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.

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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.

Nuptial Indemnity

Insurance for weddings, family reunions and bar mitzvahs, already common in Britain, is becoming popular in the US.

                                                                             The Boston Globe

I drove out to Glendale to put three new tantes on a bar mitzvah bond, and then I remembered this lead on a wedding policy over in Hollywood.  I decided to run over there to see if I could get the future bride and groom to sign the paperwork while they were still in love.  Timing is everything when you’re selling insurance.

The house was one of those Mexican-style jobs everyone was crazy about a few years ago-white walls, red tile roof.  The couple was probably under water on the mortgage and couldn’t afford to leave.  I figured they’d been living together and she’d started making noises about palimony.  Or maybe there was a baby on the way, and I don’t mean from one of those third-world dumps where the gross national product doubles when a movie starlet on a mission touches down on the country’s only landing strip.  Funny how those things work out.

I rang the bell and waited–nothing.  I rang it again.  What the hell, I drove all the way out there, I might as well make sure.  Still nothing.  I turned to go back to my car when I heard footsteps inside.  I looked through the glass and saw a woman.  She opened the inner door and spoke through the screen.

”May I help you?” she asked.  You sure could, I thought.  It’s getting towards the end of the month, and I need the commission.

“Good afternoon–I’m Walter Huff, American Nuptial Indemnity.”

“Hello,” she said in a sultry voice, and that one word spoke volumes.  If I’d been selling encyclopedias I would have run to my car for a sample.  “I’m Phyllis Shamie Nirdlinger, or at least I will be as soon as I get married.”

“The home office said someone at this address was interested in some insurance.”  She had a body like an upside-down viola da gamba-without the sound holes, frets or strings.  Full at the top, narrowing at the waist, slender legs where the neck should have been.

“That would be my fiancé, Herbert S. Nirdlinger.”

“Yes, I believe that was the name.”

“What kind of insurance was he interested in?  I ought to know, but I don’t keep track,” she said as she twisted her lower lip into a little dishrag of affected concern.

“I guess none of us keep track until something happens,” I replied.  “Just the usual–collision, fire, family reunion, with a bar/bat mitzvah rider in case either of you convert to Judaism and have children.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

“It’s only a routine matter, but he ought to take care of it.  You never know when something might happen.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right.  So many entertainers get caught up in the Kabbalah-like Madonna.”

“You in the entertainment business?”  I was playing dumb.  I can spot an unemployed actress a backhanded Frisbee toss away.

“Yes.  I’m between roles right now,” she said as she gazed over my shoulder, as if she expected to see Spielberg coming up the sidewalk.   All of sudden she looked at me, and I felt a chill creep up my back and into the roots of my hair.  “Do you handle wedding insurance?”

I couldn’t be mistaken about what she meant, not after fifteen years in the insurance business.  Not with all the jewelry riders I’ve written up, not with all the homeowner’s policies I’ve stretched to cover some kid’s busted mountain bike two years after he graduated from college.

I was going to get up and go and drop her and that wedding policy like a hot shotput–but I didn’t.  I couldn’t, not when I looked into those eyes like turtle pools that little kids wade in and pee in, and-what the hell.  I grabbed her around the waist and pulled her towards me.

She looked surprised, but I was pretty sure that was a façade, a coat of paint.  I could see right through her if I wanted, but I liked what I saw on the surface, and I didn’t go any deeper.

“Oh, Walter,” she moaned as I clutched her close to me.  “Maybe this is the awful part, but I want . . . I need our wedding to fail.  Do you understand me?”

“No.”

“Nobody could,” she sighed.

“But we’re going to do it.”

“We’re going to do it.”

“Straight down the line, right?

“Right.”

“To hell with the bridesmaids?”

“To hell with the bridesmaids–and their purple organza empire waistline floor-length dresses.”

If we were going to do it, we were going to do it right.  “All the big money on wedding insurance policies comes from the double indemnity clause,” I said to her.

“The double whatsis clause?”

“Double indemnity.  They found out pretty quick when they started writing wedding insurance that the places people think are danger spots–like the groom has a few too many pops and calls the mother-of-the-bride an old warthog–aren’t danger spots at all.”

“They aren’t?”

“No.  People think the groom thinks the mother of the bride is an old warthog, but he doesn’t.  He doesn’t think she’s all that bad, just a few decades older than the bride, who looks like her mother, so why would he say the mother looks like an old warthog, unless he thinks the bride looks like a young warthog?”

