As Time Goes By

The world seemed more innocent then compared to today, even when it was on the brink of a great world war.  The difference between good and evil was less subtle, more black and white.  A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is still a sigh, the fundamentals of loving as time goes by.  We look back on the past we never knew with rose colored glasses.  The hopes of our future realities lie buried in the disappointments of our past.  Let the dreamer beware.  Preston Wallace traded in such stocks of the future, the market of hope, charity and change.  His religion was the church of the impossible dream, redemption through struggle, salvation through accomplishment.  His only mortal sin was that he never truly believed, that bit of Scottish ancestry held him back, made him doubt in the wee hours of his sleep.

 

I met Mr Wallace at a seminar he was giving.  The woman I was dating at the time and who shall remain anonymous to protect me, a woman scorned and that sort of thing, had dragged me to this circus of happy feelings.  It was a small group, perhaps twenty some odd individuals sitting on oversized pillows arranged in a circle with a small mat in its middle.  for a small introductory fee of ten dollars a piece and fifteen dollars a couple, we would be introduce into the world of the eternal sunshine mind of existence.  I must admit that his entrance was masterful.  Preston was one of those men who are blessed with that eternal thinness that accentuates their average height.  High cheekbones, not too broad forehead, and delicate chin gave him that aura of great intelligence and wisdom.  Dressed as he was in a thin cashmere turtleneck top with white flair legged trousers, might have been a silk blend, for the legs, when he walked gave a sense of animation to his bare feet.  One had the opinion that here was a man in tough with his feminine side and completely comfortable with such feelings.  But the image projects was more force of personality rather than charisma, although the rich baritone voice certainly suggested as much.

 

Preston entered the circle at the prescribed time, punctuality matters in this line of business, and facing the east, sat down in the most graceful manner into the infamous yoga pose of the lotus.  Arms best outward with hands outstretched and the first two fingers meeting the thumb gave testimony that a master was in our midst.  A minute of silence with his eyes closed brought a sense of peace to the group.  Without opening his eyes he began to speak. “I am Master Rumi.  Let peace enter into your mindfulness of the moment.  May the spirit of light enter your consciousness.  Allow tranquility to rule your soul.”  Master Rumi allowed us another minute to take it all in, then he rose as gracefully as he had sat.  He was now wearing the benign smile all mystics wear in public, beaming his spiritualness as rays of eternal sunshine.  In short, the man was good, he was very good.  Now some of you may be wondering why I have a sardonic tone to my writing in this piece.

 

When I was a young man seeking truth, as all good young men always do, I went through the years of encounter groups and personal routh groups, and ,well, you name it.  I came to know them very well.  They gladly took my money and time.  But that was it.  There was no exchange of goods or services of value.  I had to find my own way through this spiritual life and they merely impeded my progress.  But all that aside.  Personal growth comes from within, not from without and certainly not from some yogi or swami or other such teacher.  Back to our story.  Preston, pardon me, Master Rumi, had added a few new twists to the presentations and group exercises.  I was impressed for the man had a natural and intuitive feel for things of the spiritual world.  that aquiline nose gave sensuality to his spirituality while the long thin fingers punctuated the points made by the ease of his voice.  Words flowed as if from a spring, bubbly but never hurried and carried a sense of cosmic laughter.  I could have been converted on the spot.  Was he an Elmer Gantry reincarnated?

 

Marie, my companion, was lost to the experience.  Our initial meeting had seemed fortuitous at the time.  My acquaintance with John Allen had been the basis for an invitation to their dinner party in the city.  My role in these affairs is more that of the gadfly.  Every dinner party of any rank needs a gadfly or two, not too many or us ruffins will be fighting in the salon and upsetting the antique relics, both human and nonhuman.  Marie was a designer friend of Rose, our hostess, and in need of a male escort.  Back in my salad days we never worried about civilities, but since I was deemed interesting and available, well, I was elected.  And in this world of social progress we had gathered for the obligatory meeting that established our reason for existence on this planet.  John was a lawyer and a damn good one.  And honest, I might add.  For a very modest fee he would read over the contracts I had to sign as I made my living.  It is understandable that many of his guests were other men of the law as well as businessmen and a few other professions.  I had learned to carry my business cards as it was always good form to exchange them with strangers.  Mine read: International Spy and Assassin and had a 1-800 number, the White House, actually.  Either you got the joke or avoided me.

 

Back to the party.  I must say that Marie was not a great beauty.  Her figure was trim to the point if thinness but not quite the anorexic look.  The face was moon shaped and the eyes and nose and mouth were pleasantly arranged, the chin suggested some strength but not aggressiveness.  She claimed to be a natural blonde and her skin had a sort of natural tan, if you know what I mean.  One might call her pretty but never beautiful.  The other asset she displayed was the willing expression on her face that gave hope to batchelors such as I of enjoyable times.  For the most part, John told me later, by way of Rose, that Marie found me interesting.  Me?  Not intriguing, not endless fascinating, just interesting?  So much for my business card.  Still, I’ll settle for interesting and made the first of several dates.  So the mating dance begins, or at least the seduction phase.  I am not much of a seducer and perhaps that is why she was never too willing on our initial dates.  I was beginning to think I had failed at reading faces and body language.  Then the seminar, such as it was.  Willing was written all over her face but the message was not for me.  And I was not the only male or female to read her lips, so to speak.  Preston, I mean Master Rumi took a cordial interest in Marie.  His female assistant was, understandably less cordial.  Obviously Master Rumi could burn a candles at more than both ends, just don’t ask me how.

 

At the end of the session Master Rumi, now Preston, invited the two of us to stay for tea.  His assistant, Anne was her name if I recall, was not exactly the gracious hostess.  On the other hand, since I was among the chosen she made friendly gestures towards my welfare.  Like a good hostess she inquired: “What do you do for a living?”

“I am a writer by trade.”  I never know a professional writer, that is, one who hangs out a shingle and a sign that says open for business.  No editor or reader ever flocks to my door asking me to write a novel just for them.  Sometimes I get lucky and write something that actually sells and puts pennies in my grubby paws.”

Anne was amused at my forthrightness but not really by my humor.  I would have expected her to ask if Marie was my wife or at least my intended, but I sense that Anne had been through this kind of affair before.  “How long have you known each other?”  This woman could go for the jugular.

“Only a few weeks.  I met her at a dinner party given by the John Allen’s.”  Perhaps I could impress her with my social connections, such as they weren’t.  “Marie is a decorator to the social elite.”  Anne merely smiled and asked if I would like more tea.

I escorted Marie home that evening, she was floating like a wispy little cloud after her tete-a-tete with Preston.  Normally she is courteous to invite me up for coffee but tonight she was ‘too tired and worn out’.  She would take a bath and recover her spirits.

 

Three days later Marie called me.  “Bill, you can’t believe what has happened!”  Actually I could and in graphic detail but since children might be reading I will spare them my imagination.  Preston was so impressed with my aura and spirit that he has decided to offer me private training.  Of course he extends the offer to you as well.  He believes you could do with a bit of refreshing.  It might help your writing.”  Everyone’s a critic, even fake spiritualists.

“Yes, Marie, I will accompany you.  I think it absolutely amazing that this has happened to us.”  I made note of the date and time.  “Yes, I will pick up you in my car.”  I gathered that I was the sacrificial lamb for Anne.  Somehow she must be distracted while Master Rumi worked Maries spirits into a frenzy and I could imagine what those spirits would look like.  But again, children may be present so I must keep my imagination to myself.

 

After the third session Anne decided to confide in me.  “I’ve been through this before but Preston doesn’t keep these women this long.  I don’t know what hold Marie has over him.”

“Well, she’s not my Marie, never was.  And the hold is simple, it’s money.  She has a trust that assures her an ample living with many top notch amenities.  I suppose Preston is trying to convince her to part with some of it.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the checks, I’m his bookkeeper and office assistant, and chief cook and bottle washer.  Truth is, I think he’s in love with her.  I think he’s trying to get her to marry him.”

“Tell me more about your boss, and might I add love interest?”

“Ex love interest.” I detected a note of bitterness, the scorned woman.  “Preston used to be a used car salesman until they fired him.  The sales manager caught him with his wife.  He’s a very good salesman but he can’t keep a dime or his, ah…”

I interrupted, “Yes, I know the part of anatomy.  Continue.”

Anne blushed for a moment.  Well, while he was unemployed he attended a few free classes or seminars in spirituality.  That’s how I met him.  I was younger then, much thinner and far more pretty.”  Anne was a little taller than Marie and at five feet nine could hold a little more weight on her frame without showing it.  She had one of those rectangular faces, reminded me of that actress, Lee Remick.  Where Marie was late twenties – early thirties, Anne was middle forties.  Or so I would have guessed.  I think she would have been called cute until her mid thirties, judging from her features.  Her lips would have been thinner then and embossed with an infectious smile.  Her voice held charm, the real kind, not the affected typs so many try to project.  “So now what will you do?  Will you wait until he finds out that marriage to her would stop the trust money.”

