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the old values

The Old Values

The Phone Call

The call came through from Chicago and caught me sitting at the kitchen table staring out the window at Baron, the dog next door that kept running out to the end of his chain only to be snapped to a dead stop. Then he’d work his way back to the stake and make another lunge that ended up the same way. He’s out there year round, even through the twenty-below winter.

The call was from my friend Clancy who for the past twenty-five years has been writing hard-hitting novels that the Establishment won’t touch. When he does get published it’s by small presses with microscopic circulation. And during all that time Clancy was also raising a family, and they had to eat. So he did PR work for the big outfits, ghost writing and editing to hold things together.
“Yo,” I said into the phone. I could hear the seashell sound in the receiver that meant long distance.

“Treavor,” Clancy said. “the American public has lost its teeth. You gotta feed them mush. They can’t chew a piece of red meat anymore.”
“Hey, Clancy,” I said. “What’s happening?”
“I’m back from my sympathy tour,” he said.
I knew I should say something, but I wasn’t sure what.
“Well, so long Treavor,” said Clancy.
“Hey, wait a minute! Don’t hang up! Jesus man, hold on, will ya?”
“One hell of a sympathy tour,” said Clancy.
“I wish you’d made it up here,” I said.
“It was the money,” said Clancy. “I ran out.”
“Yeah, the goddamn money,” I said.

“It wasn’t the money,” he said. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. After a week in L.A. I’d had it. I had to get back to the Midwest. The Midwest is the goddamn gut of the country, did you know that?”
“Yeah,” I said. Clancy was big on the Midwest.

“Shit,” he said.

Then there was a long silence and I heard him take a deep breath that quivered when he let it out. It was all coming unraveled for Clancy, his life was coming unglued, trying to do it both ways was catching up with him. It was happening to a lot of people I knew, happening to people half Clancy’s age, people who’d tried to bull their way through on the toughness of their souls, musicians and artists and writers, some of them cracking and going Jesus Freak, some winding up in the loony bin, a few suicides, others just disappearing. And now Clancy was under the gun. He was under the gun but he was a tough sonofabitch and he hadn’t been on a sympathy tour, he’d been prowling the city streets like a big cat down from the mountains, looking for something he’d had once and thought he’d always have but that had fallen into serious disrepair, like an old car covered with high grass and weeds in the middle of an Illinois corn field, and Clancy was out there with his tools, scraping at the rust, ripping out rotted wires, looking for a remedy to make it run again, to get it back on the road.

“You know what happened?” he said.
“What happened?” I said.
“A fiasco, that’s what.”

It always took a long time to get out of Clancy what he wanted to say. He’s the most illusive person I’ve ever met. It used to irritate me, but eventually I realized he was having the problem with the contradictions, that everything came into his mind packing its contradiction right along with it, which makes talk hard, makes it almost impossible, and what finally came out got sifted through a complicated network of sieves and strainers so that if you didn’t understand what he was struggling with, you had a hard time interpreting his words.

“Yeah, life’s a fiasco alright,” I said.
“Everyone has his problems,” said Clancy.
“Yeah,” I said.

He took another one of those long quivering breaths. “Look,” he said, “I’m going to let you go. Say hello to Sandra for me. Give her my love. Give her the love of an old man.”