“I see.”

No she didn’t, but I decided to humor her.  “So they put in a feature that sounds pretty good to the guy that buys it, because he’s a little worried he’s going to slip.  It doesn’t cost the company much because they know he’s pretty sure to keep his mouth shut.”

“Oh.”

“You can say that again.”

“Oh–”

“Not literally–figuratively.  They tell you they’ll pay double indemnity if the groom insults the bride’s mother, because then you’ve got a living hell.  You married the guy and have to live with him the rest of your life, but he insulted your mother, so what are you going to do for holidays, and the kid’s birthdays, and so forth.”

She was quiet for a moment.  “How much is that worth?”

“On a regular $10,000 wedding package?  When we get done, if we do it right, we cash a $20,000 bet.”

“Twenty thousand dollars?”

“To bring the immediate family, flowers and a cake back to the original location, with a photographer-absolutely.”

“But–what if I don’t want to do it over?”

I knew where she was going.  I wanted to go there too.

“The check is made out to you and your fiancé–jointly.  What time does he get home from work?”

“6 o’clock-closer to 7 if traffic’s bad.”

“And what time does the mail get here?”

“Usually by 4:30.”

“Have you got his signature on a piece of paper?”

“Yes, on the installment contract for the bedroom air conditioner.”

“How about a glass coffee table and a flashlight?”

“Yes.  The batteries in the flashlight may be low . . .”

“You can get new ones at the hardware store.  Here’s how we do it.  You get under the coffee table, shine the light through contract, and I’ll trace his signature on the check.”

“Very clever,” she said, a dizzy grin on her face.  I could tell she had no idea what she was getting herself into.

“Now listen to me,” I said, a little out of breath.  I was winded from switching back and forth between our staccato dialogue and my first-person narrative.

“Yes?”

She was all ears, with some lips, hips, legs, breasts and other body parts thrown in for good measure.

“You can’t breathe a word of this-not so much as a vowel of it–to anybody.”

She leaned into me like the bulkhead of a four-story apartment building. “Do you understand?” I asked as she pressed against me.

“I understand,” she said.  She had a smile that could light up the inside of a refrigerator.

* * * * *

There’s a million things can go wrong with a wedding.  An uncle who has to see the Southern Cal game brings a portable TV to the church.  A groomsman sticks a bottle rocket in the tailpipe of the bride’s limo.  A maiden aunt who’s allergic to nuts keels over after two bites of the tortoni. It doesn’t take long to come up with a couple of crazy schemes, not if you’ve been in the business as long as I have.  Problem is, you’d make better use of the brain cells you burn thinking them up having a rye highball and going to bed.

“How are you going to do it?” I asked Phyllis one night as I stared into the fire.

“Well, we’ve got a swimming pool out back.  We could have a cocktail party for him to meet my parents’ friends, and I could bump him so he knocks my mother into it.”

“Out of the question.”

She screwed her mouth up into a little moue.

“You don’t like that idea?” she asked.

“It’s terrible.  Your mother would just laugh it off.  She’d be telling friends about it till the day she died.  What else?”

“Um-what if he got really drunk at his bachelor party and . . . left something personal with a stripper?”

“It’s no good.”

“Why not?”

“You call things off over that, you’re the bad guy, not him.  He’s just letting off a little steam.  Worst that happens is he picks up a social disease-gives you something to talk about at bridge club.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

I grabbed her by the shoulders, spun her around and made her do the Bunny Hop into the bathroom until we were standing in front of her medicine cabinet mirror.

“You’ve got to get this straight–there comes a time with any wedding policy when the only thing that will see you through is audacity, and I can’t tell you why.  Understand?”

“Why you can’t tell me why?”

“No, why you need audacity.”

“I don’t understand why you need audacity.”

“Neither do I, but you need it.  So what we do is this.  You get to his best man, tell him you know Herbert was a ladies’ man, you’ve always wanted to hear what a rake he was . . .”

“You mean hoe?”

“No, rake.  You set the guy up to give the most embarrassing toast at a rehearsal dinner since the wedding feast at Cana.”

“And when he does?”

“You bolt the banquet hall, crying.  Deal’s off.”

“And the insurance company pays?”