Anne looked surprised for the moment, then the started to laugh and I saw traces of the infectious smile.  “How do you know her trust stops if she gets married.”

“John allen is her lawyer, knew the family.  He’s the one who drew it up.  When I started to take her out he cued me in.”

“Oh, that’s too precious for words.  In answer to your question, No, I’m not going to wait.  I saw the signs, I know we, Preston and me, can’t go on.  I’m tired of this spiritual thing, tired of the charade.  I’ve been out interviewing and think I found myself a bookkeeping job in the business district.”

“Do you have somewhere to stay?  Living in the city is a bit expensive.”

“Oh, don’t worry.  One of the pigeons from last week is going to rent me a room for a couple of months.  A real nice man.  If he’s a gentleman I just might stay longer.  Besides, thanks to your Marie I’ve got some money saved up.  Preston will never know what happened to it.  You know, Karma’s a bitch.”

 

 

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An Ordinary Life

Small towns are populated by ordinary people who lead ordinary lives.  It is a plain truth.  Small towns rarely ever stay the same, most decay, their reason for existence forgotten.  Their populations drift away, the young looking for work, the old die off, petrified of change.  A few small towns grow a little, perhaps lay claim to having a Walmart in their midst, although Walmart build on the outskirts of these towns and collapses what had been a viable block or two or three of businesses.  Or perhaps the interstate came through, boosting business.  Of course that only works for a few small towns that grew a little larger.  These small towns may have been large enough to have their own high school, maybe a graduating class of fifty.  Local farms with local services for farmers.  Maybe five thousand inhabitants making a living, making a home, making a family.  Paul Johnson was one of those inhabitants.  He went to war an eager youth.  He came back a quiet man.  His father ran the local machine shop and repair business.  That’s where he went to work each day save Sunday.  Religion serves those who serve, or so it is said.  You could find Paul sitting with his mother and father four rows back on the north side of the aisle.  They were Lutherans as were there forefathers and foremothers.

 

In small towns most people rise early, there’s work to be done and best be about it, right Paul?  Right, he’d say, got to open early for the farmers, they get here round seven and don’t leave till six or sever, maybe.  “I got John Greyson coming in this morning with a mower blade that busted on his side mounted hay mower. Got to braise the two pieces together strong enough to get him through the haying season.  Them blades ain’t cheap, you know.  Yes sir, they ain’t cheap.”  He pushed the two sliding doors to each side opening the two story work shed for business.  Paul then drove the two ton truck with its welder and tool boxes on the sides into the parking lot.  Guess I’ll have some time later to go out to Frank Buck’s place later this morning.  He’s got a grain auger that needs welding.  I’ll collect those saw blades that need sharpening, he can collect them when he comes in to pay his bill.  Here comes Dad with the thermos now.

 

After fixing Greyson’s mower blade Paul will go on over to the high school.  Half a dozen boys, all farmer’s sons, want to learn how to weld.  They’ll learn on the Lincoln welder on his truck.  It may cut into his business but Paul doesn’t mind.  There will always be business, they say the town is growing.  Yes sir, that’s what they say.  Later Paul heads on over to the Buck farm.  Frank is waiting.  “Howdy Frank, got here as soon as I could.  that senior welding class took a little extra time this morning.  You know Duffy O’Malley boy, don’t you?  Well, dang fool touched one of the weld seams with his bare hands.  Burned it pretty good.  He’ll have a scar but he’ll live.”

“Them O’Malley boys always were fools.  Just like their father.  I don’t think he’s be right in the head since the war.  Do you?”

“Frank, I can speak ill of Duffy.  He saw some hard times in the Solomons.  I never speak ill of a man who did his duty.  So let’s drop it here.  Okay?”

“Sorry, Paul, I forgot.

 

Work done, Paul driving back to town with the half dozen saw blades to sharpen, Duffy didn’t have it any rougher than the rest of us on the island, he just took it worse.  Maybe if he could stop drinking.  Naw, I doubt it.  Hold on steady, Paul, ain’t nothing you can do about it.  Shame, really.  Drinkin just makes it worse.  I’ll stop by the shop and pick up Dad.  I’m getting hungry.  Wonder what’s for lunch.  As if I didn’t know.  Cold butter milk and sandwiches with the leftover beef roast.  I hope Mon doesn’t start trying to fix me up with girls again.  Just not ready for marriage, that’s all.  Just not ready.

 

Many years have passed.  The O’Malley boys had graduated and become roust-a-bouts in a Texas oil field.  Both have rebelled against their father.  Got married young, spawned a couple of children, and then divorced.  Both drink too much, fight too much, the excess of youth one might say.  Neither one has been back to see their mother.  Neither one came back for the funeral. Duffy’s old Hudson was found mangled beyond all comprehension, no real idea of what happened.  Paul stood by the widow at the grave yard.  The VA paid for the plot at the edge of the cemetery behind the church.  He was a Catholic but the Lutherans were tolerant.  Paul wondered at the service.  An honor guard from the VFW, a flag folded into a triangle, a small flat marker with the Marine Corps emblem carved in it.  A gift from Paul lest anyone in town forget.  Would it have made a difference in duffy’s life if he had been awarded one of the silver stars given to him?  Duffy was the one who dared to act and save three of his comrades.  The Captain said he had been the brave one.  Yes, he had gone out and dragged Duffy back to the aide station.  But that was after Duffy got the other’s back, when he dared a second time to save just one more.  Duffy didn’t know the man was dead, his wounds had been for nothing.  Maybe duffy felt cheated of his reward.  I don’t know.  Would a medal have made a difference?  Does a medal cover the scars a man gets in a war?  He pondered these thoughts until they men started shoveling dirt over the coffin.

 

It’s almost the turn of the century.  The town is down to a dozed families.  All the businesses have left.  Many of the houses are abandoned, sold by the children who will never visit again.  Only the main highway receives any maintenance, the side streets are reduced to patches of concrete and rubble.  Wooden buildings have borne the brunt of the weather, termites, and fire.  Most have collapsed into heaps of rotten board or piles of ashes.  the few brick buildings on main street sit with roofs collapsed.  Some have worn down brick standing, ready to burst apart.  Others suffer from the leaning tower of Pisa syndrome.  The church is boarded up, no services, not even a funeral, has been held there in twenty years.  The life of an ordinary town has been grown down by erosion and indifference.  Paul spends part of his day tending the graves in the cemetery.  To his knowledge none of Duffy’s children or grandchildren have been to visit the gravesites of him or his wife.  A traveling nurse comes to see him once a month and continues to urge him to seek a retirement home.  Doesn’t anyone look after him?  The daughter of an old friend, Frank Buck, brings him groceries every week.  But she is getting up in her years and may not be able to continue in the future.

 

So Paul waits, as he did on the island.  Waiting for death to advance, to charge his position.  Meanwhile there are graves to tend.  the dead can’t do it for themselves.  It is his last call to duty.  This is his command and he will defend it against all the weeds and developers.  Well, what developers?  The town is no more and it’s out in the middle of nowhere.  Just like the island.

Just Another Tequila Sunrise

I used to work graveyard in the switch deparment for the phone company. It was our job to monitor the equipment and do repairs when needed. Three of us were scheduled to be on duty one night and I knew Linda Grey would be reporting in from the switch in the south valley exchanges, she was our rover tonight. George was late and I was getting worried. It was the third time this week and I might have to call the supervisor.  Jim Zimmer was my boss, he covered the second and third shifts.  Jim was known as a straight shooter and good guy.  He never bought into the higher management bull shit and always gave you a straight and honest answer.  You got into trouble, he’d stand up for you in public and kick your ass in private.  Not many supervisors do that these days.  He wanted our best and was willing to cut us some slack when need be.  But George had gone beyond slack.

 

Just when I was about to pick up the phone and call Jim, George stumbled in, and I do mean stumbled.  He was drunk, unsteady on his feet, red in the eyes and looked ever so much the sloven boozer.  George tried to find his chair but it kept rolling away from him.  Finally it stopped against the wall and George flung himself at the seat.  He almost missed.  Now I was really worried.  This was a fireable offense and George was in his fifties, not likely to find employment, at least in the telecommunications field.  I sat at my desk and knew I should call Jim.  Perhaps ten minutes passed before I decided to rat George out.  Then Jim cam into the room.  He took one look at George, who by now was snoring loud enough to hide the noise of a freight train.  “We got trouble.  A couple of big wigs from the city are headed this way.  Word is they’re scalp hunting.  Take George to number twelve exchange, I’ll cover.  You got any work out there for the next couple of hours?”

 

I was stunned.  I’d never seen Jim this lenient.  I started to stammer, “Er, ah, yes, there are a few circuit packs the need replacement.  But what about George?”

