Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Twillbear Part 7

Hi, folks... I'm going to be out of town tomorrow and Friday, so I won't be able to post anything else until this weekend. Thanks for your support and your indulgence... Bob

McDonalds certainly is not Starbucks, a realization that brought Shirley Hagerman a great deal of comfort. Suffering from a world-class coffee jones was bad enough, she figured, without having to pay four bucks a cup for it. True enough, McDonalds only offered regular or decaf, but if she really wanted something more exotic, the market offered myriad possibilities. Besides, she enjoyed coming in for a few minutes early in the morning before work, just to relax and watch the senior citizen men, farmers mostly, who commandeered the lion’s share of the tables closest to the restrooms. Surely they couldn’t all be widowers… she couldn’t understand why none of their wives insisted on joining them. Of course, judging from the laughter emerging from the area, most of the stories probably weren’t fit for mixed company. Maybe it was better this way… mother could get a couple of extra hours sleep and papa wasn’t occupying a stool at the corner bar; a win-win situation if ever there was one.

Sitting here at the Golden Arches, Shirley did miss one feature that The Endless Urn had offered before Dick Sterling died suddenly, leaving Thelma a thriving business that she ran into the ground almost before the dirt on Dick’s grave had completely settled— a clock. These days the concept of time held a different significance in Shirley’s mind, as though events of the past had begun to stack up behind her, threatening to topple over and come crashing down onto the present. Nervously, she checked and re-checked her watch, fidgeting with her cup and crossing and re-crossing her legs. Where the hell are you Tish? Come on… I need to go to work! She’d called her daughter last night at Chubby’s and arranged to meet this morning, but it now appeared she wouldn’t show. Finally, at 8:04, she picked up her cup and napkin from the table and walked to her car. If she were not sitting in her appointed seat in 11 minutes, smiling sweetly, Larry Sherman would have a coronary… figuratively speaking, of course…dammit.

As Shirley drove along Banker Avenue, she stopped at the four-way stop sign placed to control traffic at the intersection with Grove Street. Glancing into the back parking lot of Chubby’s, she saw the back end of Harper LaGrange’s silver Firebird pull out onto Grove. She made out a dark form in the passenger’s seat that could only be Tish. Angry now, Shirley screeched her tires as she made the right turn onto Grove. Okay, asshole, you’re messing with the wrong woman now. At 8:02 a.m., Shirley Hagerman decided that time no longer had any meaning; Plains Distributors and Larry Sherman himself could kiss her ass… she was going to be late.

Pressing buttons on her cell, she waited for someone to answer the phone at the office. Please, Frieda, answer the phone.

The voice on the other end intoned, “You’ve reached Plains Distributors, how can I direct your call?”

“Thank God, it’s you, Frieda… this is Shirley. I’m going to be late this morning. Can you cover for me if Larry asks about me?”

“Well, honey, I’ll do the best I can… you sound absolutely frantic, is everything okay?” Frieda’s gum chomping made her sound annoying even when she tried to be nice, which wasn’t often.

“Yea, it’s nothing, really, but I have a couple of stops I need to make. I should be in by nine or so… and thanks, sweetie, I owe you one.”

“Well, hurry as fast as you can, I can’t stal—“ The press of another button left Shirley holding a useless implement that she tossed into the tray provided by the manufacturer located between her bucket seats; she silently praised whoever had designed her Tempo’s interior.

Making sure to keep a city block between LaGrange’s car and her own, Shirley followed the Firebird out of town. They’re heading toward Pleasant Hills.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Twillbear (Part 6)

George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ rendition of Bad To The Bone blasted through the speakers of Clancy’s causing more than a few patrons to strum their air-guitars in tribute to the classic anthem of every bad-ass wannabe rock star in the assemblage, who greeted every drum beat with heads tossed back and agonized grimaces abounding as their contortions revealed their inner artist. Several women in tight jeans swayed to the music, eyes closed and hips jutting this way, then that, in recognition of unspoken sensual stirrings and libidinous yearnings. It was just the sort of ambiance that every guy in the place craved, except for those in the poolroom. Their agenda, while never totally dismissive of the music, tended to focus on the business at hand—nine ball… the gambler’s grand game of skill. Like dominoes, it could be learned in five minutes and never mastered in a lifetime. Every roll of every ball created a new problem, a new challenge. To become proficient, a player needed more skills than just the dexterity to stroke a cue or play position; he needed to know himself—and his limitations. Tonight, Twillbear Hopkins watched the man called Harper LaGrange bully and intimidate all comers, greedily collecting the wager after each game with a smug comment and/or derisive smirk. Silently, he assessed both man and player, recalling others who’d demonstrated similar qualities, and wondering if there might be an inherent evolutionary niche for such people, the human version of the hyena, not without skills, but never to be trusted for any reason. Twillbear watched his facial reactions to every event, noted how he held his cue, where he kept his money, what he drank, the jewelry he wore around his neck and on his fingers, the condition of his shoes— everything.

As the last player put his cue stick back into the rack and walked out, Twillbear half-sat, half-stood leaning against the radiator at the back of the room, arms folded over his chest, in the same position he’d assumed hours before. Glancing over his shoulder, Harper LaGrange noticed the solitary figure standing behind him. Slowly he turned around and leaned his butt onto the rail of the pool table so that he could see Twillbear without having to crane his neck. Lighting a cigarette, he gestured with his hand.

“Come on up and get you some.” As usual, LaGrange reeked of mystery. His thin, dark hair combed straight back with widow’s peak and thin mustache predominating his hawk-like facial features screamed hit man, with or without the elegant three-quarter length leather jacket. His nonchalance belied his stare, and when their stares met, an invisible trail of sparks filled the room. A mouthful of pearly white teeth conveyed arrogance into his taunting leer and communicated his disrespect.

Twillbear Hopkins didn’t move, demanding LaGrange to pay attention. Lose eye contact now and you might as well sulk out of the room and deposit your balls in an Easter basket because they’ll be useless from that point on. In a stare-down, timing becomes the most important element—too short and you tip your hand, too long and you lose the opportunity to return serve effectively.

“You can’t afford me,” Twillbear hissed, his scowl transfixed. The hunter found his quarry and settled in for the kill as he absent-mindedly swirled the ice remaining in his otherwise empty drink glass.

The comment brought about another pause, before causing Harper LaGrange to grin and snort, shaking his head at no one in particular. “No, I suppose not. But just for shits and giggles, why don’t you humor me and tell me what it’d take for you to get your ass up off that radiator and play me a little game of pool? How about that bartender you’re so sweet on? She’s a little young for you, old man, but to each his own. Surely you’d man up for her… that is, if your fragile half-breed psyche can stand the humiliation.”

Without another thought, a cue from the rack located immediately behind Twillbear filled his hand as he rushed the smaller Harper LaGrange, swinging the stick with un-Godly fury and screaming with wild abandon. As he leaped toward his victim, time compressed for Twillbear Hopkins and he could hear his voice echo in his ears as his now slow-motion movements imbedded in his cerebellum. Then, as his weapon completed its arc and prepared to contact his adversary’s head, he saw the pistol in LaGrange’s hand point straight at him and heard the blast. Eternity froze inside Twillbear Hopkins’ mind as reverberating blasts echoed in his ears.

Twillbear Hopkins sat up in his bed, struggling to his feet; his hands frantically patted his torso as he checked for an entry wound, his heartbeats pounded in his ears. Finding no wound, his moans began to subside along with the panic and his fingers found the light switch. The sudden flood of light pierced the darkness and offended his corneas, but affirmed his realization that he was at home… in his bedroom… and the clock radio’s LCD confirmed the time—4:17 a.m. His nightmare complete, Twillbear rubbed his eyes and yawned as he headed for the bathroom. A shower would help bring him to his senses— but nothing would remove the impact of the dream.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Twillbear (Part 5)

Stealth came easy for Twillbear Hopkins despite his biker persona. Both attire and apparent resistance to change a single aspect of his life enforced the image he’d worked hard to create. Twillbear figured that society was pretty much split right down the middle in judgment of biker-types, half retreating from any contact and the other more accepting half simply ascribing to the concept of live and let live. Either way, no one got too close. In the recent past, since the biker chic penetrated yuppiedom and every doctor and lawyer in Los Angeles or Denver owned a Harley and wore leathers, it had been more difficult to keep a low profile. But here in Dogpatch, anyone who wanted to know him already did and the novelty had worn off… people simply didn’t give a rat's ass. Apathy and complacence offered the perfect conditions for him to travel in any circle necessary to accomplish his goals.

An intensive Google-search of ‘Harper LaGrange’ yielded little in terms of whole-name recognition and a search of state warrants yielded nothing. Despite his FBI ruse, Twillbear had no contacts within the law enforcement community at any level or, for that matter, no buddies in organized crime other than the odd reefer entrepreneur who occasionally approached him at one of the town’s watering holes. Twillbear made a mental note to throw Harper LaGrange’s name out if he had an opportunity, but he couldn’t rely on chance meetings at this point. If he was to help his daughter, he had to act fast, so he decided to contact the one person he felt might be able to enlighten him without raising red flags all over town—he needed to see Shirley. He’d recently added her name and phone numbers to his tiny black address book; not because he was interested in any sort of relationship with the woman, but because she was the mother of his only child. Twillbear decided to call her at work, where he had a better chance of not talking to an answering machine. During his morning break, he sat down at a secluded table and punched the phone number into his cell. After the third ring, a recognizable voice answered.

“Thank you for calling Plains Distributors. This is Shirley, may I help you?”

“Shirley… Twillbear… can you talk?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Sherman isn’t in, may I take a message?”

“Okay, call me when you can. My cell number is 877-3234.”

“I’m expecting him to return around 1:30, why don’t you try again then.”

Her voice, although not overly warm or friendly, sounded strangely accommodating to Twillbear, as if she were glad he’d called. Now, all he could do was wait… and think. Twillbear Hopkins walked out of the break room and donned his hardhat and safety glasses. Loading a few trucks would make the time pass quickly.


Rain, rain, the biker’s bane,
Get thee from the area
And don’t show up again.

The ditty gained prominence in his psyche as Twillbear Hopkins stared out the window, craning his neck so that he could better see the sky, or rather the sinister gathering of thick, black clouds that promised a soaker. Times like this made life uneasy for those poor bastards forced by circumstance or preference to rely upon two wheels for transportation rather than four. In twenty minutes, whether it was raining or not, he’d be back on his bike headed towards the Benson County Grange. His foul-weather gear would keep the rain off his body, but since no one had yet invented windshield wipers for sunglasses, the water falling on the wrap-around shades would modify his vision to a dim blur of semi-recognizable shapes. As he drove, the rule did not change— watch for red lights and avoid contact with anything solid. The rest was feel and rote memorization, right down to his butt-weld in the leather seat. The chugging sound of the pistons provided all the reliability Twillbear needed.

Only one car sat in the parking lot, an older Ford Tempo, the trademark second-car of Middle America; the iconoclastic tribute to lower middle class existence, where reliability and economy trump drama and/or one-ups-man-ship. Neither shiny nor overtly clean, it screamed ‘Shirley’. Still, Twillbear respected her choice; like most things in her life, it too would just have to do until something better came along. He turned the knob on the front double-door and looked into the very large, very empty enclosure. The sound of the automatic closer reverberated throughout the gymnasium/auditorium as Twillbear stepped onto the mat and wiped his feet.

“I’m in the kitchen, Twillbear. Come to the doors next to the Exit sign.”

Twillbear walked around the edge of the parquet simulated-wood basketball floor, having been taught from an early age never to step onto a gym floor with anything except gym shoes. Sure, he knew it was merely superstition with the modern surface technology, but somehow it seemed less than respectful to violate the premise. Each step gave rise to the click of his boot heels echoing throughout the enclosure, reminding Twillbear never to try to sneak in here at night, at least not without wearing a pair of Nikes.

A quick peek through the window in the swinging kitchen door showed Shirley sitting in a chair behind a small table, quietly smoking a cigarette as though she hadn’t a care in the world. Stepping through, he pointed at the cigarette, “I thought you were going to give those up.”

The words lingered as though spoken in a vacuum, bouncing off pots and pans hung from the hooks in a line strung across the open stove and oven area. Gina Lolabrigida’s classic steely stare emerged from Shirley’s eyes as she took another deep drag from the cigarette and flicked her ashes in a coffee cup. “And I thought you were going to tell our daughter of your relationship with her. FBI, Twillbear? Is that the best you could do?”

“Is she using, Shirley?”

The question stopped Shirley’s assault dead in its tracks. Shirley picked up the coffee cup and after a few seconds spent extinguishing the cigarette’s flame against the side of the cup, offered, “I don’t know for sure…” Scratching her head and looking away, she added, “but something is sure as hell wrong, and she won’t talk about it. She goes to work every day, so if she’s jonesing, you wouldn’t know it.”

“Have there been any changes to her normal routine that you’ve noticed?”

“Not really, but you have to understand, Twillbear, she’s always kept to herself. The thing is, when she’s worried, she normally comes to me. Now, it’s like she’s avoiding me, or at least she’s more distant.”

“Shirley, is there anything in her past that I should know about? I mean, any history of problems with drugs… or men?”

The woman sitting across from Twillbear Hopkins sat upright and folded her hands on the table, as though she were about to respond to a question from an attorney in a cross-examination. “No drugs, or at least no habits… but her choices in men tend to mirror her mother’s, I’m sad to say.”

