Apache Dance With a Fellow Commuter

It is 7:20 p.m., time for the last train from South Station to the western suburbs of Boston. My point of embarcation, a once-proud civic landmark, is despite its grandiose re-christening as the Michael S. Dukakis Transportation Center, a scene of degraded desolation. Over there, a homeless man mumbles to himself. Here, a familiar street person approaches me to compliment me on my suit–a boxy chalk-striped number. “You lookin’ sharp, guv’nor–nothing like charcoal grey,” he says. I wonder where he acquired his unerring sense of style as I give him my usual lagniappe, a single dollar bill.

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The train is not here, but I know it has not departed or even arrived yet as I recognize familiar faces from my back-and-forth commute; the money manager whom I once recognized on vacation in Florida, his wife hectoring him because she’s “not really an outdoors person”; the woman who wheezes like a pigeon on the morning train; the bore who talks of nothing but golf, his face transported as if this mundane pastime is a cult of divine madness. “I taped the Masters and I’m going to watch it again this weekend,” he says to an acquaintance who appears to tolerate him, perhaps from a desire to do business. “I’m not sure I caught the rhythm of the final round.” I’ll tell you what the rhythm was, pal; 4/4, at a largo tempo.

And then I see her. A tall–taller than me–dark-haired woman, with an aloof expression. I’ve noticed her before, and I know that she has no ring on the third finger of her left hand; she has a daughter, however, who sometimes greets her at the suburban station where I catch my train. A divorcee, no doubt, but not a gay one; she is world-weary, bitter. Life has not been kind to her, but still–she is beautiful with a tragic I-coulda-had-a-V8 air of regret, missed chances, lost opportunities about her.

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Quebrada Bakery, Wellesley, Mass.:  To have coffee here is to live dangerously.

 

I know that she is a bad woman. I have seen her leave her car all day at Quebrada, the shop where I get my coffee every morning, even though the parking is limited to one hour, for customers only! She works out at my health club, and I have seen her take calls in areas that are not designated for cell phone use. On a number of occasions she has spread her purse, her briefcase and shopping bags out on a train seat designed for three passengers without a trace of shame. She is–I know it–the woman who could complete me.

Because it is late, we cannot avoid each other’s eyes the way we usually do as members of a floating mass of sullen commuters, each intent upon the pedestrian tasks that lay ahead in the morning, or withdrawn, the miserable day behind them at night. I gaze into her eyes. She sees, but does not acknowledge me. I move closer.

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The essence of the Apache dance is to balance the savagery of early twentieth-century Parisian street urchins with the aplomb of a prima ballerina. We–if she accepts my unspoken invitation–will join in a danse dangereux that can result in injury, even death–as we throw each other into the little red chairs and tables that surround Au Bon Pain, the “fast casual” bakery and cafe chain whose illegal alien baristas dream of some day working at Starbucks, where they will be surrounded by “world” music that drove them batty on AM radio in their native countries.

She lowers her eyelids–I take this as a silent command to commence. I take her right hand in my left, clasp her around the waist, and begin.

We dance in a circle at first, affected expressions of contempt and indifference on our faces. We who live by our wits, knowledge workers sending pdf documents by attachment! What do ordinary mortals understand of our lives, and yet these tasks–they are so advanced, so fraught with danger if we get an email address wrong!

The apache dance traditionally takes the form of a highly-stylized argument between a pimp and his prostitute, but–taking our cue from wacked-out poet and Mussolini admirer Ezra Pound–we transform the genre into something entirely new.

I spin my partner into a glass bakery shelf stuffed with croissants, brioches and cloches, the last-named items apparently stocked in error as a result of a typo in a purchase order. “Do you want me to wear a croissant,” my unknown companion says, spitting the words at me with barely-repressed fury, “or would you like to eat my cloche?

“Yes I think I’d like that,” I say, a malicious sneer forming on my lips.

“Would you like a napkin to wipe the sneer off your face?” the trainee at the counter asks innocently. She cannot imagine the wild torrents of passion that consume us, she who naively suggests that I might like the “Manager’s Special” every morning when all I want is a large mocha, no whipped.

Non, mon petite armoire,” I say, lapsing into the high school French that I perfected to the level of a B+. “It is better that you laissez nous tranquille, s’il vous plait.

“We don’t have the s’il vous plait anymore,” she says. “They substituted a chicken Caesar wrap and cup of soup for it.”

She speaks but we do not hear. I am whirling my unknown paramour towards the McDonald’s, which has recently returned coffee-flavored milk shakes to its menu.

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Shlurp!

 

I can tell that I have exhausted my lover. She leans back on the counter, her pupils rolling back into her eyelids, her hair matted from perspiration. She is no longer une guerriere–a warrior. She has succumbed at last to the superior force of my masculinity.

“Can I help who’s next?” the woman at the counter with the thick glasses says.

“I’m next,” my lover says, looking backwards up into the brightly-colored menu over head. “I’ll have two crispy chicken Snack Wraps and a medium Diet Coke.”

“You want honey mustard, ranch or chipotle barbecue sauce on that?”

“Chip-O-tul,” she says, incorrectly. “I want something . . . hot.”

“It’s chee-POHT-lay,” I say, as gently as I can, reaching for my wallet, and then to the woman behind the counter, “Make it snappy–we’ve got a train to catch.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection Boston Baroques.

The Monster

We were coming home from the Lake of the Ozarks and I wanted daddy to stop for ice cream, but I didn’t want to say so. I wanted him to stop by himself, or because somebody else asked him. If I asked him, Delia would make fun of me. She’d look at my sister Sally and say “You’re gonna get fat,” then look at me and say “And you’re gonna get fatter.”

We were listening to Bob and Ray on the radio and I wanted daddy to switch to the Cardinals, but it was August and they were out of it and he said there wasn’t any point in paying attention to them anymore, so he and mom wanted to listen to something else.

“Why don’t you see if you can get KYDJ?” Delia asked. She watched American Bandstand every day and was a good dancer.

“See if you can find ‘Hound Dog’,” I said. That always made her mad.

“Elvis isn’t as good as Frankie Avalon,” she said.

I arranged my Cardinal cards on my lap like they were playing in the field. Curt Flood on my knees in center, Bill White at first and Julian Javier at second on my right thigh, Ken Boyer at third on my left. My Dick Groat card still had him in a Pirates’ uniform, so he didn’t fit in but I put him at shortstop anyway.