“Oh, bullshit!” I said. “That is pure bullshit, Clancy.
He took in another deep breath and chuckled. “Know what happened when I went to see my kid brother?” he said.
“What?”
“We sat there eating supper and talking small talk, and I was getting ready to spring it on him, about the divorce and all, and do you know what he says?”
“What?”
” ‘I’m getting divorced,’ that’s what he says. Jesus! I fly down to Atlanta from Chicago to tell him about how my life is falling apart, and he talks all night about his divorce.”
I laughed.
“Well, so long Trevor,” Clancy said again.
“Hey, wait! What happened when you got to Arizona? What did Carol have to say?” Carol was a young English professor who was part of the reason Clancy was getting a divorce.
“You want to hear the whole fiasco?”
“Sure, let’s hear it.”
“She drives out to the airport, checks into a motel with me, and when we’re in bed she says, “We can’t do anything. There’s another man.”
I really laughed then. I laughed and laughed and watched Baron make a lunge so hard it flipped him over on his back.
“Pretty funny, huh?” said Clancy, but I could tell he was amused too.
“Jesus, what a sympathy tour,” I said.
“Yeah. I told her, ‘Jesus H. Christ, Carol. You come all the way to the airport, check into a motel with me, get into bed and tell me you want a platonic relationship?’ When I woke up the next morning she was sleeping on the floor with a blanket over her.”
Clancy had a coughing fit.
“What happened in L.A.?” I said. “Why the Christ did you go to Los Angeles?”
“My best friend lives in L.A. I hadn’t seen him in eighteen years. We went through some shit together, in the army and after the army and before the army. We grew up in the same neighborhood in Chicago.”
“How’d it go?”
I heard him take a big gulp of whatever it was he was drinking there in Chicago.
“He’s a Jehovah’s Witness,” Clancy said.
“A what?”
“You heard me. A Jehovah’s Witness. Watch Towers all over the place. I unloaded my whole divorce story on him and he told me I was a lost lamb and that Jesus would step up to the plate and knock one over the fence for me. I knew I was lost when I got on the plane in Chicago and started flying all over the country, but I had my doubts about Jesus straightening things out.”

I didn’t know what to say back, and then Clancy said: “Trevor, what’s happening to the old values?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve got one more unemployment check,” he said, “and that’s it.”
I didn’t know he was on unemployment, and it gave me a strange feeling in my gut.

“They don’t treat you right down there,” Clancy said. “I have a right to the money, I’ve been paying into unemployment all my life, but they treat me like shit. Now you tell me, Trevor: who’s got the old values anymore?”

“Some people,” I said. “Some people have them.”
“I don’t know,” Clancy said, and I heard him light a cigarette and take a deep drag. “Nothing makes sense anymore,” he said.
“You gotta hang in there, Clancy,” I said. “You just gotta hang in. Don’t let the bastards get you down. Things will turn around. Fight.”
“I’ve been fighting all my life,” he said.
“Well, fight some more,” I said.
“Trevor,” he said, and I knew he was done talking. “Give my love to Sandra.”
“So long Clancy,” I said.
He hung up.

Where I Live

I live in Harmony, a small town in the Inland Empire of Washington state, cattle and wheat country. There’s not much here besides a food-processing plant and a state college. At one time, when the railroad first came through, Harmony was a hub of commerce–there were six whore houses, nine churches and ten bars back in 1897, a sure sign of prosperity. The whore houses are gone now, and the train station is the loneliest place in town, but the churches and bars are still going strong, and unemployment is holding steady at 15%. If the college were to fold, Harmony would fold right along with it.

After Clancy hung up I opened a can of Campbell’s bean soup, wolfed it down along with a slice of stale bread, smoked a number and walked into town, leaning into the wind and heading for the bars. clomping along in the cowboy boots I found in the basement of the house Sandra and I rented when we came up here from the Bay Area. I’m not a cowboy by any stretch of the imagination, I’m an over-aged hippie with a beard and hair down to my asshole, but I was trying to fit into my new surroundings, and I thought the boots were a step in the right direction.
It wasn’t how I’d planned to spend the day, but after Clancy’s call, I needed a drink. I walked into the Branding Iron, ordered up a pitcher, and put my quarter on the green felt cushion of the pool table.

By the time Sandra walked in at 8 p.m. I was feeling no pain. The Branding Iron was full of people feeling no pain, shooting pool and putting down the beer. The place was filled with smoke that hovered in a thick cloud just inches above the tallest man’s head.

I was in an expansive mood, striding around the pool table with my cue clutched in my left hand like a club, talking a blue streak, talking about how amazing that last shot was, about how the wind never stops blowing in this god-forsaken place, about how I wished the hell I’d stayed in the Bay Area, and about my friend Clancy who’d called to tell me that the little guy always takes it in the shorts, and what ever happened to the old values?

Blam! I banked the five ball into the corner pocket and strode around the table for my next shot, chalking my stick as I went, talking and talking and talking to a bar full of rednecks and Mexicans and old winos. I was talking and talking and thinking I shouldn’t be talking and then I saw Sandra standing just inside the door in her pioneer dress, her blond hair cascading over her shoulders.
“Sandra!” I sang out. “I’m kicking ass on this pool table! I’m hot as a two-dollar pistol!”
Sandra seemed uptight, but that’s how she gets when I get expansive. And then I remembered–the opening. The faculty show opening. Which was right that moment in progress at the college where Sandra was an art instructor.