“Well, I guess I had that coming.” Twillbear’s tone softened, his own remorse slipping into the conversation.

“Oh, Twillbear, I wasn’t referring to you. I never blamed you for my choices, please understand that.” Shirley’s hand touched Twillbear’s arm, and he felt the same tingle he remembered from many years ago.

“Who is Harper LaGrange?” Twillbear asked, refusing to submit to emotions.

“What?” asked Shirley, her eyes suddenly larger than life. “Did I hear you correctly? Did you really say ‘Harper Fucking LaGrange?”

It took both arms and a now-standing Twillbear Hopkins to restrain Shirley. A thunderclap emanated as she stood, in counterpoint to her rage, and curse words fell like the rain currently hitting the sides of the metal building.

“Shhhhhh…” Twillbear whispered, holding Shirley in a bear hug and rubbing her back with the palm of his hand. “This isn’t helping. Take a deep breath.”

Sitting her back down in her seat, Twillbear grabbed her pack of Winston Lite’s and shook one out for her. Grabbing her lighter from the table, he lit her cigarette and sat back down. For the better part of two minutes, neither spoke.

“Harper LaGrange is about the closest thing to a mobster that Benson claims. He’s a lowlife womanizer with no recognizable means of support and a reputation for cruelty. The law has tried many times to put him away, always unsuccessfully. Twillbear, if she’s involved with him, it may already be too late to help her.”

Twillbear looked down at his boots briefly before training his gaze upon Shirley’s eyes with a renewed intensity. Slowly reaching out with both arms, he grasped her shoulders softly but urgently, waiting for response. When his stare reflected off years of fear and consternation sitting behind her eyes, Twillbear shook his head negatively.

“Shirley, it’s never too late to do the right thing.”

Twillbear (part the fourth)

The drive from Benson to Pleasant Hills, a distance of seventeen miles, offered Twillbear little other than the opportunity to formulate a plan of attack. He still needed to decide how much (or how little) information to share with her. Nothing would be accomplished by throwing caution to the wind, but he had Tish’s attention, and if he was to help her, this meeting needed to produce some answers, regardless of where the chips may fall. Constantly checking his side mirrors, Twillbear led her to Merkin’s House of Pie, a small mom-and-pop diner/watering hole on state county road DD. At twenty past nine in the evening, the supper crowd would be gone and any tavern-goers who might be present would not be apt to recognize them.

Once inside the diner, the two sat down at a table near the back. Tish’s head, covered by a pale blue scarf and oversized Pierre Cardin knockoff sunglasses, made her resemble Audrey Hepburn in any one of her 50’s-vintage films featuring copious amounts of tears and sobbing, and packed with over-emoted, designed-to-impress-the-Academy drivel. Twillbear hoped to avoid the possibility of any reoccurrences of such scenes.

Both ordered coffee and when it arrived, Twillbear whispered into the server’s ear. A quick nod and she didn’t come back. A few minutes passed with lots of coffee stirring and napkin dabbing by Tish. Occasionally, she’d look up at Twillbear, who’d taken off his sunglasses by now. Obviously intimidated, she wasn’t about to be the first to speak.

“Would you mind removing your shades? I think it’s important that we be able to look each other in the eye, if we’re to help each other.” Twillbear’s voice contained the steadiness of resolution and the sharpness of necessity. Saying nothing, Tish slowly removed her glasses and placed them in her purse.

“Thank you. That’s much better. I’ve been told that the eyes are windows to the soul, and I believe it to be true. What do you think?”

Shrugging her shoulders, Tish looked down into her cup. “Never thought much about it, I guess.”

“Then why can’t you look at me? Listen, I know you’re afraid, and you have every reason to be. But I promise you, if you level with me, no harm will come to you, at least not from me.”

“Oh, really? You’ve already harmed me. You just cost me six hours pay and tips, not to mention that little tidbit about Federal prison. You expect me to waltz in here and bear my soul to a customer who just threatened me?” Pausing to sip her coffee, she gulped hard and continued. “I think I need to see a badge or some credentials. Otherwise, this little party is over.”

“What was in the envelope?” Twillbear didn’t move.

“It was filled with none-of-your-goddamn-business!” Such was the intensity coming from behind Tish’s eyes, Twillbear looked around the room expecting to see that a power surge had just made the lights brighter. If her gaze had contained any real firepower, Twillbear’s mangled carcass would now lay in a heap at the base of the back wall.

Reaching into his shirt pocket, Twillbear produced a small wallet with a badge and ID card that he held in front of her at arm’s length. “Twillbear Hopkins, Special Agent, FBI.” Then, snapping it shut, he put it back in his pocket, replacing it with a cell phone. “Now…” he began, “shall we stop trying to impress each other with snappy retorts and get down to business, or should I make a phone call?”

Silent tears began to stream from Tish’s face. The rough exterior finally pierced, she sobbed uncontrollably without a sound, as if a single whimper would remove any dignity remaining.

“What was in the envelope?” Twillbear repeated.

“Cash… four hundred dollars, to be exact.”

“Drug money?” Twillbear kept eye contact while he sipped his coffee.

“No… or I guess I should say, it’s not money I pay to buy drugs. I imagine I’m probably helping finance someone else’s habit. That’s not to say that I haven’t done drugs, but I’ve been clean for nearly two years.”

“And someone is shaking you down to keep your secret quiet, I assume?”

“Yea, something like that…” Again her eyes lowered.

“There’s more?”

“Well, you’re going to find out anyway, I may as well tell you. I’m the main attraction at his little fun circus he conducts in his bedroom whenever I get his phone call.”

“How often does he come in to collect his money?” Twillbear fought to hide his rage.

“Every week… on Wednesday nights, usually.”

“Do you steal money from the till to pay him with?”

Again she started to sob. “Oh, my God… yes.” Now, Tish’s head hit the table as she broke down completely.

Twillbear reached out and rubbed her arm. “Has he beaten you?”

Without raising her head, Tish nodded. “Yes, more than once.”

“Shhh…” he whispered, “it’s going to be okay, but you must tell me his name. I need to know who I’m dealing with.”

“He’ll… kill me if I tell you.”

“He can’t hurt you if he’s in prison where he belongs. I’ll see to it that he never hurts you again.”

Burying her face in her dinner napkin, Tish dabbed and wiped, trying to compose herself. “If I tell you, do I go to jail, too?”

“No, I can promise you immunity from prosecution.”

The look she gave him told him her soul had returned. Twillbear knew the look well… he’d seen it in her mother’s eyes, many years ago.

“His name is Harper LaGrange.”

“Okay…” said Twillbear Hopkins, “that’s enough for tonight. If anyone ever asks you, this conversation didn’t take place. Go back to work and act as if nothing has happened. I’ll take care of the rest. Someone will contact you if I need to talk to you again. Maybe then we can find out the sin that made you beholden to this creep, but for now, it doesn’t matter. Do I make myself clear? Tell no one.”

“My mother already knows. We’re close and I don’t hide things from her.”

“No husband or boyfriend? A father, perhaps?”

Pain broadcast from Tish’s expression. No sobbing or other outward expression emanated, but Twillbear noticed a perceptible shrug as she looked away briefly. “Nope… I’m not currently dating anyone, unless you’d call my relationship with Harper ‘dating’, and I never knew my father. Mother didn’t talk about him except to say that he never mistreated her.”

Twillbear didn’t say anything for a time. When he noticed her fidgeting, he decided to conclude the meeting. “No, I wouldn’t call it dating, not by any stretch of the imagination. I’ll see what I can do, but you need to stay strong and act like nothing is wrong. You just remember what I told you.”

Tish took her glasses back out of her purse and slid them onto her face. “I understand…” she said, and began to rise.

“Wait…” said Twillbear, grabbing her arm. “I almost forgot… don’t go back to his house again for any reason. If he tries to get into your place, call the police immediately. Okay?”

One nod and she was gone. Okay, so he’d lied about the FBI part. It wasn’t the first time, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Overheard At The Derby

Overheard At The Derby

“Look, Muffin, isn’t that Hillary Swank standing next to George Clooney? Honestly, they are so yesterday! I, like, hate her hair…”

“Yaaa… she’s so Heather Mills. Which reminds me, when those horsies, like, passed us last time, I could have sworn that one was Whoopi Goldberg before she lost her weight. Hey, Babs, can I have another, like, little sip of your drink?”

Topsy-turvy, filled with scurvy

I've been informed that that some of you are 'sharing' my work with others. Now, I'm flattered, I suppose, in a decidedly unceremonious way, but I should warn you, you do so at the risk of alienating them for all time. However, if you insist upon this unadvised practice, I feel it necessary to give them a little background information. Those who’ve not read my work previously may not yet be aware of it, so I’ll be the first to inform you: I’m dull. On an ordinary day, I can be seen wandering into many places: the local bowling alley, my den, or perhaps even the Dollar Store, a short three block-dawdle away, if I need more Scotch tape or maybe an Elmer’s glue refill. Outwardly, it would appear that I shlepp along the road of life without reason or purpose.

Sometimes I like to whistle or hum the song that I last heard on the background radio playing at the last place I went into, but not if it’s heavy metal or rap.

Once, I heard some mewing in a dumpster behind McDonald’s and upon further examination I found a litter of kitties. They even let me keep one. I named it Mullet.

I’ve plodded my way through high school, a half semester of junior college, three houses, two seven-year marriages, a series of mindless jobs and the occasional boat show or travel exposition. Little by way of lasting legacy can be attributed to my earthly presence, with the possible exception of the occasional knocked-over coffee cup or that slightly embarrassing experience when the security guard at Wal-Mart mistook me for a terrorist simply because I screamed a little when I thought snakes were attacking me.

Once, I accidentally slapped a soda out of a guy’s hand in line at the movie theatre because I (mistakenly) thought it might contain cyanide, but now we’re good friends. It turns out he likes Jimi Hendrix, too.

One day, I stopped in at Walgreen’s and messed up the gum rack by handling the merchandise. It turns out they don’t like it when the Wrigley’s Spearmint is mixed in with Beech-Nut, Fruit Stripe and Cinn-a-Burst. Apparently, it confuses folks who look for the package color rather than the name. Who knew?

Did you know that Johnny “Guitar” Watson was the first person to use the word ‘feedback’ while recording the song Space Jam in 1963? I found this out while researching all things yellow at the library. Did I mention I tend to get sidetracked?

Sitting here in my recliner, I’m pretty content with my life for the most part. My cousin keeps trying to get me to move to North Dakota and work with him at the window-blinds factory in Minot (he says that they’re always hiring), but I’m not sure I could handle all the hustle and bustle of the big city. So, if you insist upon e-mailing this to a person or persons whose friendship you enjoy, I can't stop you. Have at it... as for me, I think I’ll just sit awhile and pet Mullet. And dream of the color yellow.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Twillbear (Part 3)

Maintaining a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, no matter the year of manufacture or model required time, patience and a disproportionately large allotment of one’s budget. If the engine wasn’t cutting out, the gas tank was leaking around the rear mount studs, if the ignition primer wasn’t gummed up, the carburetor needed a new jet kit. Even something as simple as the air cleaner had to constantly be checked, an engine running without an air cleaner is a bit like drinking water and then eating the glass— it can be done but isn't a great idea. Plus, God help you if the modified direct drive slipped, because you’d be spending copious amounts of time in the garage or hitchhiking to a Harley-Davidson distributor. The prospects of actually arriving intact at one’s desired destination on a sunny day were questionable enough, much less factor in rainy or snowy weather. Certainly the Harley life wasn’t for everybody, a reality that Twillbear relished and savored.

But, despite it all, Twillbear Hopkins would sooner drive a wheelchair than any vehicle with four wheels. Truly, Twillbear’s contempt for ‘cages with wheels’ offered him legendary status in his town. Few occasions found the tall, broad-shouldered man without his black leather motorcycle jacket. If he opened the top buttons of his jacket, a brillo pad of gray chest hair pushed its way to freedom, grateful for the chance to soak up some much-needed oxygen. It matched the hair on his head, at least the part that could be seen sticking out from under the blue bandana that covered his dome.

Years broadcast across Twillbear’s face in a network of deep furrows that gouged a path through his skin from forehead to the point of his chin, offering refuge to an accumulation of dirt and hubris. All of his teeth showed whenever he grinned and a tattooed pair of permanent red lipstick imprints emblazoned an area of his neck just below his left ear— his unspoken tribute to womanhood apparently, not that he needed any help with the ladies. His hardcore, rugged, ‘bad boy’ good looks attracted many women looking for a walk on the wild side. Flattered as he was by the prospects of attention, normally Twillbear kept his own company. Years spent on the road convinced him that traveling light was both virtuous and efficient. Besides, both his allegiance and his paycheck belonged to ‘Bessie’, his 1968 Harley-Davidson Panhead motorcycle. Sure, he could get laid if he wanted to, but it didn’t require her to spend more than a night or two at his place, and it certainly didn’t involve any phone calls the next day— a man cannot serve two masters.

In all his interactions with ‘straight’ society, Twillbear remained aloof and mysterious, his ever-present black wrap-around shades normally hid his eyes, even while he worked as a loader at the dry ice plant, but when questioned, an invisible laser burrowed directly into the victim's soul, holding him (or her) spellbound until Twillbear considered the suffering sufficient to warrant a response. One part contempt and two parts performance art, any gesture of recognition or speech on Twillbear’s part was apt to impress the interrogator. Half sage and half bullshit artist, his words were pure magic. If Twillbear Hopkins liked you, he took care of you, although he wouldn’t have uttered any such words aloud under penalty of death. After all, he had a reputation to protect.