“You’re on my side,” Sally said to me. She was sitting in the middle, on the hump, because she was the shortest. My territory extended over to the crease in the seat.

“Sorry.”

“Can we stop for ice cream, daddy?” Sally said.

“Let’s keep going—I want to get home,” Delia said. Probably hoping some boy would ask her to go out to Dog ‘n’ Suds.

“I’d like to stop,” my mom said.

“I need gas anyway,” my dad said, so it was settled. Delia let out a puff of air like a balloon, to show she was unhappy.

“We’ll be home soon enough,” my mom said to no one in particular, but she meant it for Delia. Mom was trying to keep things pleasant.

We pulled into the store with the gas pumps out front and mom took me and Sally in for ice cream. “Get me a butter brickle,” my dad said. “You want anything, Delia?”

“No thank you,” she said. She was always on a diet.

Mom took us to the bathroom first, and when we came out we got our ice cream, one scoop apiece, including dad. “I don’t want anybody to spoil their dinner,” she said. “We have a lot of crappie to eat.”

“I want a hamburger,” Sally said.

“We’ll see,” mom said.

We got back in the car and dad drove slowly for awhile so he could eat his ice cream cone and drive with one hand.

“Can we please change the radio station?” Delia said after a while. “This is boring.”

“I’ll change it after the news comes on,” dad said.

We passed under an overhead traffic light that flashed yellow on the road we were on, and red to the sides for the people coming from the side roads.

“Beaman, 5 miles,” Delia said as she read the sign with an arrow that pointed off to the right. “That’s where the monster lives.”

“What monster?” I asked.

“The Beaman Monster, stupid,” Delia replied.

“There’s no need to be unpleasant, Delia,” my mom said.

“There is no monster,” my dad added.

“Yes there is,” Delia said. “They’ve found dead dogs and cats, and big paw prints in the mud.”

“Really?” Sally asked.

“Yes. Linda Caroll has relatives down there–she told me all about it.”

“It’s probably just a wolf or a coyote,” my dad said.

“The monster doesn’t have little feet like that,” Delia said. “It has big feet like an ape.”

“How would you know what kind of feet an ape has?” I asked. “You’ve never seen one.”

“You can look it up in an encyclopedia, smarty pants.” She lowered her voice so that mom and dad couldn’t hear her being mean to me.

“Does it eat people?” Sally asked.

“They don’t know yet,” Delia said. “I don’t want to be the one that finds out first.”

“You and your girlfriends have been watching too many monster movies,” I said.

“For your information, I don’t watch monster movies. They’re stupid.”

“Better than your stupid beach blanket movies.”

The sun was getting lower in the sky out the left windows, and it was getting dark out the right side. Sally started looking over me to see if she could see the monster.

“Is he big and furry?” she asked Delia.

“Nobody’s seen him, so they don’t know,” Delia answered. “My guess is he looks like the abominable snowman.”

“What’s that?” Sally asked.

“It’s a half-ape, half-man that lives up in the mountains in Asia.”

“Is there a picture of him in your encyclopedia?” I asked.

“Shut up,” Delia hissed at me.

Dad had finished his ice cream but he was still driving slowly, then slower still.

“I think we’ve got a flat,” he said to mom.

“Oh, dear. And we were just at the gas station.”

After he pulled off on the side of the road, he said “Everybody out of the car.”

I got out on my side, but Sally didn’t move at first. “I don’t want to get eaten by the monster.” she said.

“You won’t,” my mother said. “C’mon and get out. Daddy has to jack the car up.”

“No!”

“She can stay in,” my dad said. “She’s so little it won’t make any difference.”

“See what you’ve done with your silly story,” my mom said to Delia.

“It’s not my fault she’s a big baby.”

“Roll down the window so she gets some air,” my mom said.

“No—the monster will get in!” Sally screamed.

“Sally, honey, there is no monster.”

“Yes there is!” She was crying now, and red in the face.

My dad got the car jacked up fast enough but then had trouble getting the lug nuts off the wheel. He’s an insurance agent, so he doesn’t have many muscles.

“Dammit,” he said as the wrench slipped out of his hands.

“Dad said a swear,” I said to Delia.

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“What do I care?” she said. “I’ve heard it before.”

“Suit yourself.” She’s horrible.

Dad finally got the tire off. A blue Ford Fairlane came up beside us and the guy in the passenger seat rolled down his window.

“Y’all need any help?” he said. They were teenagers, and probably stopped because they saw Delia.

“Thanks, I think I’ve got it under control,” my dad said.

The two didn’t drive off. “That spare looks a little flat,” the boy on the passenger side said. “How far you goin’?”

“To the next gas station, then on to Sedville.”

“You won’t find a gas station open between here and there on a Sunday night.”

My dad looked at the boys for the first time as if he took them seriously.

“Then I guess we’ve got about eighteen miles to go,” my dad said.

“We’ve got a pump in the back,” the driver said.

“Well, sure, if you don’t mind,” my dad said.

The boys got out, took the pump out of the trunk and came over to look at the spare. “Yeah, it needs air,” the passenger said.

The driver attached the pump to the nipple and began to inflate the tire. I stood there watching him and his buddy. The work wasn’t as hard as they made it look—they were showing off for Delia.

“Do you guys live around here?” I asked the passenger.

“Yep.”

“Have you heard about a monster down here?”

“A monster?” the passenger said. He looked at his friend, who was pumping away. “What kind of monster?”

“Like an abominable snowman.” I took a glance at Delia, and she was giving me a look to kill.

“It’s August—no snow around here.”

“No, I mean like an ape.”

“Something killed one of the Mergens’ chickens the other night, but I don’t think it was an ape,” the driver said. “Probably a fox.”

“So it didn’t walk on two legs?”

“That would be one talented fox,” the driver laughed. “That oughta do it,” he said and stopped pumping. He rolled the tire over to where my dad was and slipped it onto the wheel, tightened the nuts and lowered the jack.

“There you are,” he said. “That oughta get you to Sedville.”

“Well, thank you boys very much,” my dad said.

“No problem,” the passenger said.

“You didn’t do any of the work,” the driver said with a laugh.

“Here’s something for your trouble,” my dad said as he slipped the driver a bill. “Go have yourself a hamburger.”