“There’s a couch in the break room, put him to bed.  The do the work but stay close enough to the phone.  Got it?  I’ll send them out Linda’s way.”

 

So I, with Jim’s help, loaded George into the company car.  I made sure his seatbelt was fastened, didn’t want to get stopped by the cops.  And I drove out the exchange twelve.  I was going to try and walk him in but his body was just too loose for that.  So I parked as close to the door as I could get and found an armchair on rollers.  It was a struggle to place George on that chair but once there it was a breeze to get him over to the couch and sprawl him out on it.  Then I called reported in.  A strange voice answered, “Zimmer’s on another line, can you hold?”  Tell Mr Zimmer that Bill has found the problem and is working on it.”  Then I hung up.

 

About three hours later the phone rang.  I was surprised to hear linda’s voice.  “Bill, jim is on his way to see you.  What’s going on over there?”  My reply was simple but brief.  I didn’t know.  “Yeah, thanks a lot, asshole!”  She hung up quite hard.

 

A little while later Jim appeared.  “Get much work done?”

“Yeah, only one more circuit pack to go.  Whats going on with George”

Jim gave me a stern look.  “Look, this is very confidential, Bill.  I know I can trust you to keep quiet about tonight.”  I followed him to the office and we sat down as if in private conference.  “Bill, I don’t normally mix into my people’s lives, you know.  It’s not my business.  You know how I run things.  You got personal troubles, I’ll listen.  A good boss will do that unless it becomes too often.”

“Well, yeah, you’ve heard me out a couple of times.  Rescued me off that crew of Bob’s.  And I’m grateful.  I owe you.”

“George has marriage problems.  It’s no big secret.  He’s told you a few times abut his troubles, right?”

“Yeah, well, he has said a few things.  I don’t know for sure, but I get the feeling his wife is having an affair.  But it’s not my call.”

“Did he tell you directly?”  I saw the look of concern in Jim’s eyes.

“No, I just figured it that way.  Why, am I right?”

Jim just sighed.  He took his time in answering.  Yes, Bill, you’re right.  Just keep it to yourself, would you?  George needs some time right now and his drinking is not helping his case.  So keep it to yourself.  Why don’t you go and relieve Linda.  Just tell her there was problem finding the right circuit packs and George and I had to go find the right ones.”

 

The next night when I came to work Jim was there, waiting.  “George is taking a couple of days off.  He’s staying at my place so you will be by yourself most of the night.  Just hold down the fort for a few days and George will be back Monday.  Means you got a couple of days overtime for the weekend.”

“How is George?  You getting him sobered up?”

“Not quite but I did slow him down.  I hope to get him off the booze by Monday.”  Jim took a seat next to mine as a gesture of good will.  “You know, those brown shoes didn’t find anything to carp about.  Ms Jackson was pleased.  Of course she rarely comes down our way to do much of anything.  I swear, these regional managers are like tits on a bull, just as ugly as they are useless.”

We both had a good laugh at that thought.  Not since the old days of the ‘Billy Goat Gruff’, of which I was writer, editor, and publisher of the unofficial company news letter, the one that almost got me fired, had I had such a good laugh.  Jim would never make second level management but he would never have any real problems with his people.  George was the exception but that would not last.  Of course Linda made her inquires but I held my cards close to the vest.  I figured Jim might say something to her eventually.  She took the hint and waited.  At least we were back on good terms.

 

Monday I found George at his desk.  I think he had put in a few unofficial hours as partial payback to Jim.  Linda was still our rover, an assignment she liked.  And we had no major problems that would send one of us out to the switch offices.  George was a little nervous at first.  “I’m sorry I put you and jim in a difficult position.  Just things at home haven’t been going well, you know?”

“Hey, no problem, man.  You’d do it for me.”  That was true, George would help the people on Jim’s crews.  We passed the time as we usually did, surveillance of the switches, software upgrades, and routine filing.  In between those events I did my usual reading, usually on technical advancements in communications.  I had some idea that I could get into advance technological positions within the company.  George tried to keep his mind on anything but home.

 

About four AM george finally opened up a little.  He knew I’d listen without judgment.  I always did.  “Bill, Jim tells me you guessed my wife is having an affair.  Well, she is.  She want a divorce so bad that she started bring home younger men and having them stay all night.  You know me, I don’t believe in divorce but I think we are going to have to separate soon.  Looks like I’ll have to move out.  She wants the house.”

“Sounds bad, George.  Any help I can give?”

“Oh thanks, but no, I’ll manage.  Jim is helping me find a furnish studio, should have a place to go by next week.”  More silence.  “I owe you an explanation about my drinking.  the man my wife has been bringing home never leaves before nine AM.  So for the last few weeks I have sat in the bar over on Fifth Street.  did you know they open at six AM?”

“No, I had no idea.”

“Yeah, really.  I’ve been over there every day for the last three weeks.  I don’t want to sit at Denny’s stuffing my face to keep a booth.  So I was going there.  I sort of became fond of their Tequila Sunrises.  You know, sit and have a couple to kill the time while the sun comes up and I can go home again.”

 

Take Another Shot Of Courage

 

Chris stepped down onto the platform, the air parched and seared his skin, sweat dried before it had time to roll down his face.  Yuma is not a forgiving town, its geographical location known for its being inhospitable to the average American.  Not that any Mexican or Mexican American fared any better.  Here the climate made no distinctions among individuals.  A suitcase made of little more than laminated cardboard and cloth held what few personal items he owned.  Such was the physical history on our subject.  But as light holds promise, so too, does our young man.  For young men always hold promise until such time as all goodwill is forsaken.  The young man took a breath and started on his way to the bus counter inside.  Chris called to mind the need to call his uncle and let him know when the bus would arrive in Tacna.  After a few minutes walk he reached to ticket counter.  “Let me have a ticket to Tacna, please.”

“Round trip or one way?” came the voice on the man behind the counter.

“One way.”  Chris’s voice sounded non committal, almost passive.   “What time does the next bus leave?”

“Two thirty.  You should get to Tacna about four this afternoon.  You got a job there by any chance?”

Chris ignored the question and paid for the ticket.  Then he went to the bench by the bus gate to wait.  It won’t be long now.  Better call Uncle John as he noticed the  telephone in the nook by the exit.  Glad I don’t have to walk far as he approached the phone, put in the quarters, and dialed the number.  After the fifth ring he heard the receiver being picked up.  A woman’s voice, a bit on the old side, answered.

“Hello.” Was all he heard.  He felt slightly unnerved,”Aunt Martha, is that you?”  A woman responded, “Chris, is this Chris?  Your uncle was expecting your call earlier today.  Where are you?”

“Aunt Martha, I’m here in Yuma at the station.  The train had problems and they had to attach a new engine.  Would you tell Uncle John I’ll be in Tacna at four this afternoon?”

 

The ride to Tacna was dull, boring, uncomfortable.  The seats were confining and the landscape will filled with either empty cheap housing and RV parks for the snow birds or barren dessert with the occasional irrigation track among the ruins of bus stops decades older than the interstate.  Half lost in thought Chris was thinking as the bus rolled on, this is a lazy land, nothing to see or do and it’d be too hot anyway.  Can’t be any worse than juvie, maybe better.  I don’t know.  Can’t say as I care, really.  He looked at his watch.  Can’t remember if this place is in the same time zone.  I swear, this state is at least fifty years in the past.  The bus started to slow and the driver announced “Tacna”.  Chris sat up in his seat expecting something but didn’t know what.  Why is the bus stopping, there is no traffic.  Now he’s making a left turn.  guess we’re going into ‘town’.  The voice in his head was tired.  Tired of traveling, tired of waiting, just tired.Now the driver made another turn and stopped the vehicle in front of the post office.  Chris read the sign with a sigh of tired resignation.  Great, population 400.  Yeah, and I bet it’s all old people.  He picked up his suitcase and walked down the aisle to the door.  “Have a good day.” was the sound that came from the driver.  Startled, Chris turned around and just nodded.  Then he stepped off the bus and started to look around.  The door closed behind him and he heard the release of the air brakes as the bus started to pull away from the curb.  A horn sounded from the side parking lot and attracted his attention.  In a moment a tall heavy set man got out of the lone pickup and started to walk towards Chris.  Must be Uncle John he thought.

 

“Howdy Chris, you’re late.  What happened?”  Uncle John’s voice was direct and forceful but not loud.  He had a voice that was use command and respect.

Are you kidding me? Chris thought he was being targeted. Why’s he jumping on me for?  Suddenly the answer jumped up like a scared jackrabbit,”The engine broke down on the way and they had to get another one.  Don’t go blaming me for that.”