“Holy shit!” I exclaimed. “I forgot!”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll go alone. I don’t mind. You won’t enjoy it anyway.”
“No!” I said. “I want to go!” I was feeling so expansive I was ready to go to an art opening.
“Well, then we have to go right now,” she said.
“Okay!” I said, sank the eight ball in a side pocket and gave up the table.
Then I began inviting everyone in the bar to come with us. “Hey, you’re all invited!” I called out. “An art show! Up at the college!”
People looked at me like I was from Mars and had lost my mind, all except a guy at the far end of the bar. “Do they have photography?” he asked.
“Hell yes!” I said.
“Not much I don’t think,” said Sandra.
“What about Zabrinski and Webb?” I said.
“Yes, well, but I don’t think–“
I cut her off. “You up for it?” I said to the guy at the end of the bar.
“Sure,” he said. “I’m just passing through town, but sure. Why not?”
We waited for him while he got himself organized. He was missing all of his right leg and about half his right arm. He had one of those hooks.

The Opening

The guy’s name was Truck. He stepped on a mine in Nam on the last day of his tour. On the way out the door Truck got two six packs of Bud to go that he handled just fine. He had crutches.

Sandra led us to where she’d parked the van, and we all got in. Truck popped open three beers and lit up a joint. We drove off.

If an opening has spiked punch, it has a chance of getting off the ground, but this one had coffee and donuts. We walked into the gallery which was full of people standing in clusters, sipping coffee and nibbling on donuts and staring grimly at the art.

We drifted apart once we were inside, and then here comes Truck, swinging my way on his crutches, excited like a little kid.

He tapped me with his hook. “Come look at this,” he said.
I followed him, and he stopped in front of Sandra’s woodpile painting.
“Look at that!” he said. “Will you look at that?”
People moved away from us.
“That’s Sandra’s, man!” I said. “Sandra did that!”
“She can paint!” said Truck.
People were staring at us from all over the room.
“What’s happening?” I said in a loud voice, throwing my arms up and turning in a slow circle.
Everyone turned away.

Truck and I started going up to things and touching them, an art-opening no-no. We were touching sculpture and paintings and photographs, and there was one photograph with directions under it to look directly at it and cross your eyes and the thing would turn 3-D. We stood there crossing our eyes, but we couldn’t make it happen, and Truck and I got to laughing and couldn’t stop.

“This isn’t California!” someone called out in a stern voice, which made us laugh even harder.
“You can say that again,” Truck said, and I walked over to a huge vase that the pottery instructor had made. I peered into the big hollow darkness of it, stuck my head inside, and bellowed.
“WAAAAoooo!” I went. “WAAAAoooo!”

“Trevor! Please! No more!” It was Sandra, pulling on my arm.
I came up out of the vase in the middle of a dissertation. “What do you mean, no more? What’s all this pussy-footing bullshit? What is all this subservient mush? What’s art doing trapped in a goddamn college, kissing ass for security and a paycheck?”
The room went silent.
“Let’s go,” Sandra said.
“Suits me,” I said. “Coming Truck?”
“You better believe it,” said Truck, and we marched out in single file–little Sandra with her golden fleece, Truck with what was left of his extremities, and me, full of righteous indignation.

Maggie White Whale

I headed up the valley on the old county road, Sandra next to me and Truck in back lying on the platform and looking up at the stars through the sun roof. We were going to Maggie White Whale’s.

Maggie White Whale is an Aleut. She came down from Alaska for reasons no one knows and she lives in an old farm house.

People say a lot of things about Maggie White Whale. They say she’s crazy. They say she’s a witch. They say she eats rats and spiders and puts spells on little children and curses on the crops and the cows. They blame her for bad winters and dry summers. They blame her when the river floods and when it goes dry. And every now and then it becomes necessary for a bunch of valley people to get together and drive out to Maggie’s farm house at night and throw rocks through her windows. Or burn crosses on her fields. Or mutilate her goats and chickens. They have to let off steam or who knows what might happen? Maggie weathers these little storms. After awhile she got so she could sleep right through it.