“They have to.  You don’t fall within the runaway bride exception.  You didn’t get cold feet–you had no idea Herb was such a cad, a bounder, a . . . “

“Rake?”

“You got it.”

*    *    *

We had it set up so it couldn’t fail.  It would run like a Swiss cuckoo clock, chirping at the appointed hour.  Floyd Gehrke, the best man, liked to drink, and he liked to talk.  Phyllis had pumped him up like an air mattress.

“I want to hear everything–everything, you understand?” she told Gehrke.

“I could go on all night,” Floyd said.  “Won’t you have to pay the band extra?”

“That won’t be necessary,” I cut in.  I didn’t want to use up the deductible on Leo Bopp and his Musical Magicians.

“Okay,” Floyd said, as he wiped his mouth with a napkin and stood up.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, and Phyllis and I were tapping our crystal water glasses like English handbell ringers.

“If I can have your attention for a few moments, I’d like to say a few words about my best bud–Herb Nirdlinger.”

The crowd began to uncouple from their conversations, and Floyd launched his dinghy onto the dark waters of the Chateau de Ville Ballroom and Function Facilities.

“I’ve known Herb for many, many years-I don’t think any man knows him better than I do.”

There were a few coughs in the back of the room, but then things settled down for good.

“Like a lot of guys, Herb sowed a fifty-pound bag of wild oats when he was younger, but–and this is a big but, just like Herb’s-

There were a few laughs spread across the room–fewer than Floyd was expecting.  I thought I saw a few drops of flop sweat break out on his brow.

“Every girl Herb ever dated, then dumped–every one of them would come running back to him today.  All he’d have to do is say the word.  And the reason is, when he dropped them, he let them down easy.”

Floyd was off to a good start.  I gave Phyllis the high sign; one hand under my chin, which I waved up and down, so I looked like Oliver the Dragon on “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”.


That’s Ollie on the right.

“Herb was always a perfect gentleman about it, and that’s why he remains friends to this very day with so many of the women he dated.”

It wouldn’t take too much more of this before any reasonable woman would have fled in tears.  That’s all I needed–just a little actuarial ammunition to back us up.

“And I hope he continues to do the same thing with Phyllis–the nice part, not the breaking up part.”

I kicked her–kicked her hard–and she stood up.  “You–you lout, you!” she said, looking at Herb.   “The wedding’s off!” she screamed, took off her ring and threw it at him.  Then she ran off into the night like a scalded cat.

I picked up the ring, put it in a #1 Brown Kraft coin envelope with Gummed Closure and handed it to Herb.  “Your policy does not cover goods that are intentionally damaged or discarded,” I said.

“Thanks,” he replied.  I thought I saw a tear in his eye, and I thought he was crying about Phyllis.  The cold duck must have gone to my head.

*    *    *

“Huff, I don’t like it.”  I was sitting in the office of Keyes, my claim manager.

“What’s the matter with it?”

“Gal goes out and buys a wedding policy,” he said as he paced up and down in my office.  “Never hires a florist or a caterer.  Doesn’t book a band.  Has one, maybe two fittings on her wedding dress.  Picks out some godawful purple organza material none of the bridesmaids like, but none of them says a thing.”

“Nothing unusual about that.”

“It gets unusualler.  The night before the rehearsal dinner she calls up the fabric shop and cancels the order.”

“So–it happens every day.”

“Sure it does.  But you know what doesn’t happen every day?”

“What?”

“She doesn’t argue about the $200 deposit, and in fact tells the girl she can keep it–’cause she’s been so nice to her.”

My heart was pounding.  “It’s a chick thing.  Women don’t tip for service, they tip because they like somebody, they tip . . .”

“Huff-it wasn’t a tip.  It was hush money, pure and simple.  Only she gave it to the wrong person-someone who’s got a shred of ethics left in this lousy, stinking world. Someone who understands that the cost of insurance fraud for all of us is a lot higher than the price tag on a lousy 50 yard bolt of discontinued fabric.”

A lump rolled down my throat and into my stomach.  The honeymoon was over.  It was time to kill Phyllis.

*    *    *

I told her I’d meet her at her place, that I had the check.

“Oh, Walter, that’s thrilling.”

”Just be sure you’ve got new batteries for the flashlight, and use some Windex on that coffee table of yours so I can do a good job on Herb’s signature.”