“Well, thank you very much,” the driver said. He didn’t turn it down like a lot of people would. He just put the money in his pocket, nodded his head and went back to his car.

“Nice to meet you,” the passenger said. He took us all in, but he was really talking to Delia.

They got back in their car and drove off, the passenger hanging out his window to give Delia the eye. We got back in the car, where Sally was still sniffling.

“I asked those guys, they said there wasn’t any monster around here,” I said to her. “Delia was just being mean, as usual.”

Delia leaned over and put her face up to mine. “Why don’t you mind your own business,” she hissed at me.

“It is my business whether there’s a monster roaming around,” I said. “’Specially if it’s gonna eat my little sister.”

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Sally started to cry again and I realized I probably shouldn’t have said that. “I wanna get up front with you, momma!” she said.

“C’mere, sweetie,” mom said, and Sally climbed over the front seat. “You’re tired. You’ve had a long day.”

We rode on into the darkening sky, Delia looking out her window like she was bored and disgusted with us all, scratchy sounds coming out of the radio.

“Can you try and get the Cardinals game?” I asked my dad, and he turned the dial until he found it.

 

Living for You

She was as ironic as me, which I thought was great.  We’d get going, and it would be like one of those Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns fights.  If you were trying to judge it, you couldn’t even keep score.  I’d say something I didn’t mean, then she’d say something she didn’t mean, and on and on until one of us came up dry and would be forced to take exception to something the other had said, to take it seriously.  It was like doing the dozens, except we weren’t trying to insult each other, we were just trying to prove we were more sarcastic than each other.  I was in love.

We would end up sort of laughing, sort of exhausted.  It was the good kind of exhaustion, like you figured old married couples felt when they’d had a great time together and were in for the night—just riffing on each other because your mate was the source of your greatest joy in life.  I figured people like that, they didn’t need stimulation–they didn’t need movies or TV or going out to dinner because they had each other.  I wanted to marry her.

It was about that time that she told me she was moving back to Louisville, back to what her life had been before we met.  She said there was something back there she needed to finish, something she’d run away from; that she’d decided she’d been a coward and had to go back and face it and fix it.  I knew she was talking about another guy—she didn’t have to tell me—but she did anyway, and then we just let it drop.  I didn’t need all the details.  I’d been through that before—the boy you left behind you before you ventured out into the world, then when you got nervous or scared about putting down roots a thousand miles away, all the familiar things started to look better.

Fine, I said.  What could I say?  She said she didn’t want her kids to grow up talking like people in Boston—“I hod ta loff,” she said, thinking I’d think that was funny.  Any other time it might have been, but I just said “They don’t have to talk that way, it’s who they grow up around that matters,” but I didn’t feel like getting into it.  Christ—who said anything about having babies?

Any chance you’ll ever come back? I asked, and she said “Sure, yeah,” in that off-hand manner that she had.  Some people found it irritating, but it was part of her attraction for me.  Maybe I like challenges, not the women people would introduce me to who you could see had things figured out.  They’d tell you about their jobs, what kind of work they did, how many hours they put in and so on.  If you got involved with them, just a few steps and you’d fall over a cliff into adulthood, which I didn’t want, not yet.

So we arranged for one last date, the night before she was going to leave.  We’d go into Harvard Square, have dinner, then go see some jazz.  I figured I’d show her what she’d be missing back in Kentucky—make it all very poignant.  I was rubbing it in a little, but I was bitter.

Dinner was pretty matter of fact.  We didn’t have much left to say to each other.  She just had one glass of wine–it wasn’t like other nights where she’d get going, get a couple drinks in her, then go into character as her parody of a Southern belle.  That always cracked me up, but she was nice enough not to act too happy our last night together.  I hope it was in part for my sake, and not just because she had to make her flight the next day.

When we got to the club we got a table against the wall with a clear sight line.  It was spring and I think a lot of the students had already left for the year.  It was Stan Getz playing with some sidemen, not my favorite necessarily, like I was trying to introduce her to the greatest living tenor sax or something, but I figured it would be enjoyable.  I wanted her to have a good time so she’d feel bad about it later, after she was a thousand miles away.

At the table to our left was a girl with long brown hair and a young guy with a beard and glasses.  He had a cassette tape recorder out on the table but the manager saw it and said he couldn’t make a recording.  He said he was a reporter, as if that made a difference, but finally he gave up and just took out a pad of paper and a felt-tip pen and the manager went away.

The club wasn’t so noisy that you couldn’t have a conversation, and I guess I was hoping for one last shot with her.  I don’t know what I would have said to make her change her mind, but I figured if I was going to do it, I had to do it now.  I’d seen her apartment when I picked her up, and everything she had was already in boxes.  She’d sold her couch and her bed and all she had left was a sleeping bag on the floor.  It wouldn’t have been conducive to anything but a “Best of luck.”

I thought maybe if I told her I loved her—which I did—it might have made a difference.  That’s the problem with being ironic all the time.  You never get close to the important stuff, you’re always going at it from an angle.  Maybe the guy in Kentucky had said he loved her and scared her away back when she wasn’t ready for it.  Maybe she was ready for it now and I’d just waited too long.

Getz opened up with a fast number and the guy started taking notes.  I saw him reach down into his backpack where he’d put the tape recorder and I heard something click.  Great—my lover’s plea was going to be recorded for posterity.  I leaned a little closer to her, but she turned around to watch the music.  I was about to say something when the guy tapped me on the shoulder with his pen.

“Excuse me,” he said.  “Do you know the name of this song?”

I wanted to act annoyed, which I was, but I couldn’t stop myself. “It’s ‘I Want to Be Happy,’” I said with a look that was an attempt to express my supreme condescension.  You’re the critic, I said to myself—aren’t you supposed to know this stuff?

“Thanks,” the guy said and scribbled in his notebook.

She had turned around when I spoke, thinking I was talking to her.  I just smiled and she gave me a little smile back.  It wasn’t quite a “We’ll always have this night” smile, more like a “He’s good” smile.

Everybody applauded when Getz finished his solo and it got quieter as the bass player took his turn.  I tried to scoot my chair around closer to her, but I was hemmed in on the right by another couple, and I didn’t want to get any closer to the working press.  I put my hands in the middle of the table hoping that when the song was over she’d turn around and we could sort of play pinky pals at least.