Maggie paints and supplements her income reading palms, and the same people who break her windows at night pay to have their palms read in broad daylight.

We drove the van around back. We went inside and found Maggie sitting by candlelight at the kitchen table in a black silk robe with yellow half moons on it. She lit several kerosene lamps and offered to put on coffee, but we told her we had some beer and she said great, let’s get loaded. She broke out a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

We sat around drinking the whiskey and talking about this and that and then the talk turned to suffering. We looked to Truck to tell us about it, because of what the war had done to him, and he said yeah, he could always count on his missing leg and his hook to get him free drinks and a piece of ass, but as far as suffering went, he didn’t know anymore about it than anyone else. The important thing about suffering, Truck said, is to learn how to get away from it–too much suffering will drive you insane. And then he said something interesting. “Suffering is in the mind,” he said. The worst suffering I did wasn’t when I got my leg and arm blown off, it was after, when I was out of the hospital and had to adjust. I was an all-state quarterback in high school.” The he took a hit from the Jack Daniel’s and said, “I still long for things I can’t have. Different things maybe, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the longing you have to deal with.”

“That’s heavy shit,” I said, and Maggie picked up C-FUN out of Vancouver on her transistor radio and began dancing around the room. Sandra joined in and so did I and even Truck got up and hobbled around the room on his crutches. We were dancing like dervishes in the shadowy light of the kerosene-lamp.

After awhile Sandra slumped down on the sofa and went out like a light, and Maggie got a little withdrawn. Truck and I got into one of those manly discussions, talking about the wild crazy things we’d done when we were young, all the things with cars and girls and sports and drinking and fighting, and the next thing I knew there was challenge in the air and Truck and me were standing nose-to-nose and then we were boxing. Sparing really, it wasn’t a fight, but we were throwing some pretty solid open-handed punches.

It was understood that I would use both hands because I had both hands and that Truck wouldn’t whack me with his hook. All sorts of things were understood without talking about them. And then I connected with a left that sent Truck crashing into the kitchen table and brought Sandra up off the couch and made Maggie White Whale a little grim. But Truck and I were laughing like hell again and we went into the old bear hug routine that guys do after they’ve been slapping each other around.
Sandra had enough and went out to the van without saying a word and drove home, and Maggie went off to bed. Truck and I finished the Jack Daniel’s, and that’s the last I remember.

I woke up the next morning on the floor with the sun crashing through the curtainless window and into my eyes. Truck was sleeping on the floor across the room. We both had blankets over us. There was a note on the table telling us to help ourselves to whatever was in the refrigerator, and on top of the note were the keys to Maggie’s pickup. Maggie was off painting in the fields like she did almost every morning.

Truck and I drank about a half gallon of orange juice out of the refrigerator, and then we got in the pickup and drove into town. It took a while to find his car.

Truck got out of the pickup and said something about drop in if you’re ever in Tacoma, and I said, “Will do, and you drop in if you’re over this way again,” and he said sure thing.

Truck smiled, said it was one hell of a night, and made it across the street to his car, a VW fastback.

When I got home Sandra had already left for school. I put water on for coffee and stripped down to my shorts and t-shirt. I lit a cigarette and sat by the window, watching Baron who was at it again, racing away from that stake with everything he had in him.

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the power of inference

The Power of Inference

The Committee sent in a poetry prof with a published-books list as long as your arm, an NEA writer’s grant, and three chap competition wins under his belt. He gave me to understand that the obvious comes across more persuasively when it’s inferred and not shoved down people’s throats–the Committee would be pleased if I were to take this into consideration.

“What are you inferring?” I said.

“What?” he said.

I whipped out my dick and pissed on his shoes and he ran off down the road like someone was chasing him with an icepick.

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the way life & death collide head-on like freight trains in a pop culture popularity contest

The Way Life & Death Collide Head-on Like Freight Trains in a Pop Culture Popularity Contest

 

He jumped into the sand pit like a dried-up mud wrestler and the camera swiveled his way.

Up on stage someone from South Central sticks in his thumb and impales a plum, does the same with the other thumb.