“I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“Fine isn’t good enough.  This is a big check, so there’ll be a manual examination when it hits my company’s account.  It’s got to be perfect.”

“Don’t snap at me,” she said in a hurt little voice.  “What do I know about reasonable industry standards of care in the commercial banking business?”

I couldn’t afford to have her go wobbly on me now.  “Sorry, sugar.  We’ll get this last piece of business behind us, and then we’ll be together.”

“Finally.”

“That’s right.”

“Forever.”

Until death did us part.

I rolled into her driveway around twelve-thirty.  There wasn’t any point in parking down the street and walking any more; it would all be over–for better or worse–when I walked out that door.

I rang her doorbell and she answered it in the same get-up she had on the first day I met her.

“Looks familiar, baby.”

“I figured you liked what you saw then.”

“I sure did,” I said, and I wasn’t lying.  “Where’s that coffee table?”

“In there,” she said, and she pointed into a sort of parlor off foyer.

I walked in and started to sit down on the couch.  As I hiked up my pants the way men used to do before the coming of wrinkle-free, easy-care styles, something hit me in the back of the head like Jack Dempsey in a clinch.

“Ow,” I said as my head hit one of those expensive coffee table books that nobody ever reads but everybody says “This is so lovely!” when you give it to them.  People are like that.

“Okay, you human file cabinet,” I heard a gruff voice say.  “Hand over that check.”

I looked up and saw Floyd Gehrke standing there with the Bucheimer “Midget” sap that he had just flattened me with.

“So it’s the best man,” I said through the salty taste of blood in my mouth.  The oldest trick in the book, and I fell for it.

”That’s right,” he said.  “You were expecting maybe the ring bearer?”

“That would have been just a little too cute.”

“Enough with the wisecracks,” he said.  “Hand over the $20,000.”

“Sure, sure,” I said.  “I’ve got it right here.”

I reached in my inside jacket pocket and pulled out my Beretta PX4 Storm Sub-Compact.  It holds thirteen rounds-unlucky thirteen.

I let the best man have twelve while Phyllis stood there shrieking, her hands over her ears.  Then I turned to her.

“There’s one left, baby.  You want it?”

“Oh, Walter-please don’t.  We have so much to live for!”

“Like what?” I said bitterly.  “Name one precious little thing.”

“Just look,” she said, and with a sweep of her arm she showed me what every newlywed couple hopes for and dreams of.

“Look at these wedding presents!  We got a Cuisinart! And a Donut Express countertop donut maker with standard and mini-size pans–it’s dishwasher safe!”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

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.

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            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.

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            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.

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            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.”

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            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.

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            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.”

 

Father Kniest, Jazz Priest

I’m getting too old for this, I thought as I made my way down Boylston Street, my tambourine in one hand, the Good Book in the other. I started ministering to the jazz scene in Boston back when Estelle Slavin and Her Swinging Brunettes were the house band at Izzy Ort’s Coney Island Club on Essex Street. Floogie Williams and the Unquenchables were ensconced at the Tip-Top Lounge, which didn’t sit well with the sconces that came with the place as trade fixtures, but so what? We were young and crazy for jazz—we didn’t care.

Boylston

But now I’m closing in on eighty, and eighty’s looking over its shoulder, nervous as hell. I’ll catch it soon enough–if I don’t die first.

Back in ‘55 I was just out of the seminary and was assigned by my religious order—the Congregation of the Hep—to Boston, one of the most Catholic cities in America, and always viewed as nothing more than a stepping stone. Cats in Boston lived in an existential no-man’s-land; always doubting whether they were any good as long as they stayed in Beantown instead of moving on the Big Apple. To them, I was Father Kniest—Jazz Priest.

Like The Disgruntled Threesome—“Buzzy” Drootin, Sparky Tomasetti, Cas Brosky. Man, those guys could swing. The name was facetious, of course; if you came into Wally’s Wigwam in a disgruntled mood, those guys would have you completely gruntled by the time they’d finished “Muskrat Ramble” the second time.

totem pole

But all that’s in the past, in the semi-glory days of Boston jazz. Now, I’m reduced by fifty years—a half century!—of rock, folk, disco and rap to trying to save a few forlorn souls from eternal damnation.

I pass by a soprano sax player in Dewey Square, or “Financial Center” as some urban planning goober decided to re-brand it in the 80’s. He’s playing “Chim Chim Cheree,” among other schmaltz-laden Disney tunes. I know the guy’s just trying to survive, but so are the hookers down on lower Washington Street—that don’t make it right.