“Jeezuz H. Chee-rist, Tish, what does a man have to do to get a decent drink in this joint? For three bucks a shot, you’d think that you could taste the whiskey, at least!” Charles H. (Fubu) Painter slammed his glass tumbler down on the bar, causing ice to squirt out the top. “Fill ‘er up again, but pleeeezzz make it a good one.” Reaching into the front pocket of his jeans, Fubu frowned and yanked another fiver from the wad he kept there, slapping it on the bar hard enough for everyone to hear the pop.

Arms folded casually across her chest, Tish Matthews stared at her adversary without moving. “I’ll give you double that to hike your ass out of here right now and promise not to come back tonight.”

“Oh, now, Tish… simmer down, you know I was ju—“

Tish slammed a five-dollar bill on top of his and pointed at the door. “Git…”

Fubu Painter paused and grinned at the faces staring up from their seats at the bar. It wasn’t crowded, and none of his buddies were present, so Fubu merely picked the money up and folded it onto his wad. As it disappeared back into his pocket, Fubu rose from his stool and pointed his finger at the bartender. “One of these days, Tish, you might wish you hadn’t done this.”

“Yea…” Tish agreed, “You could be right. I also might have monkeys fly out my ass, but I think I’d have to say that the chances of either are remote, at best.” Grabbing a bar rag, Tish began to wipe down the counter, corralling the spilled ice before scooping it into her hand and carrying it to the small sink located underneath the far end of the bar, up against the back wall.

Seated alone on the last stool, with his back against the wall, sat Twillbear Hopkins. A toothpick moved in his mouth as he intently watched Tish rinse the bar rag and fold it onto the drink shelf running along the back edge of the bar. “Tough night?” he offered, making small talk to break the ice and, hopefully, to diffuse her anger.

Still pissed, Tish shot him a spare me glance and spat out, “Not you, too, Twill, I can’t take it tonight. My nerves are shot.”

Twillbear said nothing, instead opting to hold his left hand up, palm towards her, indicating his understanding. Obviously, he thought to himself, my reputation precedes me. Silently, for the next thirty minutes he watched her go about her duties, snapping at one customer, scowling at another, ignoring several others. All the while, however, she continued to take orders, clean tables, dump ashtrays and supplement the owner’s income by putting dollars from her tip jar into the jukebox. Normally, she might have either shamed the patrons into doing it or challenged them to a game of dice from the shaker cup, but tonight, she was content to stick the damn money in all by her lonesome. That way, at least, she could listen to what she wanted to hear instead of the un-Godly fusion between rock and country that passed for music these days.

A quick trip to the ladies’ room and Tish once again assumed her normally cute and cuddly demeanor, stopping at one table to take a look at Jennie Conroy’s new engagement ring and rub Carl Leonard’s shoulders briefly before she returned to her customary spot behind the bar, the tall chair up against the wall; a vantage point that allowed her to watch everything taking place but kept her out of the fray.

“Need another one, Twill? I’m sorry about my comments, sometimes I can’t seem to keep my trap shut.” Tish asked politely, her attitude diametrically opposed to that of a few minutes earlier.

“Jesus, Tish, do they have an attitude machine in that bathroom? Sling a couple of quarters in the slot and out pops a new outlook on life? If so, please give me the number of your vendor… I want one installed in my own damn house!”

Tish smiled at him and playfully threw a bar rag at Twillbear. “No, there’s no machine in there, and even if there were, you’d find a way to hook it up wrong.” Then, her expression hardened and the smile disappeared as she watched a dark, swarthy, well-dressed man sit down at the far end of the bar. Saying nothing to Twillbear, she rose from her seat and pushed several buttons on the cash register. Checking the register tape quickly, she began picking bills out from underneath the till drawer and putting them into a bank bag that she placed somewhere under the counter. She then grabbed a coaster from the caddy at her set-up station. After exchanging a few words with the man, Tish filled a tall tumbler with ice and poured in several fingers of Hennessey before following it with a spritz of soda from the mixer gun. Tish ducked under the bar, grabbed her purse and tucked it under her arm before placing the drink in front of the man. Excusing herself, she walked back into the ladies’ room.

Twill noticed that the man sat still as a stump, elbows on the bar and hands folded as if in prayer, staring at the mirror behind the bar and refusing to make eye contact with anyone else in the establishment. Obviously, he was doing business.

After a couple of minutes, Tish emerged from the bathroom and walked back behind the bar, depositing her purse in its original position under the counter. Then she grabbed a menu and sneakily inserted a small envelope inside before placing it in front of her customer. No words were spoken and Tish walked out from behind the bar to a large table where a few friends sat chatting and laughing. In seconds, she stood over them making conversation and picking up empty bottles and glasses as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Just as suddenly, the man opened the menu and retrieved the contents, which he quickly secreted into a jacket pocket. Noticing that Twillbear watched him, the man stood up and stared at Twillbear ominously before adjusting his jacket sleeves. Then he simply walked out.

Damn… this is not good. Twillbear had seen this many times in numerous locales, so it didn’t surprise him. However, it did raise the ante and heighten his immediacy of action. But he couldn’t walk right up to her and drop a bomb on her—he needed to find a way to get her attention, and the sooner the better.

Twillbear stood up and motioned for Tish to come over.

“Yes, dear… what can I get you?” Perky-Tish had come back, her smile both welcoming and suggestive.

Twillbear leaned forward over the bar and whispered, “I saw what you just did. We need to talk about it… now.”

Still smiling, Tish whispered back, “Sometimes it’s best if folks just mind their own damn business.”

Taking his shades off, Twillbear stared at her, his eyes blazing. “Unless you have the desire to spend more than a few years in a Federal prison, I suggest that we go somewhere and talk. A tape of the last five minutes would make a pretty convincing case in court.”

“Are you a cop?”

“Come talk to me and I’ll explain it all to you. I don’t want to embarrass you on the job.”

“My shift doesn’t end for another three hours.”

Twillbear put his glasses back on. “Then I suggest you call someone.”


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Twillbear (part 2)

Lowell George never sounded finer as Twillbear Hopkins contemplated the bluesy rendition of Fat Man in the Bathtub, his long legs stretched out in front of him and crossed on the ottoman. Against his better judgment, he’d decided to play it despite its effects on his mood. Fat man in the bathtub, I hear you moan. Cryin’ and a-singin’, laying back in the chair, Twillbear put on his sailin’ shoes and tried to delete the files Shirley had forced him to download at Chubby’s last night. The two spent the majority of the night at small town America’s version of Denny’s, swilling coffee and trying to figure out when and why they’d fallen out. After the first hour or so, the server had placed a decanter of coffee in front of them and instructed them to call her if they needed anything else.

Silence became the hallmark of revelation as Shirley filled the table with photos of a baby girl morphing into a middle school adolescent, then just as quickly changing into a smiling, pom-pom bedecked cheerleader. Twillbear said little, choosing, instead, to listen and savor each word of Shirley’s running commentary. His daughter… what would she look like now? Certainly not a carbon copy of her mother, maybe a little fuller mouth, like her daddy; sometimes it’s tough to project what the adult version might look like, just from decades-old photos.

At some point, Shirley stopped talking. Seconds passed like minutes before Twillbear finally spoke. “Well, there’s no doubt that she’s beautiful, and I’m not being critical, but you’ve left out one essential detail—would you mind telling me her name?”

Shirley covered her face with her hands and began to weep silently. Between sobs, she dabbed at her eyes with a napkin, unable to control her emotions. “I— I— oh, Twill…”

“You can’t even tell me her name, Shirley? You’ve tortured me for three hours with pictures, but I’m not worthy of hearing her name?”

With a sudden lunge, Shirley jammed both elbows onto the table and once again buried her face in her hands, bawling loudly and causing old photos to fall onto the floor. Sobbing, her efforts to calm herself fell short as wave after wave of nausea hit her. Quickly, she ran into the ladies’ room, leaving Twillbear Hopkins to pick up photos and contemplate the confusion created. It would be easy to simply walk away; Lord knows he’d done it many times before. Twillbear, though naturally disposed toward confrontation, tended to err on the side of passivity, especially when dealing with the opposite sex. Years ago, as a small boy, while still living on the Navajo reservation at Windowrock, he’d witnessed a tribal elder beat his wife nearly senseless before being stopped by her lover. The cuckolded husband stopped, but only long enough to pick up a rifle and shoot them both, killing them instantly. Though the family soon after moved back to the Midwest, Twillbear never forgot the lesson— it’s best for everyone concerned if all parties to a disagreement stay calm and try to reason things out. Twillbear remembered his history and merely sat. She’d be back soon enough and they’d talk again. Hopefully, this time she’d see that he wasn’t going anywhere until this matter was resolved.

Shirley Lynn Matthews Tyler Gallipoli Hagerman returned to the table, her legs moving as quickly as humanly possible without running. Once there, she began collecting the photos, not bothering to sit. “I’m sorry, Twill, I can’t do this. I thought I could, but I can’t. I’m sorry for having bothered you with all this, I guess I’m just a coward.”

Before she could react, Twill stood up and placed both his hands on her shoulders, forcing her to stand still. “Stop it!” he screamed. Shirley recoiled, her face screwed into a twisted mask of sheer terror, expecting to be struck across the face. As she started to cower, Twill whispered, “Please… sit. Let’s talk some more. I’m not angry.” Gently, he steered her towards the booth where she’d been sitting. Once seated himself, Twill merely stared at her, his gaze fixed upon her untrusting eyes, her been-screwed-over-so-many-times-you-wouldn’t-believe-it glazed expression, and he wondered if she supplemented her booze with pills or needles. Frankly, her demeanor made him think of junkies he’d known, wretches who’d steal anything that wasn’t nailed down.

For a few minutes, neither spoke. Twill offered her a cigarette and she waved it off. Shaking the pack in her direction, he insisted, “Oh, come on, take one and smoke it before they decide to make us go outside.” This seemed to lighten her mood a bit, and she took one from the pack. Almost as soon as it hit her lips, Twill’s lighter flame burned bright before her eyes. Inhaling deeply, she felt the warmth of the smoke permeate her lungs and her psyche, further soothing and calming her. The cut-and-run urge now subsided and she sat back in the booth and folded her arms.

“Now… let’s forget all about history, hurt feelings, repercussions and payback. Obviously, our daughter isn’t a kid any more, so when you come to me asking for my help, I can only assume her problem involves a vice, bad choice on her part, or some combination of the two. Am I right?”

The woman sitting across the booth from Twillbear Hopkins said nothing, preferring to stare at him, to formulate a response. “Her name is Shannon Patricia Matthews, but you know her as…” Shirley stopped speaking, her lower lip quivering as she spoke. “You probably know her as Tish, the night bartender at the Sugar Shack.” Then, her head and eyes lowered and the sobs returned.

Scenes of debauchery flashed before Twillbear’s eyes. Without another word, Twillbear Hopkins stood up and stared at the oozing mass of hysteria seated across the table from him. Making eye contact with no one, he walked out and drove his bike off into the night, finally arriving back at his apartment.

Sleep would come slowly tonight, Twillbear figured, and not without exacting a price. Even now, lingering in his Barcalounger, in the safety of his own living room, he couldn’t escape the feeling that the world’s longest, most intense shower could never wash away his self-loathing, no amount of soap would ever again make his soul feel clean. How many times had he made suggestive comments to Tish? On how many occasions had he tried to squeeze her butt as he handed her a dollar tip?

Leaning to his right, Twillbear poured another three fingers of Lynchburg Lightning into the water glass and held it at eye level in front of him. As Little Feat implored him to ‘pop a top again, I just got time for one more round’, Twillbear Hopkins opened his throat and poured down the fifth leg of his traveling circus, the Twillbear Hopkins Oblivion Express. Or was it the sixth?

No matter, so long as the images stopped he didn’t care. Maybe sleep would help clear his mind and bring perspective to Shirley’s revelatory chaos. Twillbear recalled his childhood nightmares as thoughts of his mother streamed front and center in his head. The sounds of the slaps across her face reverberated in his ears as his father’s abusive, screaming, drunken voice obfuscated all else. Soon he would stomp out into the night, not to return until Twillbear had left for school. A seven-year-old half-Navajo, half-white-eye would knock on his mother’s bedroom door before leaving for school, warming to the sound of her voice through the walls wishing him a great day at school but knowing that she wouldn’t come kiss him because she didn’t want him to see the bruises and welts on her face. He knew that she’d be calling in sick again today, and a class of Navajo children would be ushered into another room, where they would share desks and crayons with the others.

Later that week, he’d looked out the passenger window as his mother’s 1949 Ford passed rows of two-bedroom stucco bungalows. Quietly he waved at Albert Runs-Along-The-Edge and Charlie Never-Miss-A-Shot as they ran alongside the car, waving and smiling. Twillbear Hopkins would never again lay eyes on his father. Tonight, sixteen days short of his fifty-ninth birthday and reclining in his chair, a little drunk with eyes heavy and starting to close, he wondered if he’d become a self-fulfilling prophecy.