The guy was scribbling away on my left, probably coming up with some killer figures of speech that nobody but people like me would read the next day, if that.  His girl was turned around, her hand under her chin.  She looked to me like she was really experiencing it, taking it all in.  She didn’t need to be cool—she had innocent eyes—and he was probably going to Explain it All to her later, since he was the expert.

The song ended and everybody clapped, the critic a little too loud if you ask me.  He wanted to show everybody that they may have enjoyed it, but he appreciated it.  Since there were guys in the audience old enough to have seen Getz when they were the kid’s age, I don’t think he heard anything anybody else didn’t.

She turned around and said “That was good.”  I was glad—it seemed she’d finally dropped her guard, so I just said “Yeah,” as plain as I could.  Maybe there would have been some hope for us if we hadn’t been who we were when we first met.  Maybe if we’d met someplace else, or if we’d gone to the same college and had known each other better.  I didn’t know.  She put her hand on mine without even looking down at the table.  We squeezed and it was like being back in eighth grade.  Funny how stuff like that can be pretty intense if you’ve got no other prospects.

The music started up again and she turned around to watch, which was fine.  I didn’t want to sit there like stupid lovebirds all night, I just wanted things to end on the right note.  I didn’t know how I was going to get in touch with her after she left.  I figured I’d ask for her address and send her a suitably facetious postcard at some point.  We’d done that when we were separated before; she’d pick out something really tacky, like women riding on the backs of alligators in Florida, and write something clever on the back.  That’s what I’d do—so it wouldn’t be like I was afraid for her new/old boyfriend to see what I’d written.  We’d be just good friends, keeping in touch in a really light vein.  If he got mad about it maybe she’d see he wasn’t such a prize after all.

I sipped at my beer and watched her profile.  She wasn’t a precious little thing, she was a woman who wouldn’t end up spending her life consumed by decorating and bullshit like that.  I used to take her to Red Sox games and she’d keep score as well as me.  That was a hell of a lot better than the woman I dated just before her, who would bring needlepoint to the game.  Hell, I even took her to a closed-circuit fight one time, Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.  Me and another guy.  Our dates were like the only women in the place other than the ones working the concession stands.

No, she was it.  Only twenty-six, and I knew what I wanted out of life was sitting across the table for me.  She’s only twenty-three, I thought to myself, and she’s going to make the biggest mistake of our goddamned lives.

She clapped at Getz’s solo—the most enthusiasm she’d shown for anything in a long time as best as I could recall—and the other players took turns until it was time for them to wrap it up together.  Everybody applauded when it was over and she turned around again, her face full of happiness.  Why didn’t I do this a long time ago, I said to myself, then remembered she hadn’t been very easy to pin down.  We were always going somewhere in a group, never alone, and when I’d ask her out she’d always say “I’ll ask my roommate if she wants to come.”

“This is great,” she said.  No irony, no sarcasm.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I thought you’d like it.”

I was thinking better than “20-20 Vision and I’m Walkin’ Round Blind,” an old country string-band tune she’d break into sometimes out of the blue when we were just walking down the street, just to prove how back-woodsy she was.

“We could have made something for ourselves—out here,” I said before I thought better to stop myself.

She looked down and took my hand again and said “I know.”  Then “I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t say anything at first, and the band started playing again, a slow ballad.  “You were just being you,” I said, squeezing her had a little tighter.  “I guess I wouldn’t want you to be anybody else.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“You wouldn’t ever do that anyway,” I said, and we both laughed, but it came out sounding funny because we both had stuff in our throats.  I wanted to lean over the table and kiss her then but she turned around to watch again, and our only connection was her right hand to my left.  It was okay, though, because I was crying, and I didn’t want her to see.  I took a cocktail napkin in my right hand and was wiping my eyes when I felt another tap on my shoulder.

“Excuse me again,” the writer said.  “What’s the name of this song?”

“It’s ‘Living for You’ by Billie Holiday,” I said, then realized I was wrong—that’s just the first line.  It’s “Easy Living,” but I didn’t correct myself.  I didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t care if he got it wrong.

The Man Who Spoke of His Dreams

There is nothing more tedious than listening to a man tell you about his dreams, and so I had resolved to kill M. (I use only his first initial so that you will not connect me to his murder and undo my—so far—perfect crime.)

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I had endured enough of his long-winded tales, which always placed him at the center of some fantastic but meaningless pantomime, with characters both famous (starlets, politicians, etc.) and obscure (his aunt Loretta, his uncle Dutch) orbiting around him elliptically, coming suddenly closer, then flying off to the margins. These were recounted to me at length, in over-refined detail, with elaborate explanations of how M. felt as he witnessed the scene, rarely participating in the action, more often simply wondering at the passing parade of personages, both known and mysterious to him. As if this could be of interest to anyone but him!

Besides these sleeping dreams, there were M.’s waking dreams as well; about how he would change the world for the better. The solutions were, in his telling so simple. People were so foolish, if only they would think as he did about so many things. It was better, he said, to leave his soda cans on the street for the homeless to pick up and redeem for the five cent deposit, for example, than to bring them into our apartment where they only added to the clutter. This he would explain to those who accused him of littering our quaint little neighborhood with a rising gorge, as if he were they were the ones committing an outrage, not him.

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Or he would talk of what he would do with his life as soon as he got “on his feet.” He would go on the stage, in some tasteful cabaret, where he would sing the songs he annoyed me with as he moved about the apartment. Eventually he would put together an album even though he had only a limited vocal range; he didn’t need a great voice, he told me, it was more essential that one have a personality, to be able to “put a song across” to an audience, preferably small, composed entirely of devoted admirers, of cognoscenti. It was more than a man should have to endure to listen to such idle and vain nonsense, night after night, while he stank up the kitchen with his linguini and clam sauce.

But I did, because I had to. You see, M. and I lived together, in a small apartment on the back side of Beacon Hill, down a brick alleyway. The area had formerly housed the servants of the well-to-do families who lived higher up on the hill, or on the sunny side that faced the Boston Common. I could not afford to live alone, at least not just then. I was slowly making my way up the ladder at the library where I worked, and not until my ailing mother died would I be able to live beyond the meager wages I earned there.
There you have the “why,” the “how” required much thought. There was a flight of stairs to be climbed to our second-floor garret, but the chance that M. would survive a push down them was too great to chance. I abhor guns, and while a fire could be expected to bring his life to an end, it would also destroy our little place, with its view of a hidden garden in the inner courtyard. It was rented at a reasonable rate, was walking distance to my work, and possessed a bohemian charm that was fast disappearing from the Boston I had come to a decade before, in pursuit of a long-abandoned dream of my own. (I do not, unlike M., delude myself that you would care.) But his name—not mine—was on the lease.