“Throw your bag in the bed and get in, I’m behind schedule.” was all Uncle John said as he and the boy started to the truck.  No sooner than Chris had placed himself in the seat and shut the door then the truck started and Uncle John quickly backed it up and sped out of the parking lot slinging a bit of gravel.    The irrigated fields went by counting the minutes of silence as the truck cruised down the county hardtop.  for chris the silence had almost become comfortable.  “Chris, I didn’t ask you for an excuse.  I asked what happened.  Let’s get one thing straight between you and me and Aunt Martha.  We aren’t here to blame you for anything.  Your aunt and I require two things from you.  The first is that level with us, be truthful.  Lies don’t build trust and respect in a man or woman.  The second is that you take responsibility for yourself.  That means when work needs doing, you do it whether we ask you or not.  This is a hard land.  You can’t afford to lay around and let it kill you.  What you make of yourself is how the people around here will treat you.  Do you understand me?”

Chris’s mind was alive with thought he was being disrespected, Wow, what’s this old man trying to shine on me.  He must think I’m an idiot.  Who is he to tell me how to live my life?  Finally he gave a simple “Yeah, ok” in a voice that sounded bored and almost disrespectful.

Uncle John hit the brakes real hard, almost throwing Chris into the windshield.  The big man place his right arm on the back of the seat and turned his body and head to fully face the boy.  Now his voice boomed out.  “Boy, your daddy skedaddled and left your mother when you were six.  She had a hard life doing right by you and it cost her.  Dying of cancer ain’t a whole lot of joy.  Particularly knowing that you were in juvenile hall because you didn’t want to grow up.  Now you hear me real good.  I aim to do right by my sister.  That’s the only reason you’re in this state and out here.  I ain’t shading the truth when I say this land can kill you.  Now maybe you can lit out for Yuma or Tuscon and any part of California you think you can make in a couple of days.  But you’re soft, boy.  You don’t have the skills you need to survive into your twenties.  I can teach you a lot of skills, ones that will see you make something of yourself.  And I don’t mean for me or your mother.  I mean for yourself.  But understand me real good, boy.  I won’t take attitude off you.  And you don’t want me all over you like shit on a stick.”  He paused for a few more minutes then turned back to face the steering wheel.  “We’ve got another half hour to go to the next job.  I gave my word that the job would be done before night fall, so you have plenty of time to think about what I said.”  With that Uncle John put the truck in gear and sped on down the road.

 

Chris was deep in though as Uncle John let the truck glide into the driveway and turned off the engine.  “You hungry?  Your aunt’s been keeping dinner warm of the stove.  I usually wash up out here before I go in.  Sort of an old habit I just can’t break.”  The two figures stood at the large wash basin soaping up their hands and arms and faces.  Each poured one of the two pitchers of water over the soapy areas and then over their heads.  Chris thought the water feels good, just cool enough to take the sting of sun and dirt out of my skin.  Air is still hot yet, wonder if it ever cools down at night.  Uncle John interrupted his concentration.  “Come on Chris, supper’s waiting.” Then he went through the door and stood by the table.  “I hope we’re not too late Marth.  I know you were inconvenienced.”

“John, it’s no bother at all.”  Her look of admiration was evident to Chris.  “Thank you, Chris, for helping John.  I can tell he’s pleased.”  This friendly acknowledgement caught him by surprise.  My god, he thought to himself, no one’s ever said that to me before.  Then he stammered a reply, “Uncle John did all the work, I just helped a little.”

“You did good, Chris.  I would have been out there another hour without your help.  We’ll go out tomorrow, I’ve got a couple of jobs lined up.”  And with that, Aunt Martha put supper on the table and grace was said.  As Chris lay in bed his mind gave way to the possibilities of living here.  I’ll give it a chance, see what comes.  Still, I rather be in LA.  This place looks desolate, man, not ever a backwater town.  I wonder if there are any girls here?  Probably real hicks with cow licks.  He chuckled at that thought.  Sleep crept in soon enough and eased the tiredness of body and mind.

 

He was rudely awaken the next morning by Uncle John.  The door opened and his uncle uttered, “Time to get up, we’re burning daylight.”  Burning daylight? Wasn’t than in a John Wayne movie?  Burning day light?  What the hell? as the sleep cleared out of his head.  He pulled back the curtains, the first light of day was upon the sky.  His aunt came in to advise him, “Dear, I washed you clothes last night so you’d have something clean to wear.  Breakfast’s on the table.  Better hurry, John tells me it’s going to be a busy day.”  As she closed the door Chris pulled back the covers and sat up.  Sure enough, clean clothes were on the chair.  So he pulled on his clothes and went into the kitchen.  John was sitting at the table drinking black coffee and spearing a piece of thick slab bacon with his fork.  “How many eggs do you want, Dear?” Aunt martha was poised with one in her hand ready to crack the shell and slip the raw egg into the skillet.  “I usually do them easy over but if you want them different…” her voice trailed off.  “Uh, sure, easy over’s good.  Uh, two thank you.” was his reply as he sat down.  Uncle John reached for the pot, “Want some coffee?  we have mild if you’d rather…”  “Sure, coffee’s fine.  I take it black, please.”  Chris was amazed how polite he was being.  Maybe they had more charm than he thought.

For several weeks this routine continued.  His uncle was teaching him simple repairs and would leave him unsupervised at times.  The effect on Chris was quite visible.  He went from a hostile young teen to a young man more sure of his capabilities.  By the end of the fourth week the transformation was almost complete.It is said that to change one’s habits requires a minimum of three weeks.  The same is true of living in a new place, after three weeks it starts to feel like “home”.  And Chris was starting to feel at home and comfortable with the new changes in his life.  But for ever three steps forward one must be prepared for that one step back, expect it in due course.

September was upon him and the need to complete his basic education.  Rather than send their school age children sixty miles to the nearest public school the local families had established a coop of home schooling.  Several of the the men and women were retired teachers and ready to donate a few hours each week to the education of the young.  At any one time there were no more than sixty to seventy primary and secondary school students.  Thus student to teacher ratios were often single digit.  Chris had not graduated from high school.  In fact, he was way behind due to the precarious family situation and run ins with police.  So Uncle John informed him that school would begin next Monday.  “Don’t worry about going.  I sometimes come and teach welding and machine repair to the boys and a couple of girls who want to learn.  Just remember, there are no secrets in this community.  Everyone knows why you are hear and a little of your background with the police.  But they don’t know all the details and that is as it should be.  So tell them as little as you can.  Just take it slow and after a while they’ll accept you.  You got to build trust with them, right?”

“But Uncle John, what do I need with high school?  You’re teaching me how to make a living, aren’t you?”

“Because it’s a big world out there and you need to know more about it.  Math and science and reading and writing.  These are the tools you always have with you.  No one can borrow them and no one can steal or take them from you.  You’ll see.  For me the work slows down as winter closed in.  That’s when I read and maybe write in my journal.  You need something like that.”

 

Well, the subject was closed as far as Uncle John was concerned and Chris knew it.  So he went to school dutifully and tried to fit into the school and social scene.  Aunt Martha was often at the school with a few of the other mothers.  It was agreed that she was one of the best cooks in the town and taught the girls and a few of the boys how to survive on bare necessities.  For those who wished more accomplishment in the art of cuisine.  Lunch was a combined effort of parents and students.  One learns well the art of patience when a first grader is given the task of placing peanut butter on one slice of bread and a second grader the task of placing the jelly.  Some of the fathers came by each week to spend a leisurely lunch with their children or teach on the topic of growing crops or how to build irrigations ditches or some other subject like accounting.  Fact was, Chris and the other boys were getting courses in practical education they could never have achieved in a regular public school.

 

Christmas in small communities can be a very joyous time of year.  The lack of commercialization and absence of heavy vehicle traffic patterns keep the peace and tranquility, if not the spirit, of the holiday.  But the ghost of Christmas Past visited Chris two days before school let out.  As Uncle John had point out several times the adults in the town knew about problems Chris had with the police but were not aware of the particulars.  He also warned that a few of the teenagers knew that same information.  So it came as no surprise that one of those teens, an older boy, managed to search the internet and find a couple of newspaper articles about the particulars of that involvement.  For the first time Chris was confronted with his past and was unprepared.  The teen’s name was Will Graves and regarded as something of a troublemaker.  “Hey Chris, look what I found!  You’re a jail bird, a thief.  You’ve spent time in juvenile prison.”  The words immediately froze Chris in his seat and filled him with fear.  Will continued, “Look everybody, I have copies, pass them around.  We got us a thief and jail bird in our school.  He’s a gang member.  Read it!”

Before he could think words of protest leaped out of his mouth, “No, that’s not me.  It’s a mistake.  You’re wrong…”  His voice trailed off as he started to remember Uncle John’s admonitions.

Will started in again, “Liar, your picture was in the paper.  Liar, liar, we got you dead to rights.  You’re just a filthy thief and a liar.”