Okay, okay... I know I should probably be working on "Brother Far Away", but this showed up, and I decided I'd put it up. It's far from finished, but I thought I'd run past you what I have, while I have it. Isn't that the way it goes with stories sometimes? They're there, then they're not... I don't know what the title will be, I usually don't decide until they're finished, but for now I've put it in Word as "Twillbear" so I could remember where I stuck it. I'd be interested in any comments you'd care to make. Thanks...

“Forty years is a long time to carry around that sort of load, don’t you think?” The corner of the matchbook cover served as a damned fine file, its sharp tip fitting neatly under Twillbear Hopkins’ dirty fingernail as his focus shifted from nails to Shirley’s reddening face back to the job at hand, never stopping to stare or demand an answer. Twillbear and Shirley, once teenagers heaving and thrusting and sweating and grunting in the backseat of his brother’s GTO in answer to the ages-old hormonal demand for release, now relied mainly upon booze to scratch their itch, content to belabor every point and assuage each other’s battered sensibilities with clichéd bromides and Dr. Phil psychology. “Haven’t we been friends long enough for you to share that with me? Good God, Shirley, have you ever stopped to think about how your life, and mine, could have been different?”

For her part, Shirley expected the reaction, she knew he’d react this way, once told. Biting her lip, she grabbed the hand that held the matchbook and held it in place, forcing him to make eye contact with her. “Twill honey, what would you have done different if you’d known? I’ll never forget how your hair flowed behind you when you took off on your Harley, your heart achin’ for the open road. I didn’t want to be an anchor on your ass, the reason why you couldn’t get out of this God-forsaken rat hole of a town. Hell, Twill, that bike was more part of you than your family… or me.”

Jerking his hands away, not angrily but firmly, Twillbear stared back at her. “Is that right? So, let me see if I understand this. I knock you up— and rather than tell me, you decide that since you’re the world’s only seventeen-year-old professional psychologist, you don’t need to inform me that I’m gonna be a daddy so I can be a part of whatever decision you ultimately decide to make. Does that about sum it up? Yea, you’re probably right… ol’ Twillbear is so shallow, a baby ain’t near as important as his goddamn motorcycle.” Grabbing the shot glass filled with Jack Daniels, Twillbear put it to his lips and jerked his head backwards, allowing the bourbon to rush down his throat, the glossy fire warming his esophagus and temporarily stifling his mounting anger before thudding to a stop in his stomach lining.

“But I’ll tell you one thing, lady… you might just as well have shot me in the back as I drove away, because now, besides living every day with the knowledge that I never had a son to bounce on my knee and teach the cool way to do wheelies, I’ll also know that I might have had the opportunity, had you had the balls to speak up once in your life. I’m as dead as dirt, I just ain’t layed down yet.” Setting the glass back on the bar, Twillbear Hopkins grabbed his cigarettes and stood up, all the while fixing his vacant glare at the woman staring at her beer.

Without looking up, Shirley shouted at him, “That’s right, cry me a river. It’s always all about you, isn’t it? Do you honestly think that a single day has passed that I haven’t regretted my decision?” Then, the anger suddenly passed, she made eye contact with her friend, “And you’re right, Twillbear Hopkins, forty years is a hell of a long time to carry that kind of guilt around.” Shaking her long bangs out of her face, the defiance returned. “But I was the one carrying it, not you. So please spare me the histrionics at this point, will you? Frankly, it makes you look a bit smaller in my eyes.”

“So this is how it ends between you and me? You sashay in here, find a time when you think I’m in a good mood, shoot a heat-seeking missile right up my ass and expect me not to say nothin’? Sorry, but it don’t work that way. Okay, yes, I’m raisin’ hell, but in this case I don’t consider it whinin’. What do you want from me, sympathy forty years after the fact? I’ll have you know I’d have raised that kid, Shirley… I’d have given him my name, I’d have played catch with him just like Ward Cleaver and I, by God, would have chosen him over a crazy infatuation with a motorcycle. But you didn’t give me a choice. You played judge and jury and decided I wasn’t fit to raise your kid, and, Shirley, I’m havin’ a little trouble understandin’ why, because I know it wasn’t because I drove a motorcycle.”

“You’d have played catch with her, Ward.”


She was a little girl, dumb-ass; dolls, pink pajamas and ribbons in her hair, even in high school.”

“She’s… she’s in high school?” Twillbear’s brain, usually acute and reasonably adept, refused to process the information.

Was, Twill… was in high school. She graduated in 1983.”

His legs suddenly unsteady and starting to shake, Twillbear Hopkins sat down on the barstool next to Shirley to keep from falling on the floor. Slumping against the bar, he tried to yell for another drink, but nothing came out except a dry shriek, so he slapped the bar several times with the palm of his hand, causing drinks to shake and angry customers to swear at him.

Shirley put her arm around his neck and kissed him softly on the cheek. “I’m not trying to hurt you, Twill… honest, I’m not. But we need to talk, and not when we’re drinking. She needs help, Twill...”


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Alpine Destiny

Slowly, the old man topped the hillcrest and sat on a flat spot in the outcropping of rock that thrust forth from the bed of Permian granite; a worthy throne or so he imagined. After walking for hours, he felt the pangs of age creep into his joints and limbs and it was nice to just sit a spell. The breeze from the west sang its dirge upon his face as he slowly scanned the panorama in hopes of catching a glimpse of a deer or, perhaps, a sheep or mountain goat on the peak thirty degrees to his right. Now, all he saw was a chipmunk skittering across the alpine meadow directly in front of him and a band of turkey vultures soaring in the distance— an omen perhaps?

“Haaah!” he bellowed, his chest thrusting outward in defiance of the thought, his voice suddenly echoing across the expanse. Time for considerations of eternity would come soon enough, he supposed, why give it more credence than it deserved with silly superstitions and acknowledgment of fear? Still, the majesty of the setting nearly brought him to tears. Time is short.

Slowly and laboriously, he bent his knees and pulled his legs against his body, wrapping both arms around them, securing them as they strained for release. Time was when he could sit in that position effortlessly—for hours on end—not once feeling the need to re-position or give way to any sort of discomfort. Today, he felt the pressure from every sinew; even his hands, locked together to secure the position, struggled against his weight. Damn! I can’t even sit right any more! What the hell am I doing up here? The man released his hands and felt the flow of blood course through his legs, allowing him to straighten them in front of his body. Crossing his feet, he relaxed and picked up a small stone lying next to him. The rock, round and flat, looked out of place somehow. Some of the very large boulders were rounded, but most of the very small chunks were jagged and rough, as if they’d recently been chipped off this or that ledge. His stone contained the smoothness that only eons of exposure to water and wind could polish. Certainly the primordial oceans didn’t rise to this altitude, he reasoned, so someone must have brought it up here. Yes… has to be that. As he slipped the stone into his backpack, sadness threatened to overwhelm him, the same sadness a cuckolded husband feels when confronted with the reality of his mate’s indiscretions. While it was true that he hadn’t been up here in nearly forty years, the fact remained that this was his hillcrest and goddamn it, anyone else should keep his ass off it!

The absurdness of the thought brought a surge of adrenalin or some other endorphins and the man felt giddy and high… his lips gave way to a squad of white molars as he thrust his head back, raised both arms and once again roared “Haaah—hah--… haaaah!” This time there was no perceptible echo. Had he merely missed it? Only one creature is capable of emitting a call that refuses to echo, and that is the duck. Had he, without anyone bothering to inform him, become a duck or did the valley merely choose to deny him the secondary pleasure as penalty for expressing his arrogance? Well, no matter…

Struggling to his feet, with staccato movement the man wiped his hands on his pants, anxious to remove the gravel from his skin—a further reminder of his age and girth. Yea, rub it in… He still had three miles or so to walk to locate his Hummer, that is if someone hadn’t stolen it. Plus, he had to worry about a possible attack by a grizzly bear or cougar, or perhaps he’d slip on a rock while crossing Soldier Creek and crack his head on his smooth stone’s big brother as punishment for his larceny. And if none of that came to pass, maybe a tick infected with Rocky Mountain spotted fever’d bite him.

Only one thing was sure—he wasn’t walking off that mountain. Six turkey vultures couldn’t be wrong. “Haaah!” he exclaimed, and started off into the trees.

Bob Church©8/12/06

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Brother Far Away

Hiya... I've started a new story, but I'm not sure whether I should continue it. I'm finding it difficult to stay focused on the main idea. Below, I've put up what I've written so far. If you have a little extra time, please take a quick look and give me your opinion as a comment. I appreciate your help and input.

Brother Far Away

“Yea, it’s funky-sounding, I guess, but I don’t know…’The Awful Falafel’ for Christ’s sake? Are you serious? Why not ‘Bummus Hummus’ or ‘Abdullah’s Tabouleh’ or how about if you just blast Arab music all day long from loudspeakers on the street and park a few camels outside the front door? I know… slaughter a couple of sheep beside the front stoop and leave the heads layin’ on the sidewalk. And instead of beer, serve lots of that nasty Turkish coffee so thick that you can stand a spoon up in it. Lester, have you totally lost your mind? Do you honestly think this is the sort of food that will stir the hearts and open the wallets of a couple thousand Baptists in Tonganoxie, Kansas? Honestly, I’d be willing to give you five-to-one that says some Young Republican looking to make a name for himself will blow your shit away before the paint is dry on the sign.”

Lester Purdy contentedly rolled the sleeves up on his cowboy shirt with the mother-of-pearl buttons, trying to appear as though none of his brother’s words had impacted him in the least. “I like falafel…” he muttered, not bothering to flick the inch-long ashes from the cigarette dangling precariously from his lips, evidently feeling as though they might add a bit of flavor to the dough laying in front of him.

Swirling the ice in his glass, Tim Purdy glared at the changeling standing in front of him for a few seconds before downing the remainder of his bourbon and coke. “Well, little brother, I like pussy, too, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to open up a cathouse. You need to stop listening to Grady and Mano… you know they’ll say anything if they think it’ll get a rise out of you. Neither one of those two idiots has a pot to piss in, Lester, don’t you ever stop to think about that? Look what you’ve built here, bro, a nice little corner bar that people like; a place where they can come and enjoy themselves and feel like big shots. Hell’s bells, dude, you like making them pizza and pouring them drinks, don’t you? Do you honestly think that with the way the war in Iraq is going, that people would continue to come in if suddenly everything in here looked and sounded like a bunch of A-rabs just moved in? Think, Lester… why would you want to risk all of it by changing everything?”

Fingers stopped kneading and shoulders slumped forward as Lester stared at his brother, the impact of Tim’s words filtering through his defenses, piece by piece slowly and laboriously finding their way into some deeper niche of his mind, forcing him to give them some form of regard. Thoughts generated in remote recesses flashed before him and just as quickly short-circuited before Lester’s mouth could recognize them and give birth to a cogent sentence. After several attempts at stuttering, eye-rolling, ejaculations of jibberish, he simply stopped, sighed heavily and once again fixed his eyes upon Tim. Ashes from his cigarette fell onto the floor. “I like falafel.”

Pending exasperation forced Tim to turn his back, close his eyes and breathe deeply. Pushing his sleeve back off his wrist enough to expose his watch, Tim glanced down and picked up his jacket. “I need to run, Les, thanks for the drink. Please, don’t say anything more about this to anyone until we run this past Dave. You know how excited he gets when you start thinking a little too much. He ain’t a great lawyer but you know how he watches your money. Remember his promise to Momma.”

Pulling Lester’s head close to him, Tim bussed his brother’s forehead affectionately. “I love you, little brother, don’t worry about this. Make me some of them yummy dumplings you’re so proud of. I’ll be back this evening to help you tend bar.”

“Grady and Mano are my friends, Timmy. You should-n’t talk about them that way.” Lester sucked on a bar towel, the effort of the sentence nearly too much for him to complete. His eyes poured torrents of sadness into the room, filling it with a knee-deep flood of hurt.

“I know…” Tim cooed softly, holding his brother in his arms. “I’m sorry.” Then, pushing away to grab his brother’s arms, Tim moved Lester’s chin up with his fingers, forcing eye contact. “Remember that the next time the two of them ask you to do something you don’t want to do. No more ‘ride the piggy’ or ‘Lester’s really Jesus’, okay? Friends wouldn’t ask you to do that.” Once again, Tim hugged his little brother and patted him on the back. “You hold down the fort for awhile. I need to go see Dave. Remember that we love you.”

As Tim inserted his key into the ignition, he thought about his brother’s disability. Calling to mind his own responsibility for Lester’s accident, he wondered how others dealt with the sort of guilt that never went away, never slipped further into the past than a shot of Jack Daniels could instantaneously revive. Once, the kid could run like the wind, stop on a dime and be back at full speed in half a second, talent that earned him All-Conference honors in high school as starting running back for Tonganoxie High School. If only Tim hadn’t allowed Lester to drink beer at his house on his eighteenth birthday, he’d have likely been a star at KU. Now, Lester could count change, pour drinks, bake pizza and little else. Knowing that Lester would, in all likelihood, outlive him, Dave wondered who would take care of him after he was gone. Their brother Dave watched Lester’s trust fund like a hawk, even if he was a judgmental asshole. That’s why he’s a lawyer. Dave made no secret of the fact that he blamed Tim for Lester’s problems, either, even though he’d publicly deny it until the cows came home. This one unstated supposition had opened a communal sore upon the psyches of the brothers and no treatment worked to close the breech. Every time Dave applied a topical dose of self-serving judgmental advice to the wound, Tim topped it with an ill-timed liberal poultice of alcohol, and the patients got no better. The Awful Falafel… popping a Clapton CD into the slot, Tim made a mental note to cancel his subscription to National Geographic before Lester decided that he really should become a card-carrying member of Al Queda.