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No, it took a great deal of research to fix upon the solution to my problem. Poison was the only practical alternative, but it is not easy to poison a man who shares an apartment with you, who eats from the same dishes as you, with the same cutlery. It would require finesse to finish him off without sickening myself in the process. And so I began the laborious task of killing him slowly, using a hypodermic needle to inject arsenic insecticide into his clams, which I would never partake of. I would poke a tiny hole in the top of each can he would buy, so that there would be no telltale leak on the pantry shelf. I began to protest loudly whenever he would fix the dish, exaggerating my disgust at the smell by keeping a separate set of dishes for myself, as if I had begun to keep kosher and did not want to mix with his treyfe.

There was no sudden change in M.’s health or appearance. I injected only minute amounts into his clam sauce, so there would be no vomiting or other obvious symptoms one would expect to see in a person who had ingested a large dosage. Over time M.’s skin darkened, but since my little career of destruction began in the springtime, he didn’t notice the change; an avid sunbather, he was happy with his bronze patina, even if he did spend more time in the bathroom.

dreams3

Eventually the poison in M.’s corpus ceased to be a mere tincture and he could no longer dismiss the pain that gripped him in the abdomen as a passing affliction. He was examined by his doctor who prescribed antibiotics, which of course had no effect. When he began to develop numbness in his hands and feet, I knew the end was near. He died a quiet but painful death; I trust that he is now in a better place, and that the torment of his final days on earth is not even a memory to his immortal soul.

And so I was finally free of him. Although money was tight at first, after my mother died I was able to enjoy my little cubbyhole without worrying whether I would have enough money to pay the rent on the first of the month. M.’s parents came and removed a few personal items that apparently had some sentimental value; they left me his pots and pans and kitchen utensils, for which I thanked them profusely, then threw out on the next trash collection day with a note that said “Contaminated” so that no one else would suffer the horrible fate of my late roommate. I may be vindictive, but I am not a monster.
I would sit in the evenings at the kitchen table, looking out at the garden below, enjoying the green and the flowers, feeling the breeze cross through the apartment from the back to the front. I was contented for the first time in many years, and my only regret was that I had been unable to untangle my life from M.’s with the unpleasant business of killing him.

And then the dreams began. At first I would barely remember them in the morning, but they became more vivid with time. There was the familiar cast of characters from M.’s stories; his odd relatives, singers who were unknown to me except from his imitations, notorious public figures who, in M.’s aggrandized view of himself, would pay court to him. As if this wasn’t enough, I soon began to feel the trivial, do-good sentiments that consumed M. when he experienced a fit of moral fervor. I would become exasperated when others did not comprehend the facile solutions to the problems of the world, the nation, and our little neighborhood that entered my brain like uninvited guests. How could they not see the things that I saw?

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But then came the worst. I began to sing as M. had done, but uncontrollably, and in public. Torch songs of a bygone era, vapid lover’s pleas, these would issue from my mouth at the most inopportune times: on the train, so that I would have to leave the “quiet” car; while exercising at my health club—I am told that one young man quit the club over my apparent refusal to maintain a respectful silence while on the treadmill. Finally I tried a ruse; I would wear headphones and claim I was just singing along to my music—was that so bad? Yes, it was, said the manager, who refunded my membership dues for the month when I told him I would not (I did not tell him that I could not) stop singing.

And so I am to the world the pariah that M. was formerly to me; a noxious, self-absorbed presence, a man others want to be rid of. I see old acquaintances cross the street when their eyes catch sight of my face, I feel the anxious antipathy others feel when they find themselves, by chance, standing next to me in a social setting. They want to get away from me, and I can’t blame them.

I have become the man that I hated, and killed.

The Old Curmudgeon Gets Some Protein in His Music

Summer is here–the spring rains have finally ended in Boston–and you can see people opening up to the season, like flowers. And then there’s my partner, the Old Curmudgeon, who makes do with his usual all-weather grumpy demeanor.

“Hey there, Bink,” I call to him as he approaches the elevator bank. He has a look of exasperated relief on his face, if such a thing is possible. “Enjoying the first breath of summer?”


Bink

 

“No,” Bink snaps. “The damn kids just got home from college. Sarah’s become a vegan and Todd listens to that damn ‘rap’ music all the time.”

“Kids,” I say, commiserating with him. “You can’t live with ‘em, but you can live without ‘em.”


Sarah, the vegan convert: Has to pass a place twice to make a shadow.

 

“You know, some of those rap songs are disgusting,” Bink grumbles. “I think I heard one of those guys say mother-you-know-what.”

“Sort of like classical Greek tragedy.”

“What?”

“Oedipus Rex–by Sophocles.”

“Hmph. I took mostly business courses. Anyway, I’m worried about ‘em both. Sarah’s thin as a rail, and Todd says he wants to be a ‘DJ.’  What the hell kind of job is that for a Presbyterian male?”

The elevator door opened, and we got on along with a crowd of others. As so often happens, the close confinement of the car acted as a stimulus to my brain, like the isolation booths on ’50′s game shows.

“You know, I think you could kill two birds with one stone if you just got more protein out of your music,” I say to Bink. He looks at me as if I’m daft–and I’m not going to argue with him.

“What do you mean?” he asks with a quizzical look on his face, his head cocked to one side like a parakeet.

“Well, maybe if you played songs with a little meat in them, Todd would abandon the monotony of rap and Sarah would come back to the carnivore fold.”

“I don’t know any songs about meat,” Bink says.

“Well, there’s ‘Hey Pete, Let’s Eat More Meat’ by Dizzy Gillespie,” I say. “Probably converted more vegans than any other song in the history of Western Civilization, but I don’t know if it’s raunchy enough for Todd.”


Diz Lives!

 

“Yes, the boy’s obsessed with,” here Bink stops to look around at the other passengers, then continues in a softer voice, “what I guess the rappers call ‘booty.’”