Those words landed with heavy blows against his psyche.  All Chris could think to do was run, run out of the room, out of the school.  Just run, run as far as he could.  Down the road, under the interstate, past the auto repair shop, into the dessert.  The chill air cooled his burning cheeks as he traveled several miles toward the Mohawk mountains.  Finally he stopped and sat down, leaned back on a boulder and held his face to the sky.  Over and over he kept asking himself, why.  I was happy here.  Why did it have to end now?  Where will I go, what will I do?  Night fell and the air turned frigid.  Chris had no coat and felt chilled to the bone as the cold imposed a strong numbing sleep upon his brain.

 

One of the mothers called Aunt Martha, “Is it true?  Did you nephew spend time in jail?  How come you didn’t tell us he was a thief?  Well, what are you going to do about it?”

“Hold on Judy.  Calm down.  Now tell me what has happened.”  Aunt Martha’s inner strength was her coolness under pressure.  She had a way of exerting calm in her presence.  Judy related part of the story.  “I’ll be down directly, Judy.  Wait for me.”  Then she put on her coat and hat, opened to door and left for a ten minute walk.  The incident weighted heavily on her mind.  I hope Chris didn’t try to lie his way out of it.  I’ll see what I can do.

When she entered the small school the three teachers and four of the mothers confronted her.  Generally the comments ran on about how could she and her husband do this to them and isn’t the boy dangerous and how they would have to start locking their doors at night.  But Aunt Martha’s unflinching warm smile and calming influence won out even when Will poked a copy of the newspaper story to her face.  “I’ve seen it dear, I know all about it.”  As if to further make her point, she tore up the papers and let them drop to the floor.  “Will, did you enjoy hurting Chris?  Wouldn’t kindness be a better way?  As my John always says, ‘No matter what you think of a man, never needlessly make him your enemy.’  Do you think that would be a wiser course of action?”  Will, gently chastised, retreated from the circle of women and sought his seat.  Aunt Martha continued,”Where is Chris now?”

One of the mothers said he has bolted out the door and was running towards the Interstate.  Aunt Martha looked around and saw the coat on one of the pegs.  “Oh my, he didn’t take his coat.  John won;t be home for another hour or so.  Well, I better go wait for him.”  As if to reassure them before she left she added.  “Now that you know more of my nephew’s past, please judge him by the progress he’s made since.  His life wasn’t easy.”

 

Uncle John drove up in that easy way of his and quickly washed up.  Martha had filled the basin with hot water only minutes before and the warmth felt good on his hands and face.  Martha’s face told him something was wrong.  “Chris was confronted with his past in school today.  Will Graves found the newspaper articles online.  Now Chris has run off.  No one knows where.”  Uncle John thought for a moment then dais, “I’ll call the garage, maybe they saw him.”  Yes, Don Woods remembered seeing the boy running.  “He was jogging, really.  Had his head down most of the time.  I thought is a little odd, myself.  He in any trouble?”  “No, no trouble, just doesn’t know what to do.” Uncle John left it at that.  The word would get around soon enough.  No, he had to find the boy.  It was dark now, and cold, suppose to hit freezing tonight, maybe lower.  “Martha, get me a couple of blankets and I’ll get a bottle of brandy out of the cupboard.

Uncle John spent the better part of the night looking for Chris.  That is often the way with lost sheep.  The sky was getting light when he stumbled upon the boy, the body tightly curled and looking like one of the boulders.  He picked Chris up and bundled the boy in the blankets.  Then as he held the boy in his arms walked the three miles back to the truck.  He placed Chris gently onto the seat then went round to the driver’s side and started the engine, mildly racing it to build up the heat and let if flood into the cab.  Then he took a shot glass and filled it with brandy, held it to the boy’s lips and got some of it into the boy’s mouth.  His skin had that bluish tone from the long night’s exposure to cold.  Chris started to stir.  “Chris, take a shot, you need the shock of alcohol to get your blood going.  Come on, now.  Drink it.  Good, okay now, one more, just one more.”  The cab was beginning to feel warm, the heater fan was on high, and the boy’s skin was losing its bluishness, turning more pale white.  Uncle John put the cap on the bottle and eased the truck into gear.  I’ll phone the doc when I get Chris to bed.  Have him come over and check him out.

 

Chris was well enough a few days later to get out of bed and into his clothes.  Aunt Martha was a very good nurse.  As she told Chris, that is how she met John.  “I’ll tell you that story another time, when you’ve got a sweetheart of your own.  John will be home in an hour and I’ll have supper on the table.  We’ve missed having you at the table.”  As if by some mysterious communication John was home to that very hour.  Supper was laid and they all sat and ate the leftover roast beef.  Uncle John didn’t like turkey, said it slowed him down, made him feel sleepy.  About half way through the meal Uncle John spoke directly to Chris.  “Well, son.  You learned a lesson the hard way.  Running away from your problems damn near killed you.  It’s always better to face a problem directly.  Be honest with about it.  Many years ago when I was a young man, a little old than you, I faced that situation.  And like you I faltered.  I tried to lie my way out of it, pretended it didn’t exist.  I came up shot in life and my running away almost killed me.  I had to go back and face the people I had lied to, had let down, had failed in their trust.  To me, I would rather have died that go hat in hand and beg their forgiveness.  Humbleness comes when you overcome the need for false pride.  Chris, that’s where you are now.  You’ve got to the make the decision.  Don’t do it for me or Martha.  You got to do it for yourself.  I’m going to suggest to you that you and I go round to groups of the families here and you make amends.  You apologize for lying and betraying their trust.  You ask for their forgiveness.  You tell them why you ran.  There’s no shame in honesty.  And by the way, Mr Graves dealt with Will.  Perhaps a little too harshly for my sense of justice.  But son, Will’s not your enemy.  Don’t treat him like one.  He, like you, has his faults.  You let me know tomorrow what your decision is.”  Then turning to Martha, “I’m ready for some pie.”

 

The next evening at supper Chris revealed his decision.  “I’m scared, Uncle John.  I’m really scared of what they think, what they might say.  I’ll try but I don’t know if I can do it.”

“Chris, it takes no courage to tell a lie, never did.  But it’s truth that gives us the courage to say what is true.  You’ve taken a shot of courage to get this far.  Martha and I will be with you.  We’ll stand behind you.  And when you’re ready to speak, just take another shot of courage.”

Bright Lights, Big City

I’ve always been attracted to the bright lights of the big city although I fear my relationship is more moth to flame.  I think the promise of action and intrigue lead many of us to those streets and yet we literally come up against a brick wall.  Like the old propaganda pamphlets handed out overseas, when you go to town looking for action you must remember you are the action.  Nothing is free, you’ve got to pay for your action.  One is an outsider in the city until one becomes an insider and that can take many years for those of us not blessed with good networking skills.  What Dale Carnegie called the ability to make quick friendships.  I’d tag along with Butch in those early years, try to b like him and make contacts.  Mostly I was ignored, politely.  Butch, on the other hand, was always striking up those acquaintances that lead at least to weak friendships.  I never knew how he did it.  At six feet two he had a presence, athletic build, dark hair and brown eyes, ruddy complexion, strong chin and other good features.  As I said, the man had presence even though his looks were fair.  I always marveled at his ability to walk into a room full of strangers and attract half a dozen men to his side and at least one woman.

 

“Kid, you just gotta walk into the place like you own, you know.  You can’t show fear but you can’t challenge a guy, you just stand your ground and show that you belong.  See, kid?  That’s all it is.”

Well, seeing is harder than doing, at least in my mind.  “Butch, it’s easy for you.  I don’t know, it’s just not me, you know?”

“Bill, you think too much!  You just gotta do, that’s all.  Just do it!”  And Butch just did as a matter of course.

 

He would surround himself with people, be in the swing of things.  Next thing I knew was that he had a job in the city.  Butch managed to talk himself into entry level management position in an import company.  The money was good and he came to know a wide network of individuals, many who became business contacts.  His star was rising.  I went off to the service and served my time.  Funny how many of us thought of it as almost a prison sentence with no time off for good behavior, only a medal that attested to that fact.  Around Christmas I would get a card from Butch with a few scribbled lines, just general stuff.  Writing was not his strong suit.  And once a month or so I’d drop him a few lines on my experiences.  Then I went off to a small university some distance away, my intent was to find a way to earn my living.  But while the money from my GI Bill helped, it wasn’t enough and I dropped out after two years.  Eventually I found a job with the phone company not far from home and settled in grind of making a living.

 

Then one Sunday I took a young woman up to the city for brunch and window shopping on the old fisherman’s wharf turned arts and crafts and all manner of import stores.  By chance, as we sat in the open air seating eating out late breakfast, Butch saw me and came over our table.  “Hey Kid, where you been?  What brings you to the city?”

“Well hello, Butch.  It has been a long time.  Let me introduce you.  Butch, well, I mean Frank.  This is Jennifer.  Jennifer, this is Frank, better know to friends and acquaintances as Butch.  Shake hands and come out fighting.”

“Bill, you’re still the card.  You know, Jennifer, Bill pulls that introduction on me every time I meet a new friend of his.  Gosh, this is what, the second time?”