I step out of the herd of faceless commuters making their way to South Station for the train ride to the suburbs, and pull a $5 bill from my pocket. The man says “thank you” without taking his mouth off his reed so he can keep the cash flowing, but I dangle the sawbuck in front of his face without letting it drop to let him know I’ve got something I need to say to him.

“I need to talk to you, man,” I say, and he finally stops playing.

“Really, thanks a lot, I . . .”

“You don’t get it,” I say with the seething demeanor Jesus must have taken on right before he threw the money changers out of the temple.

“What?”

“I’m paying you to stop . . . not keep going.”

sax monkey
“Blow Sax Monkey, blow!”

 

“But . . . I won’t make any more money that way.”

“Yes you will, if you’ll stop playing that crap and switch to something worth the breath it takes to play it.”

“Like what?”

“If you play ‘Cherokee’ there’s another fin in the wallet where this one came from.”

His eyes light up. “Heck YEAH, man,” he says, and he launches into a creditable rendition of the Ray Noble classic. I drop two fives into his instrument case, nod my head as I give him a look of commendation, and I’m off to rescue another frail reed about to break beneath the burden of a culture that doesn’t appreciate his art.

It’s over to La Fisherie, an upscale restaurant in “Copley Place.” I can only shake my head at that solecism. Copley Square was already a place, the aorta of the heart of Boston jazz. It was here that Leonard “Dizzie” Groot joined forces with Bunny “Fred” Buchanan and Tommy “Flip” Phlegman to come thisclose to getting a contract with Verve that coulda shoulda woulda made them stars in the same constellation as The Dorsey Brothers.

jazz band

But no. A cold sore hampered Bunny/Fred the night the A&R man from New York came to town to hear The Jazz Nocturnals at Mert’s Playland; by the second set his lip was bleeding and he could barely manage “In the Mood.” The guy from the record company got lost on the subway, like Charlie on the MTA. He didn’t know that there’s no inbound/outbound transfer at Copley, and he didn’t know that you pronounce the name of the place with a short “o”; it’s COP-ley as in “Cheez it—the cops!”–not COPE-ley, as in “I can’t cope with you any more, Laverne.”

There’s still one jazz venue left in the Square; the somnolent, soporific Swank Room in the basement of a Class B hotel where a Red Sox relief pitcher took his own life back in the 50’s, setting off a massive manhunt on the part of the ball club’s management to recover his $3.50 per day meal money.

I tread gently down the dimly-lighted steps and see a scene that would break any self-respecting jazz man’s heart; there’s four, maybe five tables occupied, one by Lydia Tournquest, “society” columnist for The Back Bay Schooner, a relic of a bygone era before the MassPike made it easy to commute to the suburbs and drained the city of adults with a recollection of what jazz once sounded like and the pocket money to pay for it.

On the bandstand is Wilson “Chet” Forskett, a Berklee student who’s wailing on alto sax; he’s chasing the Bird, playing an easy-swinging “Yardbird Suite” with enough invention to keep you listening while still tapping your feet to the Kansas City beat. I’m almost ready to get excited—is this the Second Coming of Boston Jazz?—when he ends on a mellow note and draws scattered applause.

girl singers

Down front a mismatched couple—he’s wearing a toupee, her burgeoning breasts are about to spill out of her scoop neck—takes it all in with a knowing, somewhat superior air. Why not? They sprang for the $19.95 Veal Scallopini Avec Porcini Mushrooms—the name of the dish is like a mini-United Nations Security Council.

They put their hands together in restrained admiration—probably don’t want to get the kid’s hopes up for a tip—and the woman speaks.

“Excuse me,” she says to the sax man.

“Yes?” he replies.

“Do you know Lady—by Kenny Rogers?”

The young man bites his lower lip but not, I think, because he can’t recall the changes.

“No ma’am,” I’m afraid we don’t.” I know what he’s thinking: he’s drunk the milk of Paradise, like the man in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan—the paradigm shifting music of bebop; he’s not going back to Classic Country.

“Aww, that’s a shame,” the woman says. I think I’ve got these two figured out. Mr. Hair Club for Men is her boss, she’s his secretary. How—sordid!

“Sorry,” the budding jazz man says.