The camera pans to catch his act and misses the mud wrestler getting sucked down into the sand.

How far down do you go when that happens? What are your thoughts, your chances? How much horror does it take to shatter the sitcom mind?

Plum Boy goes down on his haunches and begins banging away with his plum thumbs on two Folger’s coffee tins half filled with pebbles. The panel holds up its score cards–3 tens, a six and a nine.

The plumbs get battered to pulp. Plum Boy keeps right on drumming, his trifocals splattered with plumb juice.

The audience either hoots or cheers in response to a cue card.

The global prime-time television audience masturbates, fornicates, devours bags of potato chips and vast quantities of beer.

The dog lies on the hallway rug with his head on his paws and his eyes closed, thinking, “Alpo. Science Diet. Dog Bone.”

Megafiction, mega churches, mega-ton bombs. Almost seventy years after the Holocaust, the hand-me-down story is still being told. The remaining survivors were only five or six when it happened. Until they were liberated and given Hershey bars they thought people everywhere were either well-fed and wore jackboots or were nothing more than rib cages with large melancholy eyes that went off to the showers and were never seen again. Or got made into lamp shades.

Ronald McDonald, nine feet tall and growing taller by the minute, marches into Berlin and takes over the Wurst trade.

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the fool on the hill

The Fool on the Hill

I wrote a synopsis. I wrote a cover letter. I wrote an apology to the Fool who lives on the hill.

Right away someone thinks that’s hill with a capital. Capitol Hill. Not as important as a hill of beans when push comes to shove. Push comes to shove and the Grand Idiot slams his fist down on the shiny red button. Up, up and away. Missiles raining down all over the place. One way to draw attention from a failed economy and a corporate war.

There’s no way to turn back the tide. This thing will play itself out like an angry tsunami. The band will not play on. The band will be washed away with the rest of us. Except the Fool on the hill.

I’ve been driving up here for years now. I drink a mocha and smoke ten cigarettes and stare out the dirty windshield, across the valley at the jagged Cascades. Then the voices start. I write down what they say. This is the eve of destruction, they say, it’s all over but the gnashing of teeth. Rest easy in the flow of things, they say. Don’t hate the man in the mirror, he was just following orders. Back off, but not too far. You’ve taken the high ground and they’ve crowned you Fool. Even the Buddha’s going down when the hard rain starts to fall. You knew all this when you were just a boy out on the Wyoming prairie watching the wind blow up dust devils. That’s where the nightmares came from. And the migraines. But you beat the odds and now you’re right where you’re supposed to be. Stay the course.

Those mountains are listening. Great things are about to happen.

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the nowhere man

The Nowhere Man

He shoved the yellow pad away, leaned back in his swivel chair, rubbed his closed eyes with his knuckles, stretched his legs out in front of him and his arms with his hands in fists over his head, yawned, stood up and went home.

He was working at Jingles, a consortium of twenty-somethings that had delivered the death blow to Hallmark. He walked in off the street one day dressed in rags, his gray hair in a tangled. “My name’s Nowhere Man,” he said. “I saw the ad in the paper.”

A sexy young thing behind the reception desk smiled and said, somewhat maliciously, “What ad was that? For a janitor or a corpse?”

“Neither,” he said. “For a jingles writer.”

A guy with a Mohawk dressed in leather who was leaning in a doorway taking in this exchange pushed off and said, “I’m the Chief Coordinator. Let’s see what you’ve got. Sit down behind that computer and complete the sentence fragments that appear every three seconds.”

“I don’t mess with computers,” said Nowhere Man, and Mohawk said, “Well, I guess that’s that then.”

“Fire some stuff at me with your mouth,” said Nowhere Man.

The ‘with your mouth’ phrasing caught Mohawk’s attention. “A stitch in time,” he snapped out, to which Nowhere Man immediately responded, “For a wounded universe.”

“Boot up–” Mohawk began, and Nowhere Man cut him off with, “Your ass.”

“Well now!” said the surprised receptionist, and Nowhere Man said, “Pay later.”

“Yeah, well, listen–” said Mohawk, and Nowhere Man said “To my heart’s song.”

“Jesus!” said the receptionist, and Nowhere Man said, “Of Nazareth.”