If he makes me wait, I’m out of there. Tim got out of his Mazda, pushed the remote control lock with his thumb, slipped his keys into his jacket pocket and walked up the weather-scarred concrete sidewalk linking building and parking lot. Dave’s office, located in the garden level of a refurbished apartment complex adjoining a seedy strip mall filled with dollar stores and payday loan franchises, was nearly void of pretense. The understated sign on the door proclaimed neither contact numbers nor any surreptitious information other than David M. Purdy, Attorney-at-Law. Once, Tim had asked Dave why he didn’t have any of those fancy letters or degrees after his name on the door and Dave had condescendingly explained to him that anyone who needed to see the letters would probably have already called someone else to do their legal work in the first place. Tim couldn’t argue with his logic. Deep down he understood that his brother would probably never make Law Review, not that he really knew what Law Review was, other than some grand honor he’d heard David speak of occasionally.

Tim opened the office door and flashed a smile and perfunctory ‘toodle-oo’ finger wave to Karen, Dave’s secretary/part-time squeeze. The two shared a delight in provoking Dave at every possible turn. Knowing how much Dave hated to be barged-in upon and hearing him talking on the phone, Karen motioned for him to go right in. Tim sauntered into the office and sat down, immediately putting his feet on Dave’s desk.

Looking up and seeing his brother, Dave frowned and muttered, “Listen, Tony, someone who obviously doesn’t understand the concept of privacy just walked into my office uninvited, so can I call you back in a few minutes? It won’t take me long to take care of this, I promise you.” Quickly closing the flip-cover on his cell phone, he stood and straightened his tie, readying himself for the weekly confrontation with his younger brother.

“Would it kill you to knock… just once, so that I could die happy knowing that your thirteen years of Catholic education wasn’t a total fucking waste of your time and our parents’ hard-earned tuition money?”

“My, my… we seem to be a bit testy today… I’m sorry, David, I didn’t mean to barge in when you’re talking to your bookie. But relax, my brother, I’m sure he’ll give you another week to pay up before he sends Guido to snap your knee caps.”

“What do you want?” Papers began shuffling on Dave’s desk, the result of his nervous attempts to avoid feeding his brother’s wit. “You called me David, so I’m assuming you need cash.”

“I’m fine, thanks so much for almost asking… and you?” Now Tim put his hands behind his head and stretched his body, causing it to push the chair onto two legs. For a few seconds he held the pose, luxuriating in his brother’s obvious discomfort before yawning and sighing audibly. Then, the grin returned.

“Tim, I’m a little busy today, and cute as your antics may be to anyone with an IQ approaching Mike Tyson’s, could we possibly get to the point of your visit? I’m sure that you aren’t aware of it, but some of us try to plan our daily activities within a reasonable time frame and you’re coming perilously close to upsetting my applecart. Now, what the fuck do you want?”

“Oh, it’s nothing really… Luther just wants to rename the bar and turn it into a Middle Eastern bodega.”

Again, papers flew from Dave’s hands back onto the desk, accompanied by unintelligible mutterings as he covered his face with both hands and shook his head violently. Once composed, he asked, “And what did you tell him?”

“What could I tell him? I just told him to talk to his brother, David. Of course, I may have let it slip that I know a guy who might be willing to part with a few camels pretty cheap.”

Dave The Lawyer slumped into his over-stuffed chair, suddenly depressed and not a little queasy. “Please tell me you didn’t say that to him, Tim. Honest to God, I need to hear that before any other words come out of your pie hole. Throw me a bone, here, little brother.”

Tim allowed a smirk to escape from the corner of his mouth. “Well, I may be overstating it just a tad. But I do think he’s feeling a little…what? Trapped, maybe? Think about it… he goes from home to the bar every day, day in and day out, where he puts up with the bullshit of the same drunks. He lives in a group home, or have you forgotten? That’s depressing to me, Dave, and I’m only in and out of the place. I think he just wants a change of scenery.”

“Ha! Well, who doesn’t, for Christ’s sake? We live in Tonganoxie Kansas, Tim, not Honolulu! However, that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. You know as well as I do that the bar is just barely squeaking by. I’m surprised that cash flow allows us to keep the doors open, honestly. Unless I take it out of his trust fund, I don’t see how I can afford to even paint the place, much less send him anywhere for vacation.”

“Dave, how come it’s always ‘when I do this, or I do that’ when you’re speaking about Lester? Everyone knows you control the purse strings, you make all the decisions, you make sure he’s financially secure… but when it comes time to actually go down there and spend some time with him, you always seem to be somewhere else. Could it be that we’re really below your station in life, that you’re merely making good on some ages-old, deathbed promise to Mother?”

The words sucked the air from the room and neither man said anything further for a while. Dave turned his head and looked out the window as though eye contact with his brother would kill both of them instantly. Nervously clicking a pen in his hand, Dave said nothing.

Tim waited for a time, hoping for a response. Then, receiving none, pushed down on the arms of the chair, stood and faced his brother. “Thank you for your time, Counselor, I’ll expect your bill for services rendered in tomorrow’s mail. You can continue to plead poverty all you want, but I gotta tell you, our brother isn’t a child. Les has needs and aspirations just like you and me. Just think about that when you hire your damned painters…”

Before he could respond, Dave watched his brother walk out of the office. An extended pinkie finger pressed the intercom button. “Karen, I need to go out for a while. Would you call Mrs. Fitch and ask if she has time to see me? Call me on my cell and let me know what you find out.”


“I call him… Mofo.”

Irene looked up from their checkerboard. She’d expected to hear Lester say ‘Smiley’ or ‘Happy’ or some goddamn thing, but ‘Mofo’? Where in the world had he heard that?

“Mofo, eh? What does that mean, Les, can you tell me?” She’d left two of her pieces uncovered hoping that he’d jump her and hasten the end of the game, but Lester’s concentration remained fixed upon the contents of the glass jar bedded with grass and containing one rather large white slug currently choosing to attach itself to the glass wall. Suddenly, although fascinated, Irene was sorry she’d asked.

For his part, Lester rested his head on his forearm atop the bar and turned the jar over and over slowly, apparently fascinated by the slug’s ability to retain its grip on the glass. Then, setting the jar down, Lester inserted his index finger into his nostril and stared at Irene, oblivious to any social mores against such activities. “I think it’s a horse.”

“A horse?”

“Yea… it’s either a horse or you, I think.”

“Me? Why would you think it’s me, if you don’t mind telling me.”

“I heard Charley Washington tell Terry that last night he put that Mofo on her knees and rode her like a brood mare.”

Irene Sylvester recoiled as though she’d been shot. Fighting to stay calm, she turned away and closed her eyes, rubbing her scalp with both hands. After a few seconds she turned back to Lester and put her hand on his arm. “Sweetie, make Auntie Irene a promise, will you? Promise me that you won’t say that to anyone else, okay?” Now, she had to wipe tears from her eyes and her nose began to leak a little snot. Grabbing a napkin from the dispenser, she walked into the back room.

Lester heard glass breaking and sounds that sounded like muffled screams. He put his arms onto the bar and started to rise, but Old Man Cleese put his arm on Lester’s and frowned. “Let her be, Les… it’ll be okay.”

“But, I need to find out if she’s o—“

Quickly, Old Man stood up and put his hands on Les’s shoulders. “No, I said she’s okay. Now, we’re friends, ain’t we, Les? I’ve never lied to you, have I? You just sit right there for a minute. She’ll be fine, I promise. She just needs a chance to…” Old Man paused, looking toward the back room, “Well, I guess she just needs a minute to be by herself. Why don’t you see if you can think of another name for your slug… something a little more common, maybe?”

No protests emanated as Lester sat back down. Perhaps Mofo wasn’t such a good name after all… “Okay, I will.” Lester surveyed the checkerboard quickly before jumping over three of Irene’s men en route to King’s Row. Plucking Irene’s vanquished checkers from the board, Lester grinned at Old Man as he placed them onto the bar. Whispering into his hand, he said, “She’s not very good at this game.”


Monday, November 19, 2007

My new logo

As soon as I can figure out how to do it, this is going to be my new masthead. What do you think? Thanks to Shirley Allard for doing it for me!

Sunday, November 18, 2007



Yearned for her.
Got her.


Bob Church copyright 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Crossing The Bridge

undertoad--noun. A form of anxiety, the chief feature of which is an overarching fear of the unknown in general and one's personal mortality in particular. “Garp realized that all these years Walt hadbeen dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.” John Irving, The World According to Garp

“Yea… you could say he’s ‘rangy’, I guess,” Merrill Keck paused and extended his tongue between his lips slightly, just far enough to pick a small piece of tobacco off the tip. Then, depositing the speck in the aluminum ashtray sitting on the bar, he continued. “However, if you ask me, the word doesn’t begin to really describe him.”

Paddy listened, cautious before proceeding. Merrill delighted in correcting and confounding most everyone who engaged him in conversation, no matter what the subject or how little his interest therein. “Well then, Mr. Wizard, tell us how you would describe a skinny first baseman over six feet tall who scoops up every ground ball ever hit his way, a Gold Glove infielder who’s already got his ticket punched for Cooperstown.”

“Oh, don’t get your tits in an uproar, Paderewski, I said ‘rangy’ worked, didn’t I? Jesus Christ… you are so damned touchy. If ‘rangy’ is your ideal for a man whose lifetime batting average is over .300, whose spot on the All-Star Team is reserved as long as he wants to fly to whatever city hosts the Mid-Season Classic, who was voted Most Valuable Player in the American League three times, and whose jersey is worn by damned near every kid who’s ever seen him play, then I guess I’ll have to just shut up and accept it because, after all, Leonard Paderewski is the smartest sumbitch in the whole fucking world and we all just need to keep our mouths shut, kneel down in front of him then lick his damn boots as he passes by. Rangy, rangy, rangy, rangy, rangy… yes, sir, that works for me!”

“Bite me, Merrill, you sawed-off little piss ant drunk. If you had half the vocabulary you pretend to have, maybe you’d have a job and stay the hell out of here a couple of hours a day.” Paddy picked at his fingernails, refusing to look up. Then, placing both hands on the bar, as if proving his resolve, he continued. “Oh, wait…” he snarled, “that would require hauling your drunk ass out of bed before eleven in the morning, wouldn’t it? I apologize… that’s more than any dedicated boozehound should have to put up with. Forget I ever brought it up. I don’t want to get in trouble with your mommy.”

Merrill Keck took a long drag off his cigarette and held it in as he climbed off his barstool. Sensing a ‘center stage’ moment, he stretched his neck by rolling his head in small circles. “So…” he drawled slowly, extending the ending vowel for a few seconds in dramatic fashion, “it would seem that, in principal, we’ve had a disagreement of sorts. Therefore, since we’re just two guys sitting across from each other in a bar, I guess we can continue to yammer-yammer back and forth, making everyone within earshot uneasy about our relationship’s immediate future or we can cut to the chase, send all the extras, stand-ins and stunt-doubles home, and I can beat the shit out of you right here in front of God and everybody. Then, for the rest of time, you’ll be the candyass who got beat up by a drunk half his size. The only thing you’ll be bringing up is your nuts.”

Paddy began to titter, glancing at the older man sitting next to him. “Hear that, Hootie? Apparently, I’m a ‘candyass’ living on borrowed time. Jeez… I hope I don’t shit myself from fear before he waddles his fat ass over here.”

One quick move and Merrill was underway. Arms flailed as he moved around and through people stationed at or near the bar, but his movement stopped as abruptly as it started as Julie Kevlar stepped directly in his path. “Where you goin’, Merrill?”

“Move, goddammit, this is none of your business.” Merrill Keck roared, trying to push her aside.

Before he could step past her, the woman slapped him across the face as hard as her arm could swing, then backhanded him with the back of her fist as she reversed the motion of her arm. The popping sound echoed throughout the room as all conversation stopped and patrons on both sides of the horseshoe bar craned their necks to get a better look. Merrill Keck took a small step backward and fell to the floor.

Before anyone could lean down to help him up, Julie vaulted the bar and rang the bell used to signal that someone bought a round. “Listen up! Everybody! The next asshole that threatens anyone in my bar gets a free trip to the hospital. Do you understand me?” she yelled, pointing her finger first at Paddy. “You got that, slick?”

Paddy nodded his head in the affirmative, but continued to look at the bar.

“I can’t hear your marbles rattling, Shit-for-brains, I just asked you a question!” Taking the sawed-off baseball bat from behind the bar, she lifted Paddy’s chin up with it. “Well?”

Paddy extended his hands in front of him, palms facing Julie and both eyes now looking directly at her. “Yea, I hear you… yea.”

“Marvelous!” she bellowed again. “Now, go get your buddy and both of you get the hell out of here. Don’t come back until you learn how to behave! I don’t want to see you back in here for a week.”

“Oh, come on, Jewels, you know that I come in here every d—”

Julie took the bat in both hands and cocked it behind her. “Do you have a problem with English?” she said.

Paddy took a step backwards and once again put his hands out. “Okay… ‘nuff said.” By now, Merrill had gotten to his knees. Paddy helped him up and handed him his ball cap extolling the virtues of Budweiser. “Come on, Merrill, let’s blow this pop stand.”