“You got to watch this man, he’s quick on his feet.  So Butch, you still collecting women or did one of them catch you?”

“The man’s just jealous of my success, Jenifer.  No, Bill, I haven’t married yet.  I cam close to it last year, but no cigar.  Are you and Jennifer a regular item?”

I looked at Jennifer and saw that comment caught her unexpectedly.  “No, Butch, we’re still exploring that possibility.”  I saw a sigh of relief on her face and chose not to continue that line.  “What brings you down to the tourist traps?”

Butch gave me a wink, “I’m meeting some people here for lunch and maybe a little business.”  He looked around some and then in a hasty manner said, “Look, there they are now.  Hey Bill, here’s my card.  Call me later in the week.  Got to go.  Good bye Jennifer, nice to meet you.”

Butch headed toward a party of three men dressed in business suits.  Typical of Butch in that he had on slacks and a sports jacket.  If anyone could pull it off, he could.

 

Jennifer and I were still sitting at our table as I looked at the card.  I showed it to her.  “I see he is now a vice president.  He must be doing well, but he always seemed to have a flair for working with people.”  I failed to notice that Jennifer was committing the card to memory.  Well, a few more hours of the city and then we returned to suburbia.  I though we might extend the date into the evening but Jennifer pleaded a headache from the sun.  So I went home to my apartment with nothing much left of the evening but a bit of reading.

 

For the next couple of weeks Jennifer seemed to have a full social calendar.  Then it hit me, I wasn’t her type.  I am a bit slow to catch on to the hints.  Meanwhile I had tried calling Butch but his line was either busy or I was routed to voice mail.  About three months later I got a call from Butch.  “Hey kid, come up Saturday evening.  Got some free time and I want to catch up on the past.  You know where O Solo Mio is?  Good, meet me there for dinner, it’s on me.  See ya.”  We had been there several times in the past.  The restaurant is a rustic hole in the wall Italian place where to food is exceptional.  Butch had taken me there in the past when he needed a sounding board and so I expect that was why he invited me next Saturday.  Well, it beat watching the “Movie of the Week”.  So I dressed casual, as far as I knew how.  Believe me, I am not a fashion plate.  I work outside construction, an honest an noble profession but somewhat less than elegant in attire.  And off I went, earlier in the afternoon.  I couldn’t miss a chance to peruse a used book store or two.  That is one of my vices, books.  So I finally found my way to the restaurant, Butch was waiting for me.

“You’ve been at the book stores, haven’t you?”

“You know me too well.  Actually, I found a couple of good history volumes, very inexpensive.”

“So how many books in your library now?”

“About two thousand.”

“Bill, books don’t attract women.  You know that, don’t you?  How many girlfriends have you had since I’ve know you?”

“Ah, not many.”  I was silent for a while.  Then I asked what was the problem.   What did he have on his mind?

“Touche!  You still remember my ways.”  He paused to let that thought sink in.  “Well, I got two problems this time and they complicate each other.  You know those men I was meeting that Sunday I came across you?  Well, they own some businesses in China and want me to be the export manager.  See, I have ties to importers here and they figure I could use my contacts to move the merchandise.  Now hear me put before you say anything.  See, the problem is the manufacturing and warehousing is a small port, not very close to Shanghai.  You know me, I need the bright lights and big city life.  I mean, it’s a lot of money but I don’t know if I can stick to it.  They’re talking a five year contract on a low salary with a bonus paid if I stick it out the full five years.  You know, I could retire on that bonus and never have to work another day of my life.  But I don’t think I can take the withdrawal from the life I have now.”

“Yeah, I can see your problem.  So what about your present position, any future there?”

“That’s what worries me.  The company I work for is slowly going down the tubes.  That’s why I’m looking for a new position.  Problem is the the import business is being taken over by the big boys and I don’t look worth keeping.  That’s what scares me.  It’s not like the old days when I could walk in and impress people.  They say I need a degree and I’m just too old to go back to school.  Bill, what am I going to do?”

“Could you start your own import business?  I mean, you know a lot of exporters.  Maybe you could find a niche market.  You might look at India, a lot of handicrafts and knockoffs are coming out of that country.

“It’s a thought, but I don’t know if I can find the money I need to pull that off.”

“Butch, haven’t you saved anything?”

“I always meant to, but you know, it cost money to live in this city.  You know that.  I’ve got memberships in athletic clubs and other things like that.  It takes money to make money.”

I was silent for a while.  “Butch, what’s the other problem?”

“You remember Jennifer?”

“Yes, vaguely.  We had exactly two dates.”

“She showed up at one of the clubs I hang out and next thing you know, we’re an item.  What’s it been, maybe three weeks?  Anyway, we’ve been getting serious and that kind of worries me.”

“In what way, Butch?”

“I think she has marriage in mind.  Oh, she hasn’t said anything yet but I’ve got the strangest feeling that’s what she wants.  She talks about leaving some clothes in my apartment so she can save time when she comes up for the weekend.  things like that.  I mean she has organized my kitchen.  Bill. I can’t find a god damn thing in it anymore.  And she is always saying we should eat end more, save money and stuff like that.  Do you think she is serious about marriage.”

“Butch, let’s take the second problem first.  If you want to know if she is angling to hook you into marriage then do this.  Tell her you have a job offer.  I assume she knows you already have one but doesn’t know the particulars.  Well, tell her it’s in Japan.  Tell her that the business culture there means you have to go out with the people in the office and with customers until all hours of the morning.  That everyone goes to the clubs and drinks and carries on because it is expected and not to do so would be an insult.  Tell her that you will always love her but the job will have to come first and that means long hours at work and long hours of company and customer socializing.  And oh, wives are never invited or even seen at company functions.  I’d give her three weeks before she’s gone.”

“Bill, you sure about that?”

“Trust me, I’m sure.  As for the other, you need to find a niche importing market or take the offer and stick it out.  You could go back to college but that would take four or five years and I don’t think you have the resources or the time.  Otherwise use your contacts and take a lower lever and lower paying position.”

Butch thought about that for several minutes.  “I don’t know what I’m going to do, Bill.  I just don’t know.”

“Butch, stop intellectualizing and just do it.”

The Girl from Ipanema

A buddy of mine from my service days had ventured down to Brazil. Mark was a surfer dude and a damn good one before Uncle Sam made him an invitation he couldn’t refuse. Happens to be the best of us, we somehow end up being members of that merry band of pranksters. That is usually enough to put a little of the wanderlust in the soul of an ex prankster.  Mark took off in August of 1970 after his membership was cancelled by mutual consent and he drew his last bit of wages from the accounting office.  I remember how he had discussed his plans amongst us non short timers.  I always though Mark was the more serious type and this expedition into the unknown certainly would sound, at first blush, quite the risky venture.  But he had savings to tide him over and a plan.  “Bill, if I come back in a year or two it means I failed.  I think there’s opportunity down there.”  Such were the utterings of Mark, made in all seriousness.  So he left after all those goodbyes were exchanged and all the good wishes were gathered into the standard package of slaps on the back and handshakes.

Now me, I’m no surfer dude.  I don’t swim all that well, can’t even kneel on a board, and don’t have the upper body strength needed to paddle out to catch the waves.  My childhood disability limited my athletic ability.  But I would watch Mark off Santa Cruz’s Steamer’s Lane and could see that he knew his stuff.  As for Brazil, I knew what I remembered from the Disney Cartoon created back in the fifties and the music that drifted up to the states in the mid sixties and made Brazil 66 very popular in the late sixties.  Beyond that I only knew its history in a cursory manner, you know, read a few books written in the late fifties and scanned a few Look and Life magazines in the sixties.  When it comes to South America, I am not totally ignorant but I am hardly up to date.  Like Mark, I had an inkling of desire to drift down to Brazil or Argentina, maybe Peru.  It seemed like one of those exotic ideas that pop up in your youth.  But now Mark had blazed a trail for those who might wish to follow.  Seems I got bushwacked and all pretence of world exploration was purged from my memory.  I think we have as many regrets about what we never did as we do from what we have done.

Mark was the one who traveled in our stead and the time passed, as it always does, and fifteen years had flown by when he returned.  One thing leads to another and we finally caught up to compare notes.  Mine were plebeian while his were herculean.   Well, he had been somewhere and I had not.  About fifteen years later I chanced upon Mark at a former haunt of his in Aptos.  It was a restaurant where those in the know would go for brunch.  The omelettes were impeccable, individual works of art.  As I recall, they had a very good house chardonnay.  I was sipping my coffee while reading the Sunday SF Chronicle, not really aware of the coming and going of customers, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  “Bill, is that you?”  The voice was strangely familiar.  Familiar because I thought I had heard it before and strange because I hadn’t heard that voice in a decade or two.  Mark quickly sat down in the chair across from my table as I was turning my head in his direction.  “Hey dude, you look surprised.”

Well, I am pleasantly surprised to see you here.  I thought you had permanent residence in Brazil?”