“Well, there’s ‘It Ain’t the Meat It’s the Motion’ by The Swallows,” I suggest helpfully.


The Swallows

 

“Maria Muldaur recorded it too,” a frizzy-haired fifty-something woman behind us says.

“Righto,” I say, “but The Swallows were first.”

“Sounds rather–risque,” Bink says. He once found a set of French postcards in his father’s underwear drawer, and ever since has assumed that all Frenchmen are hopeless debauchees.


Naughty!

 

“Well, it’s the sort of song that can bring a family together,” I say. “Mom, dad, sis, junior–everyone gets a kick out of it.”

“But those songs are expressions of men’s fantasies,” the frizzy-haired woman says. “How about ‘I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll’?”

“By Butterbeans & Susie?” a bike messenger with stringy hair asks. I’m gratified to see that I’ve enhanced Boston’s often cramped sense of civic engagement by inspiring such a lively discussion among total strangers, except for me and Bink, who are each strange in our own way.


Butterbeans & Susie

 

“Yes,” the woman replies.

“I don’t know,” Bink says. “All these songs sound vaguely–disreputable.”

I catch his drift. Jazz, R&B, black novelty acts–it’s all music from the ”wrong side of the tracks.”

“You’re right, Bink,” I say. “What you need is music that’s so well-established and esteemed it’s approved by the federal government of the U-S of A.”


Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton

 

“Yes,” Bink says, his gaze fixed on a point in the middle distance. “I want something that’s as safe as a U.S. Treasury bill–like John Philip Sousa.”

“So I suggest the unexpurgated version of ’Winin’ Boy’ by Jelly Roll Morton,” I say. ”It’s on a Library of Congress recording!”

“How’s that go?” Bink asks.

“Like this,” I reply. A young man in the back takes the iPod buds out of his ears as I begin to sing.

A nickel’s worth of beefsteak, a dime’s worth of lard.
A nickel’s worth of beefsteak, a dime’s worth of lard.
I’m gonna salivate your pussy ’til my peter gets hard.

The car is quiet. We have those little silent TV screens in our elevators, so I figure everyone’s looking at the Red Sox score.


Library of Congress

 

“That’s really in the Library of Congress?” Bink asks, incredulous.

“Yep–your tax dollars at work. When you think of all the crap that our taxes pay for, it’s good to know that every now and then we get some value for our money.”

The car glides to a stop at Bink’s floor, and he steps off into the lobby.

“Well, uh, thanks for the suggestions,” he says. “You know, whenever we have these little talks I always end up feeling . . . “

“Better?” I say as he hesitates.

“No–depressed.”

For One Professor, Recognition of Dylan Spurs Late-in-Life Dream

CLARKSTON, Minnesota.  Professor Willard Clesko has been a fixture at Drover College here for nearly three decades, a fact of which he is simultaneously proud and a bit chagrined.  “I’ve had a long and rewarding relationship with this institution,” he says, a note of ambivalence creeping into his voice.  “On the other hand, that’s all I’ve had.”


Hootenanny in progress!

 

Clesko came to the campus of this small liberal arts school as an 18-year-old freshman with a suitcase in one hand and a guitar in the other, but he neglected his music while he studied hard to get good grades and justify the expense of an undergraduate degree to his parents, who raised him on a dairy farm not far from here.  “They didn’t understand how important it was to me to be a part of the ferment of the time,” he says of the heady days of the early 1960s, when he first heard the music of the man who would become his hero, Bob Dylan.  “There was a definite divide between the frat rockers who listened to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and the intellectuals who listened to Dylan,” he recalls.  “Unfortunately, my sense of guilt over the financial sacrifices my parents made prevented me from blowing off my studies to pursue a career in music.”


Sam the Sham and the . . . hey–cultural appropriation!

 

But all that has changed now that Dylan has received the ultimate recognition of his artistic merit, a Nobel Prize in Literature, and Clesko has saved enough money to retire comfortably.  “Folk music is now on a par with War and Peace,” he says.  “I’m going to retrace my steps and find the young folkie part of my personality I let wither and die on the vine so long ago.”

But Clesko has stumbled coming out of the gate, getting tangled up at his first “open mic” night in a coffee shop at the edge of campus here.  “He’ll be okay,” says organizer Todd Hedspreth.  “He just needs to get rid of the footnotes.”


“So glad they invented the bomb.  Not sure I could pull this off this look of existential dread without it.”

 

Footnotes to text are the occupational hazard, if not the occupation, of long-time academics such as Clesko, and were famously derided as an impediment to graceful prose by Noel Coward, who said “Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.”  The habit of sourcing every image in his lyrics has produced a halting, circumlocutory style that left Clesko’s first audience scratching their heads and yawning.  “If your love’s like a red, red rose, just say so,” says Eleni Weston, a sophomore English major.  “You don’t have to drag the verse out to comply with the Chicago Manual of Style.”

Clesko’s turn at the microphone entitles him to two songs on what is a slow night, with many students having left at the end of academic year for unpaid internships or minimum-wage summer jobs.  He clears his throat, strums a few chords, then begins to sing “Jump Down, Turn Around, Change the Toner Cartridge,” a song modeled on an African-American work chant that he has updated to fit the miseries of his own job in an under-funded and under-staffed department.

Jump down, turn around, change the toner cartridge,
Jump down, turn around, change it every day.

But just as he’s getting a response from the audience, with a few patrons beginning to clap their hands, he digresses and loses them.

Oh, Lawdy, we ain’t got no cartridge.
[The use of the double negative is not meant to imply that it is standard English, or to recommend its usage among educated speakers; rather, it is an attempt to replicate a vernacular idiom with fidelity, but without endorsement.]
Oh, Lawdy, thesis gone be late.

The crowd, or what is left of them, applauds politely, although many checked their phones or otherwise became distracted while Clesko wool-gathered his way out of their hearts.

“Thanks everybody,” he says with an ingratiating tone that goes over the heads of the young and disaffected audience.  “This next song has been peer-reviewed, hope you like it.”

He begins to finger-pick in an Appalachian mountain style, then cuts loose with “If I Had a Teaching Assistant”:

If I had a teaching assistant, I’d work her in the mo-or-ning.
I’d work her in the eve-ning, all over this campus.
[Drover College is in full compliance with state and federal wage and hour and overtime laws; in cases where department budgets preclude payment of monetary compensation, students are given course credit for time spent on classroom instruction or research.]
I’d sing about love between, professor and his students,
all over this campus!

