself, when we didn’t even know who the hell we were, much less who we should be. When it was all over she went crazy, I went to Texas. I wonder sometimes were they interchangeable, crazy and Texas.

Even more crazy than that earring and then the blind date and getting married and the license being off a day? Our Social Security numbers were the same, reverse the last two numbers. After I got her out of bed with this fella who sold me pot once in while back then to sign the divorce papers, then got an arrogant Dear John letter six years too late from someone else, I gave my home town the finger. She did the same and within six months she headed north and we lost touch. Well, truth be told we both let that touch go. I talked to her once maybe five or six years after all of that, but she didn’t make a lot of sense, kind of scared me for her. I think she said my mother gave her my number which was crazy, mom never liked her much. At the beginning of that marriage some words or knowledge I was never told passed between the set of parents. Whatever it was it should have been something they shared. Might have been the answers to a lot of questions. Might have been she’s allergic to cheese. I’ll never know.

Years later I learned that she had gone up and down the roller coaster I’d experienced from her a few times. Heard she vacillated between Artsy types of men like me and rugged, bearded Mountain Man types like that pot salesman. She’d met a new man in a bar when she was down one time, got married and they went on cruises together. I was told she and her hubby that rescued her drank their way all around the North American Continent on boats. She got pregnant, and there’s some other stories in that, and she went clean. No smoking, stopped drinking, which was something we never did much of, and I never understood happening to her later, and turned into a good mom and wife. Went all the way up to living in a post card in Southern California not far from where her horse ranch folks retired. Could almost throw a rock from her place to the ocean, had two young barely teenage kids. Woke up one morning, drank a quart of vodka and took a handgun to the condo swimming pool. Bang! She was fifty.

That divorce we got was final on a May 4th. She died on a May 3rd. One day off, one number off, one more step, this time her last one, just a little out of sync.

Now I know better than to think either of us put all those one number, one day off things together intentionally, but there they are, clear as can be, and I find that as fascinating as I do frightening. I fixed that earring, though, and I knew, but didn’t know, a pretty, artsy, and interesting if secretly big nosed and unpredictable girl for a couple of years. That earring, I always thought of that as being one of the only one of those things to happen to me, the future being telegraphed so obviously. Of course I didn’t see it, but there it was. Dumb-blind, like I said. But I’d be wrong sayin’ that about it bein’ the only one. There’ve been other times, the “here’s your story in the blink of an eye” times. Missed them, too. We all do.

There are those moments when we are told the entire story, in a flash right before our eyes, if we only had the power to see it unfold. The signals as plain as the sun in the summer sky. Like that sun, they’re so bright and obvious they momentarily blind us to their significance. Or maybe it’s just because it’s easier to ignore them and live like we don’t see that train a comin’. Unlike that train, which you probably can’t avoid, if you ever see that cross-eyed cupid fella comin’ you’d best get up off the tracks and haul ass the hell on outta there and wait for one that can shoot straight. Trust me on that.

Nemesis

Everyone has a nemesis, real or imagined. A sneaky co-worker you’re sure wants your job. A personal or professional competitor who wants to crank up your materialism envy, run off with your wife or your “big idea” or your market share. Or all of those. Health can be a nemesis, too. Holy crap. Allergies? I’m sure ragweed is good for something, but I would gladly volunteer in a ragweed eradication project starting yesterday. Even bad habits. I won’t try to name them all, but they can be adversarial and out to get you just like a living, breathing nemesis with a face. Just ask anyone who’s quit smoking.

I’ve noticed that some of them hang with us for what seems like almost ever. Allergies since childhood. Bad habits since who knows when? Most of the really scary things, monsters under the bed, Zombies in the closet, the Blob; those are long gone. However, the reality of a nemesis and the fact that they often haunt us, follow us around like a ghost’s shadow for most of our lives and pop up when we least expect them was made clear to me the other day.

The first insidious nemesis that gave me bad dreams for a long time wasn’t a person, allergy, habit or even anything living. It was inanimate. Dangerous. A Don Juan and Lord Byron with four wheels. A formidable, treacherous, wicked, unstoppable suitor. The Chevelle SS396. They sat in parking lots like Tritons, calling away the fair damsels of my youthful heart. No kidding.

First there was Betsy. Being young and stupid I should have known that a girl who was an officer in the local Tom Jones fan club had something on her mind. Of course I missed it. What was Tom Jones selling, anyway? His finely honed operatic tenor? No. Tom Jones was selling sex. Duh. Me? I thought how stupid. Tom Jones? Please. I thought I could maybe do without Betsy for a while in the summer, and maybe find a girl who liked Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, so I let her down gently. Figuring unwisely the Tom Jones girl would be jonesing for me pretty soon and things might heat up a little more, her missing me so much and all.

redchevconvBetsy’s turnaround time on returning my calls was getting longer and longer, and when she did call she was brusque. Yes, no, bye. Oh well. A few weeks later I showed up at a party with my cruising friend because I couldn’t buy a date, and I for sure didn’t want to call Betsy and ask her because she would know I was a chump. We pull up and there she is, sliding out of a Garnet Red SS396 convertible with Mr. Underwear Model. The baby fat went somewhere, she’s got a tan and looks great.

I wait until she’s inside then get out and investigate the pretty boy’s car. Horrors! What a loser! It had split bench seats, not buckets. In retrospect I now realize that he was no loser. He had my girlfriend, an SS396, Tom Jones tapes and a big slab of vinyl real estate where Betsy could lay on her back and look up at the stars. Ouch.