“I did, dude.  But I had to get out.  Things were getting ugly down there.” Mark sounded a little depressed or at least sad.  Normally he had that happy go lucky personality.  This was a new dimension I saw in his demeanor.

“So what happened?  Why’d you leave?”

Mark gave me a tired look and then spotted someone in the crowd.  “Look, I’ll tell you more later.  Can we meet tomorrow night?  say about seven?”  He quickly wrote ad address and a slip of paper and handed it to me.  “Got to go.  See you then.”  Then he left as quickly and he had come.  I saw him accompany a woman out the door and that was that.

Tomorrow night came and i was arrived at the address.  It was a run down apartment complex in Santa Cruz.  One would expect students UCSC to occupy the premises.  Santa Cruz had gone through its boom and bust periods and this way definitely one of the busts.  I climbed up the stairs and walked over to the door.  In my hand I held two bottles of decent wine, nothing expensive but drinkable.  Wine was one of the ties that held us together, strange as that may seem.  So I knocked on the door and waited the few seconds before it was opened.  “Hello Mark, how’s it going?”

“Good to you, Bill, come in.  You remembered!  What are we drinking tonight?”  A bottle of wine or two between friends does much to keep that friendship in good repair.

“Oh, just a couple of Haut-Medocs, nothing special.  You got a cork screw handy?”

“You know I do.  By the way, meet Chris, I’m staying with him.  Good thing you brought two bottles.  Here, you do the honors.”  as he handed me the cork puller.  Chris was a tall and dark complexion man of about thirty, a little younger than Mark.  He held out his hand in a timid manner.  Well, I was a stranger and dressed better, a bad habit of mine as I tend not to dress too far down.  As if to ease my concerns Mark continued, “Chris is a surfer friend of mine.  He’s helping me get back on my feet.  He’s good people.”

Mark found three glasses suitable for the wine as I opened the first bottle.  Then I poured out what seemed to be about four ounces into the glasses.  Mark motioned to me to sit in the chair as he and Chris occupied the couch.  “You know Bill, I always had that dream to travel to Brazil and I just had to take the opportunity.  Say, this is good Medoc.  Nice.”

“My pleasure, Mark.  I found half a case in San Leandro at a really cheap price.  Sort of like the old days.”

“Yeah, I remember.  You always had the nose of good wine.  Of course in Brazil one couldn’t always find good wine, at least not for the first five years I was there.  But Rio had other compensations, you know?  I tell you, some of the spots I found the surfing was really gnarly.  Some of the best I have surfed.  There are maybe half a dozen spots in the Rio area and I’ve suffered them all.  You know, we used to go on treks both north and south and I swear, some fantastic places to grove, you know?

“Yeah, but you were doing more than surfing, Mark.  I’m sure the locals had their own surfer culture.”  Well, it was something of a challenge to Mark’s way of thinking.  Mark was usually more excited when talking about surfing.  I mean, the man lived and breathed surfing.  There was much that he was not telling.

“Well, the first couple of years I was establishing myself.  You know, showing the locals that I could surf, perhaps better than them.  It’s that fitting into the pecking order and I has at the top of that order.  But you and I know that surfing doesn’t pay much.  Yeah, a few competitions and a bit of prize money, but not enough to keep to feed the habit.  It’s a different culture down there, you know?  So after a couple of years while I was banging on an old guitar I chanced to come upon a small club that needed a quartet to boost its sales.  So I make the right connections and I start learning that Bossa Nova style and I’m playing in the club and surfing in my spare time.  I mean, Bill, we are there at Ipanema and it’s all really beautiful.  You Know?”

Mark’s descriptions and tale of adventure had worn through the first bottle so I was obliged to open the second one.  “So Bill, I’m making a little money playing music and I make a few bucks teaching the upper middle class women how to surf.  It’s a racket, Bill, a license to steal.  I mean, I must have has half a dozen women paying me for lessons and, well, let’s face it, sex.”

Contrary to Gidget and other “surfing” movies, it’s an expensive hobby.  Mark had taught me that early in life.  You learn how to surf as a teenager because that’s when yo have the time and the money, even if it’s mom’s or dad’s.  “So how long did that go on, Mark?”

“I just fell into the habit, you know, it was so easy.  I mean most of the dudes surfing were doing it.  But I was the novelty, the American.  Then I noticed that my skills weren’t as good as they had been.  My mind wasn’t on surfing, it was on who would I take on next.  You know Bill, I was becoming addicted to the money, I was growing fat.  There was a sort of isolated beach area where the waves were really good and there weren’t any crowds.  Just small towns with maybe a hotel and a few hundred houses.  Sort of cut off from the world.  I mean, that’s where I needed to be, get my head together.”  Mark paused to sit back and take a few sips from his glass.  I could tell he was almost in another world from the look his eyes get when he is concentrating hard.  Suddenly his head jerked forward.  “Dude, this is really good wine.  Where’d you get it?”

“I found it up in the city.  One of those mom and pop stores was going out of business and I bought two cases on the spot.  Just a couple dollars a bottle.  You want a few bottles?”  I usually don’t go around hand out bottles of good wine to just anybody but Mark was a good friend back when and we were renewing that friendship tonight.

“Thanks dude for the offer.  Maybe when I got my own place, know what I mean?  I’ve got a deal with one of the board makers, he’s looking for someone to do some design work.  Kind of foot in the door position.  Got to do some of the epoxy work and help with sales.”  He paused for almost a minute then continued, “Last couple of years I tried to go into the business but things got tough down there.”

“How so, too much competition?”

“More than that.  As I was telling you, that little village on the coast changed me.  I had enough savings to surf for four or five months.  I didn’t need much.  Had a small tent to sleep, go to the market for some food.  There were fruit trees and wild vegetables in the hills.  The only misery was the occasional rain storms.  Sometimes I would go into one of the cafes at night and listen to the music.  It was the music, Bill, that saved me.  You know how we used to make fun of that commercial Bossa Nova junk they played on AM?  This was the real stuff.  They played and sang with real feeling and it had a lot of variation.  I mean, it got to the point where I was in one of the cafes almost every night.  I was picking up the language reel good too.  Some one gave me an old guitar and I started practicing chords and later fingers.  Me and some of the locals would be on the beach surfing and practicing and singing.  And then we go to the cafe and play all night.  A couple of months turned into a couple of years.  I’ll tell you Bill, I should’ve stayed there.”

I sat amazed by Mark’s tale.  Only a few individuals can take an ordinary life and turn it into an exotic adventure.  “Sounds like the perfect surfer’s heaven to me.  What made you leave?”

“One of the young women had a good voice and wanted to go to Rio.  She wanted to be a professional singer with all the fame and fortune she could get.  So I went with her, you know, as kind of a protector.  I did it as a favor to her father.  The old man had been good to me, let me use a room in his barn and made sure I had regular meals.  So I told him I’d look after her.”  He studied me for a minute.  “I know all this sounds crazy but I’m telling you what’s real.  In Rio everyone is a hustler, one way or another.  I should have remembered sooner, but I wanted things to be different.”  I saw the mist forming in his eyes and his voice lost his normal ease.  He spoke a little more slowly, a little more deliberate, almost as if each word was an individual pain accumulated over years of suffering.  “We went to the small clubs and cafes, not the best places to work but that’s where you get your foot in the door.  I didn’t know the business and we got fleeced a couple of times, but we survived.  Ana, that was her name, was starting to get known locally.  Well, after a year or so of struggling with small clubs we got a break.  A larger club in Downtown Rio signed her to a year long contract.  Ana was attracting a good audience.  She was becoming a hot property.  Bill, that’s when the real trouble started.  Ana became impatient for the fame and the money.  I tried my best to look after her but that music scene is full of sharks and cutthroats.  I was being edged out.”

Mark dropped his eyes to the floor for several minutes.  When a man has a painful story to tell you don’t rush him.  I could have guessed the ending if this had been the usual Hollywood movie, but I was in for a rude surprise.  “Bill, I really tried to protect her, I really did.  I still came round to the club and watched her.  The owner was making every attempt to seduce her.  Then one night I saw a look in her eyes that chilled me.  She was staring right at me, Bill.  She was pleading with me.  Then the owner noticed her look and followed her stare to me.  Five minutes later a couple of big guys were hustling me out of the club.  They beat the shit out of me, Bill.

I was in the charity hospital for a month trying to recover.  Finally they told me to leave, I was well enough and they needed my bed.  Hell, I was still on crutches, had no money and no where to go.  I had to sell my board for what little money I could get.  There was no way I could go back up north to the village, her father would kill me.  No, I’d have to go the the consulate and see if they could get me back to the states.  That took a few days to arrange and I was books on a flight for the next day.  Bill, I had to go back and see Ana one last time, I really did.  So I went to the club that night.  I saw the change on her face, in her eyes and in her voice.  She had a hard melancholy look about her, you know, that lost woman look.  Anyhow, her eyes sought me out.  It was as if she knew I’d be there that night.  And when she did, she started screaming about all the abuse the club owner had given her.  I mean, what she was saying about him was really bad, criminal.  The band leader tried to shut her up but she persisted.  As they dragged her off the stage she broke free and her accusations were even worse.  Something about two murders she had witnessed him doing.  I think that last confession is what did it.  The owner was suddenly on the stage and I saw him slice her throat.  The blood just flowed.”  Mark stopped his story, his face drained of all its blood.