“But how long can you keep it up?” asked Mohawk.

“Until the cows come home,” said Nowhere Man.

They hired him on the spot and gave him a cubicle with the electronics stripped out of it. They sat him down behind a wooden desk with a stack of yellow pads, a brace of #2 lead pencils and a desk-mounted pencil sharpener.

He brought in his own draftsman, a guy he called Picasso who never spoke and looked even older than him. Picasso worked on a light table with pen-and-ink, brushes, a straight edge and a compass. Within a month their cards were topping the sales charts.

***

Picasso and Nowhere Man had been getting written up in trade magazines on a regular basis, and then the New York Times did a Sunday spread on them which landed them on the Jay Leno Show.

Picasso sat doodling on a pad, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was on live national television, and Nowhere Man talked non-stop jingles, which drove Leno crazy. Trying to break the jingles habit, Leno finally asked Nowhere Man in a pseudo-serious voice what his philosophy on life was.

“Ring of Bone,” said Nowhere Man. “Raid kills bugs dead.”

Leno was beginning to not like Nowhere Man. “Pretty heavy, Mr. Bojingles,” he said, and winked at the camera.

A stage hand waved the laugh card at the studio audience, and they laughed right into commercial break.

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the mountains!

The Mountains!

They’re on the hill again. The two little boys I’d seen the day before who’d filled me with happiness by leaning out the back window of a Ford Taurus with their arms spread wide and exclaiming, “Look, Ma! The mountains!” But today they’re on motorized tricycles that, for being no more than four years old, they’re quite adroit at handling. They’re spinning furious circles on the blacktop, one behind the other, oblivious to the mountains they’d been so taken with yesterday. Their mother,young, attractive, sits on the hood of the car, smoking.

“Cute kids,” I call out from my open window over the whine of the tricycles, flourishing my own cigarette in a smoker’s bonding gesture. She looks over at me, smiles, and looks away again.

And then I remember the pogo stick in the trunk.

I get out of the car, startling the mother on the hood of the Taurus. I grin and skip back to the trunk, open it and pull out the pogo stick. I wave the thing over my head and the mother flicks her cigarette into the road. “Kids. Let’s go kids,” she calls.

They keep spinning.

I spring onto the pogo stick with the alacrity of someone who’s spent his life with the circus, my head filling with ancient lost memories, boinging around the center ring with the clowns, my sorrow painted over with a grease-paint smile, the children in the audience screaming and laughing. “Look, Ma! Look at the clowns!”

I’m bouncing high now. I bounce right over one of the kids. I’ve caught their attention. They stop circling, their motors idling, their faces somber, looking for a classification in their meager life’s experience into which they can fit me. They can’t come up with one, and they begin crying.

Their mother slips off the hood, yanks the kids off their tricycles, opens the back door of the Taurus and tosses them in. The riderless tricycles idle off until they bumped into a pine-wood fence.

I’m still on my pogo stick, bouncing higher than ever. I do a somersault in mid-air, land upright, and keep on bouncing.

“Look, kids!” I call, bouncing back and forth over the Taurus. “The mountains! What about the goddamn mountains?”

The kids are screaming their lungs out, and their mother locks all the doors and goes for her cell phone.

***

I can hear the sirens in the distance, and then there they are, three squad cars with flashing red and blue lights, wailing up the one-way road the wrong way.

I clear the length of the first car and crash down on the hood of the second, hit ground in front of the third and go airborne again. But my stick catches on the windshield, and I roll along the roof, bounce off the trunk, and hit the asphalt.

I’m flat on my back with the wind knocked out of me and two cops approaching with drawn pistols. But before they reach me they’re knocked off their feet by two long-haired teenagers on skate boards who come to an abrupt halt on either side of me, hoist me up, and kick off with me between them, poised on their boards and gaining speed on the downhill grade.

“Stop!” I say. “I need to go back for my pogo stick!”

They ignore my request, and when I look over my shoulder, I see a phalanx of boys on skate boards coming up fast behind us. One of them has my pogo stick tucked under his arm.

I realize this is what becomes of small boys who never stop throwing their arms wide to the mountains, and that I’ve become part of the latest threat to Homeland Security.

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