The Economics of First Wives

As he surveyed the roomful of people to which he would be speaking shortly, Fred Wilcox’s stomach churned, and not from the fish on his plate, nor from the task of his speech, an annual assignment that he actually looked forward to.  He knew many of those in attendance by sight, and of those he knew at least a plurality by name; they were his fellow employees at Maritime Bank & Trust, where he was the lone academic on the payroll.  His job was to watch larger trends that the boys and increasingly girls on the banking floor would be unaware of, busy as they were pushing money out the door or else, in the pungent phrase that he’d heard often, they’d find their ass in a sling.

fred1

            No, his job didn’t cause him much stress.  He didn’t lend money or take on risk; he simply kept his eye on the horizon, so to speak, in the manner of the sea captains that the bank had financed at the turn of the century—the eighteenth century he liked to inform luncheon guests in the dining room on the top floor of the building.  He had perfected an oracular style that he described outside the office by the Japanese word ippoudeha; which meant “on the one hand,” but which could also be interpreted as “on the other hand.”  No particular investment decision could be traced to him, and so no blame for a loss could ever be pinned on him.

         With that insulation from risk came, he reminded himself, a commensurate reduction in the rewards that he reaped from his principal job, and it was that fact that gnawed at him.  He was smarter than every man and women in the room, he thought with bitter smugness, and yet the top producers were admitted to the bonus pool and the executives were granted stock options that would make them very rich men over time.  He could use some of that money, now that he was getting divorced.

            He had tired of his wife of twenty years, and in his part-time academic position he was exposed to a steady stream of young women who were not unlike what she had been at one time; interested and engaged, not consumed by domestic trivia.  Over time, he had watched as her mind had dulled from lack of use until she was unable to do simple sums in her head, a fall from the relative acute state of her youthful mind that he assumed was irreversible.  He marked as the watershed the night when they had been dragged to a basketball game after a client dinner and he had noted, looking up at the scoreboard, that the Celtics were behind by fourteen points.  “How did you do that so fast?” she had said in a tone of wonderment that wasn’t facetious.

fred

            And so he had allowed himself to go further than he’d ever gone with one of the graduate students in his econometrics course.  She reminded him of the woman he had married, not the one he was married to; Adele was quick-witted, the leader in the after-class bull sessions that would sometimes take place in a dark bar across Commonwealth Avenue.  Her mind ranged freely from dry topics that he was familiar with to those with only a tangential, metaphorical connection to the subject at hand.  “An Austrian economist looks at a crowded beach and says ‘Let’s go someplace else, too many individuals have the same subjective preference as us,’” she had said one night as she sipped her white wine while he and everyone else drank from a pitcher of beer, and he had laughed and smiled more broadly than he had in the company of his wife for many years.

            When the inevitable day had come when he woke up beside Adele and not his wife, he decided, in what he thought to be an uncharacteristic impulse of courage, that he would calmly but firmly tell his wife that their marriage was over; nothing personal, they had just outgrown each other, and now that their two kids were on their own, there was no reason for them to remain together and unhappy, when they could part amicably and pursue their destinies separately.

            “More wine, sir?” the waiter at his elbow asked, breaking his reverie.

            “Yes.”

            “Red or white?”

            “I was having the white,” he said, and he thought of how Adele had worked this change in him.  White wine had always given him a headache until she had taught him to slow down.  “You’re slurping it—sniff the bouquet first,” she had told him, and that suggestion had blossomed out from the taste on his tongue to larger issues in his life.  Their love-making became languorous—after a first night of heated pawing–instead of the perfunctory pumping that had come to prevail in the bed of his marriage.  A new life lay ahead of him, he discovered, once his first wife was out of the way.

fred2

            But his wife was, despite the placid temper she had maintained for three decades, livid.  She recalled for him how she had abandoned her pursuit of an advanced degree to raise their children, how difficult her two pregnancies were, how he had encouraged her to stay home with them rather than hire an au pair, as other academic couples they knew had done.  Usually there was no visible difference in outcomes, he had argued, but who knew twenty years later how a kid separated from his mother would turn out?  He reminded her of one boy they knew who grew up in a household where both parents worked; he’d been in and out of private schools, crashed two cars and only narrowly avoided jail on drug charges.  He found this last point particularly galling; yes she had stayed home with the kids, but they had been forced to live more frugally as a result.  He had suffered as much as she, he thought.

            The bank’s president rose and the plink of silver against glasses rose above the din, causing the crowd to slowly quiet their table talk and turn towards the dais.  The man thanked those assembled for coming, and noted that the bank’s success was in large part the product of the hard work the invited guests did every day to keep their businesses humming.  “So enjoy your dinner, but don’t have too much to drink!” he exclaimed, to restrained but sincere laughter.

            “Would you like me to refill your glass?” another, different waiter asked as Wilcox clapped.

            “Yes, please.  I’m having white,” he replied.

            He wished he could have been with Adele, or that she could have been here with him, his younger girlfriend he was justly proud of, but they weren’t quite ready to go public, and so she had stayed in their small apartment on the ragged edge of Brookline, close to campus but a bit removed from the neighborhood where most undergraduates lived.  His wife would get the home, and to avoid a legal fight he wouldn’t ask her to buy him out; she would get their joint investment account, while he would keep his retirement plan and she would waive any claim to alimony on his future earnings.  He faced a longer span of working years than he had in mind before he embarked upon his affair, but when he was with Adele he didn’t think about that; it was only when he was by himself, or like tonight in a crowd without her, that he was troubled by the thought.

fred4

            There was movement among those seated at the head table, and the chairman of the bank approached the microphone to say a few words.  Further into their dinner than before, the crowd became quiet with only slight prompting, and the chairman launched into a seemingly off-hand review of the bank’s results that took note of how well the organization was doing in somewhat difficult times, given changes in focus that had been put in place under his tenure, with as much self-effacing modesty as he could manage.  The wait staff circulated among the tables removing the dinner plates and replacing them with dessert, a cheesecake that was greeted by those at Wilcox’s table with looks of naughty wonder, but which he waved off.

            “You’re not going to make us feel guilty, are you?” a woman to his right asked with an expression of mock disapproval on her face.