She was nice to me at the party. Really nicer than she had to be. He was one of those guys who was way too pretty and more into himself than anyone else and I don’t think she was laying on her back all that much in his front seat. Betsy and I got back together for a while toward the end of the summer but it was never the same. She saw right through my new Tom Jones tapes. Plus, my Camaro was smaller, had bucket seats and a hard top. And she was never sold on the blanket in my trunk and a private picnic table.

Jackie was next. She had a Firebird the same color as my car and we used to trade them at lunch, much to both of our parents’ chagrin. I thought we had more in common than that, particularly since every time we ran into each other at a varsity sporting event we left together holding hands. We went out a few times, but her father was a crazy conservative and hated me almost as much as their little rat dog that bit me on the ankle. That was okay because I was always kind of afraid to get too friendly with Jackie. She was a classic waif. Thin as a pencil, long, strawberry blonde hair and light golden freckles. She was bluessalmost translucent. Ephemeral. Even to someone of my unintimidating stature, she seemed fragile. A real-life Tinkerbell. But I ran out of history class anyway one Friday afternoon so I could ask her out. Our lockers were almost next to each other, it was a sure thing. Bam! Big guy, big sideburns, letter jacket. I walked right on by and dumped my books. Sure enough, in the parking lot after school on the other side of her car, Senior Jock  was waiting in his Le Mans Blue with black vinyl top SS396. Shit! He was no dork, either. Black buckets, fake woodgrain console, Clarion tape deck. Jackie and I hardly spoke after that until a year later when I was at a different school and we saw each other at a drive-in. We traded phone numbers and then cars a couple of times again, but the magic was gone. I asked her about the jock and she just shrugged and looked at the ground. Way to go Chevelle. Love ‘em and leave ‘em. Deflower my Tinkerbell, put another notch on the console and move on. Can you call a car an asshole?

Here is where I have to disagree with the old adage that familiarity breeds contempt. Shake your nemesis’s hand, look it in the eye. Hang out with it. Ride in it. Think you understand it? Forget that. When I swapped schools, I made friends with a guy who had another Le Mans Blue, black vinyl top SS396. I spent a lot of time in that car. But it was always something. I was making out with a girl in the back seat when my buddy who was driving failed to say “railroad tracks” and I chipped a tooth. Those damn cars knew me, I swear they did. I had a hot date with a hot girl and we were going out in that car because a double date was the only way she’d go. After about three hours of making excuses about why I was late because the damn muffler welds wouldn’t hold, the girl bailed and rejected any offer of a do-over. There I was, dumped before I even got a chance. Hosed by an SS396 I mistakenly thought was my friend. It knew. I know it did. The SS396 was no longer a nemesis. It was now a superstition.

greenssFor about three weeks when I was a senior in high school I was head over heels in teenage boy love with a girl I’ll call Darla. When I was supposed to have a girlfriend or two already. But Darla was like a primo girl drug. A real back-up-on-the-freeway, sneak out, sneak around, lie to people about it girl. She wasn’t Miss America or anything, but she was plugged in electric. Cute, fiesty, smart. Sexy. It wasn’t going anywhere, and I knew that. But still. Friday night of week three she said that she was just going somewhere with this guy, she’d be home at 9:30, come by and get her. I tell any of my regular obligations I’m sick, and about 9:20 I’m on the way to the rendevouz. One more time, two years after my initial confrontation with a Chevelle, there I was again. What do I see idling in front of her house? An SS396.  Nine-thirty comes and goes while I sit a block away with my lights off, waiting. That’s something I should have known better than to do. Me, a girl and someone else’s SS? Just go on home, call the girlfriend and tell her it was a twenty-four-hour bug. Kiss her ass a lot and offer her Steak and Ale on Saturday, hope that smirking brother of hers doesn’t know anyone with an SS396.

I retained all those lessons the SS396 taught me when I was young andimages7VA3X18Y impressionable. Which is a good thing, because where I live now I have this neighbor who likes my wife a lot more than all three of the ones he’s had. Guys can tell, and my wife is cute. He’s not a real nemesis in an amorous way because he’s as old as I am and he’s a dork. He’s a grown up dork with money from somewhere, but he’s a for-sure dork who drinks too much sometimes and listens to whiny Americana too loud in his garage just to look hip and trendy and makes eyes at my wife. My wife would eat him alive the first time his eyes glazed over when she brought him into one of those “that’s poor scholarship” arguments about Beowulf with an editor from Harvard who wasn’t even there. Anyway, he throws some of that money of his at restoring things. Old boats, old furniture, old jukeboxes, old houses. And old cars. He offered me a beer the other evening and invited me over to see his latest project even though my wife wasn’t home yet to join us.

primerssIn his garage, sitting on jack stands, was a stripped, sanded and primer coated 1969 Chevelle SS396. He even pulled out an original 1969 sales brochure, handed it to me and asked, “What color d’ya think?”

I wanted to sell him on the pukey butternut squash color like my father’s ’68 Impala wagon. But no matter how much I sometimes dislike my dorky, letchy, posey neighbor, and those damn cars, in my heart I knew that SS deserved better. I told him I was always partial to Le Mans Blue.

I’m also more than a little partial to my wife, so she was surprised when she came home that evening to find me escorting an attractive, over dressed, overly made-up and overdone young woman out our front door. I got the quizzical look that comes from her knowing how old I am and being married a long time.

“And that was…?”

“The girl who sold the house down the street in like ten days.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask, just start packing. And stay inside.”