Putting his cap on as Paddy pulled him outside, the little man glanced back at Julie and commented in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Well, ain’t this a crock a’ shit. She sucker-punches me and we’re the ones who get thrown out. Come on, Paddy, let’s go find a place where they don’t allow dikes behind the bar.”

* * *

The Waffle House offered three breakfast specials priced less than three dollars. The tri-fold laminated menu featured two and a half pages of breakfast entrees, three varieties of hamburgers and a chef salad. Come in looking for anything so exotic as fish, chicken or shrimp and you’d be treated to a large plate of disappointment with a side of diminished expectations. But, most folks understood this, and since customers had to sit at the counter and the server was also the cook, tipping, as a rule, was not required, unless you asked for something to be cooked specially or with ingredients not generally included as a menu item. If, of course, over time, a patron achieved special status because of his generosity towards the tip jar, the server/cook might be inclined to be more liberal with portion size and side dishes not normally offered without incurring extra cost.

As unwelcome as their presence had recently become at Hammerhead’s, Paddy and Merrill enjoyed super-star status at the Port Huron Waffle House. Late night customers at the seedy diner had been known to move from the seats they occupied in deference to the pair’s arrival. Tonight, ‘their’ seats remained unoccupied, facilitating a quick-and-easy coronation ceremony when the two arrived and placed their coats on the hall tree next to the door.

Joe Acosta, the third shift cook, tossed two white coffee mugs on the counter and filled them with the best coffee in Port Huron. While no formal competition substantiated the claim, it had to be true, wasn’t it written on the menu? Even if closer observation revealed a slight greasy sheen present on top of the dark liquid, few complained and no one more than once.

“Evenin’, fellas…” Joe intoned, looking up at the cheap wall clock on the sidewall. “It’s a little early for you, isn’t it? I don’t remember you arriving before two a.m. before.”

Paddy stood behind Merrill moving his index finger across his throat and scowling at the cook, indicating that he should drop the subject. Seeing Joe Acosta’s eyes fixed above his head, Merrill turned his head to look at Paddy, who quickly dropped his hands and smiled at Merrill. Fuck you, Merrill’s lips spat at Paddy. Although no actual sound emerged, the walls reverberated with echoing venom, and no one in the room escaped the logic of the implied train wreck threatening to occur if further provocation ensued. Joe’s eyes then flitted back to Merrill, the scowling mini-brute with a large red welt on his right cheek.

Wiping his hands on his apron, Joe asked, “The usual or do you want to see a menu? The strawberry blintzes are good tonight…” then, after the exact number of seconds elapsed to allow full theatrical development, he continued, “Oh, wait… I see you’ve already had one, there’s still a little on your cheek. Here, let me see if I can remove it.”

Try as he might, Paddy couldn’t keep himself from erupting in a horselaugh, his body shaking as he covered his face with both hands. After a few seconds, tears still rolling down his cheeks, he put a hand on Merrill’s shoulder and turned to his friend. “I’m sorry, dude… I just couldn’t help it. You got to admit, that’s funny as hell.” Again, he started to laugh and grab for a napkin.

Merrill reached in his pocket for his smokes. “That’s right, yuck it up, Sheckie, I can understand how superior you must feel, you being the pollock Alfred Einstein, and all. But, you, Joe, I’d expect better from. Ain’t I always taken care of you?”

The accusation, intended to show the depth of hurt Merrill felt, to Joe sounded more like something he’d hear from his mother when he refused to eat his sopas— whiney and impertinent. But, he knew better than to say anything. In fact, he regretted the remarks he’d already made, but short of an exorcism, he knew no way to apply a salve to the little guy’s wounds. Leave it alone, he heard the inner voice say.

“Lighten up, Merrill, he was just shittin’ you. Why is it that every time anyone says anything to you at all that you don’t like, you feel the need to instantly become Joe Pesci? Nicky Santoro, you ain’t, my friend, even if I do resemble DeNiro’s depiction of Moe Green, with my vaguely-Latin good looks and rugged demeanor.” Now Paddy grinned and punched Merrill on the arm lightly. “Come on… let’s eat. Joe, bring my friend whatever he wants— my treat.”

“First he needs to apologize.” Merrill pointed an accusatory finger at Joe Acosta.

Merrill glared back, then shook his head. “Okay, what the fuck… I’m sorry.”

Joe stood behind the counter with his arms folded, not sure whether to grin or remain deadpan. Silently, he reached under the counter and grabbed a clean towel. After running it under warm water, he squeezed it until most of the water was gone and handed it to Merrill. “Here, bro… put this on your jaw, it’ll make it hurt less.”

Moving away to grab the coffee pot, Joe began filling cups for other customers seated at the counter.

“And you’re sorry you said that to a valuable customer, aren’t you, AMIGO?” Merrill was now standing at the counter, his hands cupped around his mouth, shouting at Joe.

With the speed of a blitzing linebacker, Joe opened the gate separating the counter from the customers and began walking towards Merrill, his eyes no longer friendly.

Paddy stood up and intercepted Joe, trying to calm the enraged cook. “Wait, wait, wait… Joe, it’s okay… he didn’t mean nothin’, I promise… it’s okay. He’s sorry, man… really, he’s just had a rough night.”

“Paddy, if you don’t get that little puta out of here, he’s going to find out the definition of a rough night. He ain’t ever had a night like I’m about to give him.” The veins in Joe Acosta’s neck suddenly stood out in the same way they did when Joe did bench presses at the gym.

“Okay, Joe, we’ll leave. I’m sorry. He didn’t mean any harm.”

Shoving Merrill’s coat at him, Paddy lifted the man off his seat by the shoulder. “Come on, fucker, if you’re going to act like a child, I have to put you in Time Out.” Half-pushing, half-coaxing Merrill towards the door, Paddy shook his head in disbelief. “You need to get some help, pal… we’re running out of places to hang.”

Behind them, a still-enraged Joe Acosta pointed his finger at Merrill and yelled, “And it’s Albert Einstein, you moron… not Alfred. Christ, any school kid knows that!”

* * *
The dual spans of the Blue Water Bridge, gray skeletal girders poised upon the horizon, separated two nations, two cultures. On one side, people smiled a little more, seemingly happier to sweep the incessant snow from their driveways and from their psyches, as they prepared for the drone of the incoming bridge traffic. Hope carried by vehicles with American registration impatiently waited to clear Customs on the Canadian side of the boundary, gleefully aware of enhanced value to be gained from the imbalance created by multi-colored currency. By merely crossing the bridge, Americans received a thirty percent increase in spending power and Canadians accepted the Yankee currency willingly, grateful for the opportunity it carried. On the other side of the bridge in Port Huron, Michigan, hope only waited to cross. Perpetually short-sided Canadians, by now used to being offered no such advantages by making the trip to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, merely shoveled their sidewalks and waited for spring, their simple smiles and pleasant demeanors contrasting the perma-gray of winter.

The Venetian blinds, though partially closed, allowed in just enough light to make an impression inside his eyelids, a goddamned pre-conscious omen of forthcoming pain. Merrill Keck sat up and stretched, painfully aware of morning’s incursion upon his stupor. Sleeping on Paddy’s couch if sleeping is really what I’m doing certainly offered little by way of comfort, at least not the comfort experienced in his own bed, in his own house, with his own wife. Waking up every morning looking at that fucking bridge reminded him only of loss, regret and sorrow. This morning, he could add the soreness created by the simplest of movements, his body’s rebellion against attacks incurred the previous evening from sources both external and internal. Stifling a yawn, Merrill touched his face and felt the swelling of his cheek, causing the memory of Julie Kevlar’s punch to cut in line for recognition in the hierarchy of pain.

“There’s coffee, if you think you’re able to keep it down.”

Merrill craned his neck, taking note of the pain created by the unnatural position required to make visual recognition of the voice. “Don’t you ever sleep?” he commented, his voice surprisingly non-combative in the face of Paddy’s yet-to-be-established assumption.

Paddy sat at the kitchen table, the newspaper’s sports section folded beside him. “Yea, I sleep—it’s just that there’s sleep and then there’s… well, there’s what you do. Is it sleep, Merrill? Is it really ever just laying down, just for the hell of it, and allowing your mind to find a place of rest?”

“Am I on the clock, Doctor Fraud?”

“That’s Freud, asshole. Get it right.”

“Oh, pardon me, your holiness. Far be it from me to fail in my acknowledgement of your sanctimony. Please accept my most heart-felt apologies to the last twenty generations of your ancestral lineage, wherever their remains might lie in the Potter’s Fields of the world.” The combativeness resumed its customary place in Merrill’s voice.

A nervous laugh escaped despite Paddy’s resolution not to allow it. “Ah, me… ever the wit. At least I’ve learned that the booze hasn’t left you in a total fog… yet. So what’s your plan for today, Merrill, drink breakfast and then off to Julie’s to suck up?”

“Well, Paddy, whatever it is, you can bet your ass that it won’t involve standing in front of a machine in some car factory, waiting for hunks of aluminum to come flying out of the ass end. A ‘machinist’, huh? Ha! You stand with a box next to a conveyor belt and wait for pieces of metal to be stacked inside. Then, when it’s full, you press another button and wait for the whole process to start over. Whoopee! Machinist… what a laugh!”

Paddy stood up. “Okay… consider me McDonald’s— have it your way.” Picking up the paper, he walked over to his couch. “But when I get home, I’d suggest that you be somewhere else— anywhere else.” Thwacking the sports section up against Merrill’s chest, he leaned down, his head even with Merrill’s eyes. “Read the morning line. The Pistons are giving 6 in Miami. Call Stanley and lay the points. Maybe you’ll make enough to get a room at the flophouse on Fillmore. I’m done. Dude, sometimes you have to hear the voice, even if you can’t make out the words.”

Merrill Keck, erstwhile provocateur and current androgynous twerp with a mind sodden with the residue of diapers he hadn’t bothered to remove, stared at the bridge and closed his eyes, forcing himself to listen to the front door latch snap shut. Maybe I need to return to the short side of that bridge.

* * *

“Did you know that a human head weighs eight pounds?”

The woman in the pale yellow dress lowered her copy of McCall’s and stared at the man sitting across the waiting room from her. “What?” she asked, as much in astonishment as truly questioning.

“I asked if you knew that a human head weighs eight pounds”, the man repeated.

“That’s what I thought you said,” yellow dress replied and raised the magazine to its original position. Moving slightly sideways in her chair, she demurely re-crossed her legs, staring daggers, making sure that he didn’t misunderstand her adjustment to be a come-on.

“That’s about three-and-a-half kilograms on the other side of the bridge,” the man continued.

Again, the magazine lowered. “Well, isn’t that fascinating? A man who can do arithmetic conversions in his head and then spout them indiscriminately as though anyone in the whole wide world might give a damn. I think I’m going to swoon…”

Before the man could respond, the attendant opened the sliding glass door and spoke. “Mr. Keck, the doctor will see you now.”

“Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but duty calls. Just know that I’ll always cherish our little unconsummated seduction…” Getting up, he leaned forward, took her hand in his and tried to kiss it, causing her to yank it away in disgust. Merrill walked to the door and turned the handle. Glancing back and seeing that the woman still stared daggers in his direction, he blew her a kiss and half-whispered, half-spoke, “I’ll still respect you in the morning…” and disappeared into the inner sanctum.

Eat shit and die, creep, Teresa Terwilliger thought to herself as she raised the third finger on her right hand towards the door, just eat a whole bag of fucking shit and die of a fucking shit-hemorrhage. Teresa’s anger management session promised to be challenging.

The therapist’s room more closely resembled a law library. Not a single sink blemished the décor, and had there not been a posh leather sofa next to the desk with the prominently displayed plaque announcing Doctor James Wyrick, MD, one might not have been able to distinguish the psychiatrist’s office from the member’s lounge at any first-rate country club.

James Wyrick, a large gaunt man wearing a brown herringbone tweed jacket and silk bow tie, bounded to the door, right hand extended, to meet Merrill Keck. “Hello, Merrill”, he said, pumping Merrill’s hand like the handle on a poorly-responding pump handle on a cold winter’s day. “It’s good to see you again. Please make yourself comfortable.”

Sitting down in the large captain’s chair behind his desk, Dr. Wyrick put his bifocals on and turned a page on his yellow legal pad. Glancing at his watch and writing the time in the upper left-hand corner, he asked, “How can I help you today, Merrill?”

“Jesus, Doc, you sound like the clerk at Home Depot. ‘Uh, let’s see… I’ll take a sack of eight-penny nails and one of those nifty five-pound sledges’.” Merrill stopped and held his hand up. “Wait, you don’t need to write that down, do you?”

Doctor Wyrick fished a tamper out of his pants pocket and began cleaning the bowl of his pipe. “Merrill, your attempts at wit aren’t impressing me. How much time do you figure we’ve spent dancing around the issues? Let me re-phrase my question, hopefully in a form that will impress you enough to allow you to get on with it. Is there a particular condition or occurrence that you don’t understand and would like to discuss?” He didn’t light the pipe, but puffed on it as if he had, his attention once again focused on Merrill, invisible rings of nether-smoke mingling with the thoughts, the perfect antiphony to conversation yet to come… hopefully.

“Make it go away.” Merrill Keck responded.

“Pardon me? Make what go away?”