Nothin From Nothin

We all have people in our past that have made an impression upon us in one way or another, some for the good and some for the not so good. I’ve never been close to those who went on the fame or glory but I( have know a couple of individuals who had run ins with authority in one way or another.  I was in my early thirties when I met Marshal Fields, no, no that that Fields of retail fame, possibly a very distant relation but we shall leave it at that.  The circle I traveled in was wine oriented at that time.  I worked a great deal of overtime and I could afford very excellent wines, mostly the older French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.  At the time the American dollar was very strong and could buy a lot of classic wine.  I was holding an informal wine tasting at my apartment one Saturday night and one of my friends brought along a young man of twenty two.  That was the first time I met Marshall and he made quite the impression on me.  I had collected half a dozen third and fifth growth Bordeaux for the evening’s fare, the vintage was 1964.  I am always astounded that in the mediocre and poor rated vintages the lesser growths seem to invariably make some very excellent wines.

 

There were eight of us, nine with Marshall, and we held semi regular wine tastings, opportunities to open a couple of bottles, sit back and examine the wines and generally socialize.  Usually I provide some imported cheeses since on of my friends managed a franchise retail establishment called The Cheese Shop.  His brother in law owned the property and John found himself with a profession by way of family appointment.  I met his brother many times, a very nice man.  The shop also sold wine, hence the connection.  You know how it is, you pick up friends from your interests of hobbies.  Paul was the assistant manager of a corner delicatessen and small wine shop.  He and Marshall had been childhood friends, so Paul asked if I wouldn’t mind the extra.  He promised to bring a bottle of something interesting, which meant it would be very good or not so good.  Alan Bilter was there, holding court, as usual.  He was a wine salesman for one of the major wholesalers and had many years of training in wine.  I mean, the man was damn good, as good as any of the illustrious wine critics, maybe better.  He was our teacher, our instructor, and our friend.  This circle of friends ever expands and I have come into contact with many in the industry of the older days, before wine became a religion in California.  But that is neither here nor there.

 

Marshall was an impressive young man.  He rated at the master’s level in chess.  He regularly practiced with a professional soccer team who was always after him to join their team.  He was taking a degree in mathematics at the local university and had a wide knowlege on many subjects.  His nose and palate were very good and he knew food as well as wine.  Most of all, he was charismatic.  By that I mean that when you and he held a conversation you felt that you two were the only ones in the room.  His focus was that damn good.  If ever there was a young man destine to great things, Marshall was that young man.  And to top it off, he could exude a sense of humility, common man stuff.  I’ve met only one other man who came halfway near to Marshall’s abilities.  But to continue our party, we all sat around and did our swirling of wine in the glass, sniffing the bouquet, and tasting in sips each wine throughout the night.  Ah, the joys of a good wine.  Opening the bottle, letting breathe a bit, the initial contact and examination, and then carefully the wine develop over the course of an evening.  It is truly a thing of beauty and we all loved beauty.  Of course we seldom had women to our tastings.  Nothing is worse than a woman who wears more than a hit of perfume.  The wine virtually suffocates in her presence, DOA, as it were.  For centuries the French had banned all women from their cellars to keep the wine safe from being hijacked by odors not natural to wine.  And that goes for men who wear more than a hint of aftershave or cologne.  Now if you have before you some two buck chuck in gallon jugs then any addition of foreign aroma is bound to be an improvement, but better wine deserves respect.

 

So we imbibe and talk.  Not just sealing wax and things.  No, we talk of wine and wineries and vineyards and business and politics and art and literature and , well almost everything except sports or television.  Towards the end of the evening I pull out from my cellar, such as it is, a couple of bottles of a German riesling and finally a bottle of vintage port complete with the Stilton, the slices of pippin apple and walnuts.  Maybe some cognac as a nightcap for those who wish to sleep over and the evening ends about two am.  Wimps are not welcome to these affairs.  Before I remarried I had a more enjoyable seven years of contentment.  To this day I wondered what happened to it.  No use crying over spilt wine unless it’s 52 La Tache.  That the second marriage was not.  Shame, I had such high hopes.  But I digress.  Yes, wine appreciation is sometimes considered a competitive sport for non athletic men but I have seen not a few women bent on catching up to the “old boys” and bully for them.  They earn their scars the hard way, just as we did.

 

So a friendship developed between Marshall and myself, including his girlfriend, Bebe.  Bebe was an interesting woman, perhaps a year, maybe two, older than Marshall.  She had gone to the professional culinary school in a nearby city and was trying to develop her own catering and cooking school business.  I come by cooking, or being a chef as I like to call it, in a most natural way.  I seem to understand food and seasoning.  Bebe helped to perfect my abilities when I hosted dinner for eight at my place.  Unofficially my dinners came to be known as the four-thirty club because they rarely ended before four thirty in the morning.  It was quite an affair since the wines, all top notch, were paired to the courses, all seven or eight or nine, depending on how you wanted to count them.  She and Marshall often attended my dinners.  sometimes she even helped in the prep work which would start two or three days in advance.  The making of stock takes two days.  and Marshall would often invite me to dinner somewhere.  It might be local or it might be at some winery or even a California sparkling winery with commercial restaurant.  I remember when eight of us helped Bebe buy a table at the Picnic at the Opera charity event.  My contribution was a jeroboam of a very good grand mark champagne and a salmanazar of a vintage Pomerol, premier cru, of course.  That took a big chunk out of my overtime pay.  But hey, just the doing of something grand is worth the effort and even the cost.  Bebe had prepared a feast that made the upper class matrons look positively middleclass with their red and white checkered table clothes and hot dogs on a white bread bun.  I swear, many of those people have little or no taste.  Bebe should have won first prize but she was allowed second for the simple reason that one couldn’t argue with the fare or the decorations.   That was a night to remember.

 

I remember that a good deal of my life was that off the wall living and experience.  I suppose I am a walking oxymoron, be that as it may.  Marshall came into a bit of inheritance and bought a failing delicatessen and wine shop.  Bebe planned to do a cooking school and catering for it had the facilities for such an endeavor.  The location was good, upscale clientele and walk in traffic.  As I said, Marshall was the kind of guy one expected to make a success of life in a big way.  He had millionaire written all over him.  Yet, like Achilles, he had a mortal point of weakness.  Marshall was afraid of failure.  I could never figure that out.  Here was a guy whose IQ was above mine, and I am in that fifth deviation from the norm (some people claim I am just a deviate and perhaps they are right) and he has every thing going for him.  He’s hansom, athletic, highly intelligent, the list goes on.  But he is afraid of failure.  I mean, literally afraid of failure to the point that he often withdrew from his university classes for fear of failing the final.  I mean, he could do the work but he suffered from that testing paralysis that destroys so many gifted individuals.  I think that is why he never turned professional in soccer.  He had the talent but was afraid of failing come game time.  Now I have that problem of commitment.  That is, I take my time before I commit and then I jump in the deep end, sink of swim, do or die.  I too, have a fear of failure.  But I will take the chance, try to do what I perceive as impossible and then do it.  It’s a difficult feeling to convey to others, I assure you.  But Marshall would never jump.  He would never take that chance to do or die.

 

We might look at his family and start to see some of the answers.  Dear old Dad was successful from what I have been told, amassed a few million in fortune.  Older brother John started an electronics company, was one of those geniuses whom the university had little to teach him.  Even sister Sarah found a sort of fame in the social sciences.  Marshall was the youngest and perhaps that is what made the difference.  Marshall turned to drugs and drug dealing.  He went through his share of the family fortune is a few years and found his business had gone bankrupt.  I wonder why.  Eventually Bebe left him.  funny that she turned to real estate as her method of supporting herself.  She left for another city and I never saw her again.  The last I heard of Marshall was that he was on the run from the one of the Colombian cartels, had burned some cartel underlings and was wanted by the feds.  After that he was supposedly doing ten years in federal prison and in some informant program and who knows what.  the friends, both childhood and adult, have never heard from him since, and that was thirty five years ago.  Sad, all one can say is, sad.  I am several states removed from that old circle of friends, only a few remain known to me.  I live more modestly these days, I am retired and no overtime nor millions in savings.  The old day are gone.  Would i welcome Marshall back into my life?  Perhaps, but I would ever be wary.  He burned his closest friend and I was lucky not to be among them.  But I don’t expect to see him here, in this state.  It’s too far from his memories.