            “Got to keep my slim, girlish figure,” he replied with a smile, but he was more serious than he let on.  He was self-conscious around Adele’s friends as the eldest member of any group they socialized with, and he didn’t want the gap between his appearance and hers to widen more rapidly than it had to.  “Anyway, I want to save my calories for the wine.”  As he said this he nodded at a waiter passing by for a refill; he knew he would be called on after the chairman’s remarks and a brief introduction by the bank’s president, and he wanted to relax himself a bit more before making what he told himself was just his “little speech.”

fred5

 

            The chairman wound up his remarks with an allusion to the bank’s stock price, which elicited murmurs of contentment from the assembled vice presidents in the room, all eager to share in the wealth they were helping to create, all content for now to play the role of loyal lieutenants to the brass they’d be listening to for the past half hour.  The president returned to the microphone, thanked the chairman and then shifted gears from the self-regarding institutional talk that had been the evening’s diversion thus far to the larger world outside the building.  “We are a parochial town in many ways,” he said, and many in the audience smiled in polite agreement, “but we are also part of the larger world, whether we like it or not.  Our bank has been a leader in international trade finance since its beginnings, and we can truly say today that the sun never sets on the Maritime empire.”  Here he paused and waited for laughter which came in a tiny, underwhelming ripple, like the tiny waves that lap your feet as you walk along a beach.
                “Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on reports from our far-flung outposts to learn which way the winds of commerce are blowing, as we have a full-time economist on the payroll who is charged with keeping his eye on the big picture.  Those of you who have attended these thank-you dinners of ours in the past know him well from his past prognostications, some of which actually turned out to be correct.”  Again, the president paused for laughter, which came with greater force than before, causing Wilcox to blush a bit and smile in an effort to be a good sport.  “So without further ado, here is Maritime Bank’s Chief Economist, Fred Wilcox.”
               The applause that greeted him was robust, he thought, a word he considered trite but which he understood to be part of the approved lexicon of the bankers and business people who sat before him.  He wondered whether they were over-compensating for the laughs they’d had at his expense a moment before.  He stood up in his place, as was his practice, so as to avoid the long walk to the front of the room and a possible misstep as he strode to the podium.  He cleared his throat, took a final sip of his wine, and let his eyes wander over the room, trying to imagine the overstuffed crowd before him in their pajamas, as he had once been counseled to do by a high school public speaking instructor.

           “Thanks, Bill, and thank you all for joining us here tonight,” he began, and then self-consciously paused to take a breath.  “I have been giving these talks for several years now, and I find as I go back over my notes from past presentations that I may not be doing enough to promote the growth in the after-dinner speech sector of the economy, because I seem to be recycling old material rather than making investments in new ideas.”  There was only scattered laughter, as his attempt at humor was too long-winded.  Stay away from the jokes and digressions, he reminded himself, they never turn out as well as you think they will.  He looked down at the notes he’d pulled out of the inner pocket of his suit jacket a moment before and saw the same bold-faced headings he’d been using since he was first called on by the bank to address customers nearly a decade before.  He used the headings not as a road map but more like a shopping list; once he had entered the door of his talk, he would wander the aisles of his subject, picking out whatever he found first on the shelves.  He preferred improvisation to a cold litany, and he tended to flit from one topic to another, always ending up with what the burghers of Boston were most eager to hear; which way were interest rates headed?

            After a few cursory remarks about various indicators—the rate at which the economy was growing, the consumer price index, unemployment—he glanced down and his eyes fastened on the header “Capital Cycles.”  It was in his mind a fundamental yet neglected principle, but one that might be of interest to a manufacturer thinking of investing in equipment.  “One of the gauges I come back to year after year is the capital cycle,” he began.  “Those of you who are owners of businesses—and I guess that means most of you who are here as guests tonight—know about this instinctively, but to put it into plain English for you, capital expenditures are inversely related to return on equity.”

fred7

            A few faces registered agreement by pursed lips or furrowed brows.

            “When companies need to invest to expand capacity, investors experience lower returns.  That’s inevitable, and there’s a lot of history we can look to for proof.  Take the British Railway bubble of the 1840s.  Projections of future demand fueled the over-building of railroad lines, and investors bet on those hopeful expectations.  Prices of railroad stocks rose to heights that weren’t justified by any rational measure, and when they crashed there were insolvencies that set the industry back for a good long time.”

            Here he paused and scanned the room for a second, trying to think of a homely example he could use to relate the concept to those who weren’t with him.  “It’s a bit like a first wife,” he said, and he heard a few laughs of surprise at the curious transition.  “You put a lot of money into the enterprise starting out, and you hope it grows over time.  Instead what you find in some cases is that you have assigned it an inflated valuation, and it crashes.”

            There were more smiling faces, he noted, mixed in with some looks of puzzlement, so he continued spinning out the conceit rather than switching to “Global Markets.”

            “When that happens, of course, you have to re-invest in a new capital asset, a second wife, but the sunk costs in the first wife will hold you back.  They are a drag on your personal economy.

            A few laughs were heard, but quieter now.  He noticed the beginnings of a scowl on one woman’s face at a table midway between him and the bank’s executives; he smiled at her to try to convey that he was only kidding.

            “So as you look ahead you see diminished prospects for the future, and a need to re-allocate your capital in ways that are inefficient.  Buying a home to replace one that you lost when things went south.”  He looked again at the woman, then over her head at the president and chairman, whose uplifted eyebrows signaled that they weren’t getting the joke.  He felt beads of moisture form at his hairline.

            “Anyway, one way the Fed helps out when this happens is by easing interest rates in order to make investing in new equipment more affordable for businesses, and as I see it, you can probably look forward to lower costs of capital over the next eighteen months.”  He realized he needed to bring things to a close, but no natural conclusion to his talk occurred to him, and so he ended things by simply saying “Thank you,” and sitting down.

fred6

 

            The abrupt conclusion left the audience unprepared to applaud, and so only a smattering of claps were heard at first.  Caught off guard, the president took a few moments to realize he should take over again, leading to an awkward few moments in which there was no diversion for the audience to fasten upon.

            “Thank you, Fred, insightful as always,” the president said, cutting off any further recognition of the speech.  “Well, that concludes our program for the evening unless anyone has any questions for Fred.”

            There was nothing but silence while the president looked around the room for a few moments before saying, somewhat relieved, “Good night.”