“The undertoad. Make the fucking undertoad leave me alone and go bother someone else.”

“I see… the undertoad…” James Wyrick coughed, stalling for recognition to come.

Silence rushed into the room, collecting everything into its mouth and holding it inside, huge eyes of wonder staring at the world.

“You don’t know what I mean, do you?” said Merrill Keck.

“Haven’t the foggiest notion”, Dr. James Wyrick admitted.

A snort emerged from Merrill’s mouth as he nodded his head, “Yea, that’s what I thought. I must admit, though, it’s nice to hear a medical professional admit that he doesn’t know everything.”

“You’re an intelligent, intuitive man, Merrill, I’ve long known and acknowledged that much. Why don’t you try to explain it to me.”

“Well, James, have you ever read The World According to Garp?”

The doctor took off his spectacles and reached for the handkerchief in the lapel pocket of his jacket. “No, I’m afraid that I haven’t… and please, don’t refer to me as ‘James’; you’re my patient, and I prefer to keep our relationship professional.”

“Okay, then you call me ‘Mr. Keck’, then. I prefer to think of you as a pompous dickbreath who doesn’t give a flying fuck about anything except the $400-per-50-minute hour fee that he steals from people who mistakenly and laughingly expect to get something for their money. Only my friends call me ‘Merrill’.”

“How long has it been since anyone referred to you by your first name?”

Grinning, Merrill Keck shook his index finger at the doctor. “Oh, I’d almost forgotten—you’re good. I’m going to have to watch out for you. Anyway, the undertoad, according to John Irving, is a concept of perceived anxiety, I think, towards some unseen force that threatens to take over someone’s life. In the book, a five-year-old boy living near the ocean was warned by his parents to be careful of the water’s undertow, which would pull him under the water and out to sea, and he would never again see his family. Being five, he conceived of a giant, green, amphibian beast living underwater with huge frog’s eyes and mouth capable of swallowing a small boy in a single gulp. Thus, the undertoad was born.”

“Very interesting… please tell me more.”

“I need you to kill the motherfucker—or at least make him get off my back and go play with someone else.” Merrill Keck’s arms were now on his knees as he sat forward on the sofa, wringing his hands as he spoke.

“Why do you feel the need to curse?”

“Why? Does it offend your virgin ears? Why don’t you curse? How can you listen to problems all day long and not curse? Honestly, doc, I think you ought to be seeing somebody about that.” After pausing, he looked directly at the man sitting across the desk from him and replied, “Shit.”

“Mr. Keck, whatever my psychological problems may be, they have little to do with helping you. Could we stay focused on you, please? As you so eloquently pointed out, you’re paying for my assistance.”

“Touché… my bad.”

Leaning back on the sofa, Merrill extended his right leg and reached into his pants pocket, pulling out a pack of Marlboros. Tapping the bottom of the unopened pack several times with his finger, he adroitly spun it around and removed the cellophane wrapper and tore off a small section of the foil. Again turning the pack upside down, he tapped it, allowing one cigarette to protrude from the end. Taking it into his mouth, suddenly he noticed no ashtrays visible. Worse, the doctor merely stared at him disapprovingly, reinforcing Merrill’s hatred for society’s prohibition of smoking. Putting the cigarette back into the pack, Merrill sat back on the sofa and folded his hands in his lap.

“Thank you, Merrill, I very much appreciate your help in my never-ending crusade to avoid any reoccurrences, on my part, of a habit that I now find repugnant.”

“Sure thing, doc, anything to help a guy out.”

“Let’s talk about the smoking a bit, shall we? How much and how often do you smoke?”

“Well, given the fact that damned near everyplace forbids it, not nearly as much as I’d like, that’s for sure.”

“Do you hold out any hope of quitting?”

“Well, about the same hope as I have of playing pick-up-sticks with my butt cheeks or watching a one-legged ballerina at the Bolshoi dancing to Swan Lake.”

“Do you see any possibility that smoking may be your undertoad?” The doctor didn’t look up from his pad as he wrote.

“Actually, I think the undertoad makes me smoke, so he can kill me faster.”

“I see… tell me more of this undertoad. You seem as fascinated by his presence as you seem afraid. Could it be that you’re substituting nicotine as a curative for some undefined pessimism or angst?”

“Is it really pessimism if it comes to live with you and refuses to move out, if it takes over every reality in your life and leaves your refrigerator empty, never once paying for any groceries? If, in a jealous rage it strangles any joy that might happen to knock on your door, dragging it into the basement and throwing it into a dungeon where it butt-fucks the joy every day while it cries out in pain and agony, is it still undefined?” No emotion accompanied the words, causing Doctor James Wyrick to stop writing and stare at his patient.

“Why do you think I have the power to kill him? Don’t you think that’s your job?”

Merrill Keck sighed. “I guess it’s a little like hiring a hit man. I’d love to kill it myself, if I could, but it’s too tough for me. That’s why I’ve hired you.”

“Talk to me about joy, Mr. Keck. Give me your definition of the concept.”

“Joy… for me, joy is the feeling you get upon hearing that somebody you hate just died… preferably prematurely and after a prolonged period of unendurable pain and suffering.”

“Okay, now define ‘contentment’, please.”

“Oh, that’s easy, doc… that’s when you find out through the grapevine that the good-looking girl who won’t go out with you has never had an orgasm and can’t afford a good shrink, so she decides to become a nun.”

“Would you say you’re a relatively happy guy?”

“Who, me? Of course I am! I’m only here because I have way more money than I’ll ever need and while walking by this morning, I noticed that your Mercedes needs new tires.” Merrill Keck no longer looked at the doctor. Cleaning his fingernails with James Wyrick’s letter opener, he busied himself with the task at hand, outwardly contemptuous of all he surveyed.

“Mr. Keck, I can’t help you until you at least acknowledge you have a problem. It is not enough for you to walk in here, time and time again, and berate or belittle me and everyone else you contact. You express the desire to lose your anxieties but you don’t seem to understand the causal relationship between your attitude and your appearance to the world. Or, if you do, you choose to ignore it. Frankly, I consider you far too intelligent to continue your self-destructive habits without full knowledge of what you’re doing.”

The pad and pen, apparently useless and returned to their place on the desktop, functioned as a pretend ashtray as James Wyrick, MD, dumped a shadowy pile of ashes from his pipe. “You’re at war with the world, Mr. Keck, and since you insist upon being a one-man army who doesn’t listen to the generals you’ve commissioned, it is my opinion that you’re headed for defeat. Your enemy is both vast and powerful, and is using weapons you’ve provided. No one could ever dislike you nearly as much as you dislike yourself. Once I treated a woman who felt she was undesirable and unattractive, so she took very small doses of rat poison on a daily basis, in hopes that she’d eventually just fail to wake up. Meanwhile, she receded further and further into her own little world and eventually ended up in a long-term care facility, suffering from irreversible coma.

You seem intent upon committing suicide one day at a time, but instead of taking the poison yourself, you’re trying to feed it to a rat-resistant public. Once they get a taste of it, they reject the provider. Could they point it out to you? Yes, they could and probably do, but after awhile, they just assume that you don’t intend to stop, so they just shut the door and ignore your presence. You see, Mr. Keck, most people will meet you half way on many issues, but you can’t punish them for it.”

“So you’re telling me that I invented the undertoad and I’m feeding him and providing a place to sleep?”

“No, I’m not saying that you invented him, but does it matter? He’s real and he’s got you convinced that joy and contentment can only be accomplished as the result of other people’s misery. You’re feeding his insatiable need for power, and until you either kill him or find a cell to confine him, he’ll continue to ruin your life and the lives of those closest to you. I can’t help you, Merrill, but I can show you how to help yourself.”

“Oh, yea? You can kick him out?”

“No, you have to do that… but I can show you how to drain the swamp.”

* * *

“Hi, Paddy… how’s it hanging?”

“Hey, Luther, it’s hangin’ low, man… too damned low. In fact, it ain’t been up in so long, it’s considering filing for unemployment and welfare.”

Both men laughed and high-fived each other, then did their ritualistic ‘soul’ handshake as well as white folks can realistically be expected to accomplish such tasks, their four or five intricate moves finally resulting in giggling and calling off the entire endeavor. Paddy draped his jacket across the top of the round bar stool and waited for Julie to complete the equally ritualistic routine of sliding a draught of tap beer down the bar, causing it to glide to Paddy’s position and stop. Instead, she grabbed a cocktail napkin and coldly placed it in front of him. “Paddy, if I hear one cross word from you tonight, I’m not going to sweet-talk you, I’m not going to warn you, I’m just going to throw your ass out. Got it?”

Paddy gave her a quick nod. “Yes, ma’am.”

Then Julie took him by the hand and patted it gently. “Honey, you know how much I like and enjoy your company, but, honestly, your buddy Merrill is starting to creep me out.”

“I understand, Jewels, honestly I do. I haven’t seen him in a week. I threw him out of my house and haven’t seen him since the morning after that night. I’d be lying if I said I’m not worried about him, though. We’ve been friends for a long time. He’s not all bad, you know… but I think he’s in over his head now. I don’t know how to help him anymore.”

“Well, don’t make his problems yours, Sweetie. You’re smarter than that. I understand loyalty when it’s returned, but there comes a point when you have to walk away.”

“Yea, I know what you’re saying. But, I promise, I won’t bring trouble to your place, I like coming in here.”

Paddy sipped his brew and looked around. His week’s forced sabbatical had yielded little by way of insight except the realization that Hammerhead’s was really his home. Yes, he slept at the house on Whitaker Lane, but time spent there represented a symptom more than a cure. Now, with Merrill gone, there was little reason to go there at all except to shower and sleep. The philosophers are right, Paddy silently mused— home is where you hang your hat. Gregarious and overtly friendly, Paddy could have become a target were it not for his size. The former high school football player stayed in decent shape, and was physically imposing enough to deter most aggressors. As he’d often described himself to ladies who seemed impressed by his overall appearance, ‘I ain’t bad, but bad people don’t fuck with me’.

Lainey Daniels sidled up behind Paddy and pinched the roll around his belly affectionately. “Say something sweet or die, Newt.”

Paddy grinned into space and sipped his beer. Then, turning his head to the side, not quite far enough around to look at her, he said, “Wanna take a shower?”

The girl feigned irritation and punched him on the arm before flashing her patented Prom Queen smile and hugging Paddy affectionately. “I missed you.”

Taking her by both arms, Paddy held her at arm’s length and frowned, making sure to allow enough time for full theatrical presence. “You’ve contracted amnesia and forgotten my address? Remind me to speak to your therapist. And don’t call me Newt.”

Lainey squealed and Paddy once again hugged her affectionately before planting a friendly kiss on her lips. “It’s good to see you, Lainey. I missed you, too. Have time for a drink and a chat?”

Lainey screwed her face into a grimace and shook her head. “Better not… the old ball and chain is playing pool and if I disappear for too long, I’ll catch hell when we get home.”

Nothing more needed to be said. Paddy nodded and smiled, suddenly feeling a pang of longing for bygone days. They’d once been a hot item and he still missed her softness, her sweetness… her legs that seemed to go on forever. Unfortunately, the sex had been better than the everyday living. Still, memories of her were squirreled away in the secret place where no one else could find them, and someday he hoped to relive them in reality.

“Oh! I almost forgot—” her fingernails dug into his arm. “I was approached by a guy looking for Merrill, it was two or three days ago. He came in here about eight o’clock or so. I didn’t ask why he wanted him, but I didn’t get the impression that it was a social call.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Not much… just that I hadn’t seen him for a few days and that he wasn’t allowed to come in here for awhile.”

“What did he look like? I mean did he look like a hit man or mob enforcer?” Paddy grinned, his voice full of unneeded theatrical verve.

The girl thought for a few seconds. “Well… no, not really. He was polite, fortyish, sorta cute, actually. I can’t describe why, exactly, but if I had to guess, I think he might have been Canadian.”

Paddy swirled his beer without looking at her. “Interesting… anything else?”

“No, I can’t think of anything, except that I saw him talking to quite a few people. But, you know how unpopular Merrill was in here. I don’t think anyone gave him too much information. Do you think Merrill’s in trouble?” The question’s tone held little interest of a non-rhetorical nature, possessing the same emotion as a ‘have a nice day’ greeting to a total stranger.

“Hard to say, with Merrill.” Paddy raised his eyebrows and sipped his beer. “I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, Zany, he’s a big boy.” Lips puckered, he closed his eyes and squinted, expecting a kiss.

“Welcome back…” Lainey purred, moving very close to him, her eyes looking around the room to see if the coast was clear, “and I thought I asked you never to call me ‘Zany’!” Suddenly both her arms surrounded his neck and a low, throaty growl emanated from her throat as she nipped his lips with her teeth, then kissed him full on the lips; he felt her tongue brush his lips briefly as she broke it off.

Quickly, she put her hand to her lips before pressing her fingers to his cheek. “See ya later?” she asked as she walked away.

Over her shoulder, she heard him whisper, “Count on it.”

Julie appeared so suddenly that it startled Paddy, in her hand a fresh, golden soldier willing to die for the cause. She sat the glass down on the bar and removed the empty. “You know, kiddo… sometimes what you see is what you get.”

“Well, well…” Paddy flirted, “All I see is you, Doll.” Now, Paddy’s eyes, wide as dollars, stared unblinkingly at her, waiting for the reaction he knew would come.

“Oh, just drink your beer, stupid. That is wrong on so many levels, it doesn’t dignify further comment…” Julie suddenly found it necessary to wipe down the bar, glancing back at him and shaking her head. “Somebody should have drown you while you were still a pup.”

“Does that mean I should cancel our reservations tonight at the No-Tell Motel?”

Julie Kevlar flipped him the bird as she walked away. If Paddy could have walked into the back room, he’d have witnessed Julie leaning against the wall, laughing her ass off. Putz.


Ding-dong-dong-ding… Dong-ding-ding-dong.

Somewhere in the fuzz of semi-consciousness, Paddy Paderewski heard a noise in the distance, a recognizable herald, even when awakening from a dead sleep— the phone or perhaps the doorbell. Blinking to clear his head, he glanced at the clock. 8:30. He once again closed his eyes. If he heard it again, he’d get up; if not, weekends were, after all, days of rest.

Ding-dong-dong-ding… Dong-ding-ding-dong.

“Fuck,” Paddy swore under his breath and reached for his bathrobe hanging on the antique oak coat tree he’d purchased at a yard sale years ago.

Ding-dong-dong-ding… “God damn it, hold your horses, I’m coming!” Dong-ding-ding-dong.

The wood floors in Paddy’s house strained under his stride as he stormed down the hall toward the front door. “Merrill, if that’s you, you better pray to Christ that you can outrun me, because I fully intend to rip your head off and shit in the hole!” Pulling the front door open, Paddy’s scowl quickly evaporated as he realized he didn’t recognize the man standing in front of him. He was thin, neatly-dressed and held the newspaper in his hand, outstretched towards Paddy. The expression on his face hovered between bewilderment and all-out terror.

“Oh, sorry…” Paddy said in a voice barely above a whisper, “are you delivering the paper now?”

Offering it to Paddy, the man grinned nervously and shook his head. “No, I’m looking for someone. Down at Hammerhead’s they told me that you might be able to tell me where I could find Merrill Keck.”

Paddy’s expression revealed nothing. “And you are—whom, exactly?”

A quick grab into his back pocket produced a wallet. Fishing for a second, he produced a driver’s license and handed it to Paddy. “I’m Kendall Keck… Merrill’s brother.”

Paddy examined the license and handed it back to the man. Offering his hand, he said, “Come on in. Are you a coffee drinker?”

For the next two hours, the two men sat at Paddy’s kitchen table and talked about many things, two men with only one thing in common— Merrill Keck. But, for the moment, that was enough.


Gossamer. Not thin or translucent… gossamer. Such was her touch, when they danced. It was as though she had no mass, no physical substance, yet her essence glimmered like her dress, moving effortlessly against him, every breath on his cheek nearly moving him to tears. Then, just as he moved to kiss her lips, she simply vanished, and his now-empty arms grieved for her. “Rita, don’t go!” Merrill Keck sat up in bed, suddenly fully awake.

“Don’t go…” he repeated. The dream had been identical to all the others, right down to the background Perry Como music. Merrill resolved to talk to Dr. Wyrick about that, to see if the good doctor had any therapy capable of creating some Johnny Mathis or Barry White… hell, damn near anything would beat Perry Como.

No, Rita was gone, and there was nothing in the world that Merrill could do to change it. If only he’d… if only he’d what? The accident that claimed her could have happened to anyone… the truck driver who ran into her would never walk again and Merrill’s 4-year-old daughter, Dosie, lay in a special ward at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, where she’d probably live out the remainder of her short life without ever again opening her eyes. How long had it been since he’d gone to see her? Then the terrible reality hit him. He hadn’t been across the bridge in nearly six years.

The light penetrating the window would be the sun, or rather the winter version of the sun, a somewhat muted fraud turning everything a barely-palatable gray. Swinging his legs off the side of the bed, he yawned and tried to recall the route to the bathroom. The rooming house on Fillmore Street, just as Paddy had projected, was all too happy to rent him a room on a weekly basis. However, he hated the idea of sharing the communal bathroom located in the hall. Most of the time, it smelled as if an entire herd of swine had recently exited, leaving behind an eau de cologne familiar to every farm kid who ever mucked a stall. A red light bulb blinked in the hall, signifying that the room was occupied. Wonderful.

Closing his front door, he walked over to the single-compartment sink and surveyed the landscape. It’s too high. Quickly, he pulled a kitchen chair up against the front. Stepping onto the chair, he faced the sink, pulled the waistband of his pajamas below his balls and grabbed his penis. In seconds, urine ran freely into the sink, splashing a little against the sides as the stream intensified. There he stood, in all his glory, pissing in his kitchen sink without a care in the world. Should he sing or perhaps whistle? Aware of no guidelines to assist him, he merely filled his cheeks with air a few times and allowed it to ‘pffff’ out, rounding his lips and imposing a resistance against the air flow. At some point, upon feeling his bladder empty and the flow diminish, he strained mightily, pulling his unit a couple of times and shaking the head. Satisfied that he was, indeed, finished, Merrill flipped the head of his penis upward so he could check the eye one last time for moisture, then returned his waistband to its customary location. Climbing down from the chair, he turned the faucet handles on, ‘flushed’ the sink and grabbed the soap, testing the water temperature and bringing a fertile lather to bear upon his skin. Rinsing carefully, he inventoried his fingernails and turned the faucets off with his elbows. After shaking the water residue off his hands, he held them in the air like he’d seen in all the TV shows, a surgeon waiting for his gloves.

And why not piss in the sink, he reasoned. It all goes the same place, after all, and there’s no one around to register a complaint, in any event. The city doesn’t have sink sewers and shit sewers, does it? Really, it was more economic, since one toilet flush must take at least two to three times the amount of water he’d used, and he’d washed his hands, as well. Merrill Keck also resolved to think about this on a deeper level, too… maybe invent a combination sink/urinal that could be used by men and women. Stand back, America, the Urinal King is in the building!

The staccato raps on the door startled him. No peephole existed, but the creaky floor would have prevented his attempt to look, in any case. If he was to remain invisible, he mustn’t move. Maybe whoever it was would simply go away. After a minute or two, a manila envelope appeared under the door, but not quite completely through. It could be a trap, Merrill reasoned. If he grabbed it too soon, whoever was out there would know he was in the room. Relax, God damn it! Just let it lie.

Obviously, someone knew he was here, but whom? Merrill had told no one that he could remember. Paddy… Or maybe it was someone looking for the last guy who rented the room, he couldn’t be certain. But he was certain of one thing—he had to contact Paddy. It would be just like the undertoad to disguise itself as a friend.


Denny's Restaurant, while never mistaken for a five-star bistro, nonetheless offered Merrill Keck a spot to wile away the mornings. Same table every day, and if it was occupied, no problem, he’d wait. These days, his natural suspicion of the undertoad brought forth even greater diligence in his dealings with all people, strangers especially.

Today, he sat, deep in thought. A manila envelope lay on the table unopened, the same manila envelope slid under his door earlier this morning. Merrill eyed the other clientele suspiciously, eager to catch anyone watching him or diverting his eyes when Merrill looked his way. So far, nothing attracted his attention; perhaps it would be safe to insert his knife under the flap and open it. But what if there’s anthrax inside, or neurolysin, for God’s sake?

Merrill’s mannerisms, carefully choreographed during his four decades of battle with his environment, annoyed practically everyone he’d ever met. Over the years, the servers at Denny’s were no different, often drawing straws to see who would be forced to wait on him.

The morning rush complete, Tiffany Springs took the time to scan her service area. To her disdain, she watched powerlessly as the curtain went up on the Merrill Keck Theatre for the Bizarre. He’d turned his empty coffee cup upside down on the table, his standard oh-so-subtle reminder that she’d taken more than thirty seconds to recognize him by filling his cup. Tiffany silently poured his coffee, promised to be ‘right back’ and walked back into the kitchen, where she peeked around the corner to watch him conduct his ritual.

First, making sure the handle of the cup faced to his left, he grabbed a packet of artificial creamer. Next, holding the creamer in his right hand, he flicked it several times to ensure that the contents didn’t spill out as he tore open the right one-third of the packet. Then, satisfied he’d successfully completed this critical step, he'd tap (never pour or shake) the creamer into the brew, stirring constantly with his left hand. At precisely the right time, he'd stop tapping, hold the remaining contents of the packet to the light, take out a pen and mark the level on the side of the packet before setting it back down on the table, being careful to prop it up between the salt and pepper shakers.

Tiffany grinned and rolled her eyes at Marla and Toni, who stifled giggles as they watched. “Pathetic…” she whispered to Toni. “I got a week’s paycheck says he irons his shorts.”

"Shhhhh..." Tiffany held her finger up and shook her head at the other two, "let him finish... Where in the hell do you suppose he's from? I've never seen anything like this!"

Act Two began as Merrill positioned packets of honey strategically to his right, in rows of two, just to the left of the ketchup bottle. With short but delicate fingers, he picked up the packet nearest to the center of the table, read the contents on the back, then, satisfied that he could trust the manufacturer to indeed put honey inside the packet, clipped the tip off the corner with a small fingernail clipper extracted from his jacket pocket.

"Damn…" Jerome Hackstraw whispered to the trio of servers, shaking his head in pity. Jerome, the night manager, after completing his ten-hour shift of baby-sitting drunks, didn’t look forward to his inevitable confrontation with Merrill. Jerome tried to overlook him if humanly possible, not wishing to risk the bad karma received from provoking a basket case.

"Can't you ladies find something to do, other than ridicule that poor bastard?"

Jerome watched as the three scrambled hither and yon, feigning activity at the closest venue they could find. Watching them scurry, Jerome's white teeth showed brightly as he took their place at the corner. It was his turn to watch. He'd witnessed this performance many times, but it never failed to make him smile.

By now, Merrill was lost in his work, oblivious to the world. If for the only time in his day, for the next few seconds, Merrill became master of his domain. Nothing could happen without his knowledge. Holding his right index finger straight out in front of him, he squeezed a neat row of honey onto it. Picking up the coffee cup with his left hand, he filled his mouth about three-quarters full with coffee and tilted his head back a little. Then, sticking his finger in his mouth, he sucked off the coffee-softened honey. Eyes closed in recognition of Fool’s Nirvana, he savored the mixture and swallowed, smacking his lips in pleasure. Once sated, he opened his eyes and looked around the room. Why did everyone suddenly avert his or her eyes from him? Get a good look, morons… you’ve never seen a guy drink a cup of coffee, for Christ's sake? He continued the ritual, finally draining the cup and setting it on the table right side up.

There was still the matter of the manila envelope. Satisfied that the CIA could not possibly be interested in him and that Julie Kevlar or Joe Acosta hadn’t paid anyone to have him whacked, Merrill slid his butter knife blade under the flap and tugged. Opening the flap, Merrill took out the single sheet of unlined paper. Scrawled in blue ink were the words

Please come home. Dosie is
asking for her daddy.


As he began to reach inside, Tiffany Springs surprised him. “Can I warm your coffee, sir?”

Clearing his throat, Merrill replied, “Uh— no, I believe I’ve had enough for now… but thanks for asking.” Picking up the check, Merrill folded the manila envelope under his arm and walked to the cash register. Reaching in his wallet, he looked up at Jerome’s tall, sleek form looming over him from behind the counter.

"How much, my good man?" Merrill inquired, handing the check to the large, black man standing in front of him.

Jerome looked at Merrill, punched a couple of keys, and said, "Seventy-nine cents, Merrill. Just like every other day. That is, unless you'd care to pay for all the honey you've consumed during your morning rituals for the past six years. In that case, your bill comes to around three thousand dollars."

"I don't think I care for your tone, Jerome, especially in light of the fact that your waitresses are getting more and more inefficient in the execution of their duties to your customers", Merrill snapped back.

"Well, sir, could that, in any way, be due to the fact that you have never once left any form of gratuity which didn't involve your hand-written witticisms and/or telephone number scrawled semi-coherently on a napkin?" The Denny's night manager folded his arms and glared at Merrill.

"Listen, Jerome, I've never caused problems here. I've always paid in cash and for the most part, I've kept my thoughts to myself. I am under no obligation to supplement their salary out of my own pocket. If you choose not to pay them a livable wage and if they are willing to work for it, that forms a contract between you and them. I am not bound by it."

"Oh, shit… now look what you’ve done—you've gone and made me cry, I feel so bad.” Jerome wiped crocodile tears from his eyes with his fists before continuing. “Ebenezer Scrooge is my great-grandfather on my mother's side, so I can't help myself. I'll tell you what, Mr. Gates, I'm taking out my wallet. Situated inside is a collection of currency that will likely exceed what you spend in here in six months. If you will promise to take it and walk out of here, promising never to return, I will gladly put this money in your well-licked right hand!" As Jerome stuck the bills in Merrill's chest, the two men glared at each other with a silence born of frustration.

Expressionless, Merrill stepped backwards, made a self-righteous gesture and uttered, "While we're on the subject, I'd appreciate it if I could get clean utensils tomorrow." Pivoting, he walked toward the front door, his armor of indignation gleaming.

Jerome chased him around the counter, shouting, "Why's that, you two-bit chiseler? You don't know how to use them anyway!"

The comments fell upon deaf ears as Merrill crossed the parking lot, a wry smirk pasted on his lips, the note secure in his breast pocket. For the first time in six years, he had something to smile about, a reason to cross the bridge. Dosie wants to see her daddy.

* * *