“You should learn it,” the woman says. “It’s really beautiful!”

I see the kid’s neck stiffen; he’s trying to keep from shaking his head.

“Well, uh, sheet music is expensive,” he says.

“That’s okay—I can hum it for you, and you can fake it,” the woman says. She clears her throat—shoulda got that flu shot, I think to myself—takes her long-stemmed red rose in hand and begins to emote.

“Lady,” she sings in a husky contralto, “I’m your knight in shi-i-ning armor!”

“Stop!” I yell as I make my way down front. “Stop it before you infect this young man with whatever pop virus has corrupted your brain!”

clooney

“Hey—don’t talk to her like dat!” the man says. Now that I’m up close, I see that I’ve judged him unfairly; his hair’s real, only it’s combed over from a point just above one ear all the way over to the other. He looks like a Georgia cotton field infected with kudzu.

“I’m a man of the cloth, pal. I’m deputized by a higher power to save jazzmen’s souls from the lures and wiles and temptations of bad taste.”

I have bad taste?” the woman says. Apparently no one’s ever leveled with her before.

“Abso-freaking-lutely,” I say, drawing myself up to my full 5’10” height.

“I thought the rule was ‘Cha-koon o sone gout’,” the man says. “To each his own.”

“Nope,” I reply with authority. “There are certain immutable laws of beauty, and your ‘lady’ here is a veritable one-woman aesthetic crime wave.”

“How do you know she’s got bad taste?” the man asks, a bit miffed at my condescension.

“Easy,” I say. “She’s with you.”

This story originally appeared in Jerry Jazz Musician.

Great Gatsby Roulette

It was May of my senior year in college. Everybody was coasting, knowing either what they were going to be doing the next year, or that they’d be doing nothing. Except for one guy, Tom.

Tom had been accepted at medical school–Harvard, no less–so his future was pretty much mapped out for him, assuming he graduated from college first. Med schools are funny that way. They make you dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s” before they let you cut body parts off cadavers and stick them in the purses of the secretaries.


Fitzgerald: “The road to med school goes through me.”

 

And so as we assembled for one of our last nights of drug-enhanced conviviality, we felt a general sense of relief and hopeful anticipation–except for Tom, whose face was clouded by a look that suggested he had a lot of work left to do.

“What’s eating you?” somebody finally asked.

”I need to finish one course in the humanities to graduate,” he said.

“So–what’s the big deal?” came the question from one to whom a course in literature was a day at the beach.

“I need to write a paper on The Great Gatsby,” Tom said.

“Christ, I’ve probably read that book for three courses the past four years,” said somebody else.

“Well I haven’t,” Tom said.

“Haven’t what?” I asked. “Haven’t read it three times?”

“Haven’t read it at all,” Tom said sheepishly.

Like many pre-med students, Tom had spent so much time taking organic chemistry and other hard science courses that he hadn’t had time to take any electives to round out his personality, and his heavy load of classes, labs, shooting pool, going to the race track and Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park and staying up all night playing poker had left him little time to read for pleasure.

“You’ve only got, like, two days, right?” a guy named Alan asked.

“One,” Tom replied, like a prisoner on death row who’s just finished his last meal.

A collective gulp of five Adam’s apples was heard. “You have to read it and write a paper about it . . . tonight?

He was silent for a moment. “You got it.”

The gloom that had, just a moment before, been one man’s burden spread like a contagious disease on the wings of a sneeze. We all felt terrible for Tom, but we were on the South Side of Chicago, home of Saul Alinsky, inspiration to generations of radicals and later even a President of the United States!


Saul Alinsky

 

What we had learned from the example of Alinsky was that there was a time for talk, and a time for radical social action to improve the everyday lives of ordinary people. We looked at each other and at Tom’s downcast head and as if by telepathy, formed a common purpose.

“We’ll help you write your paper!” someone said emphatically.

“Yeah–all of us–together!” said another.

“Guys–I couldn’t ask you to . . .” Tom began, but I cut him off. “You were there for me in Rocks and Stars,” the elementary science course for English majors, I said. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have gotten that B that kept my grade point average where it needs to be in case I ever figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”


“You gotta work the shirt scene in there somewhere.”

 

Tom looked around the room and we could see his eyes misting over. “You–you would do that for me?” he asked, a lump in his throat.

“You’d do it for us, if you’d read the book and we hadn’t and we had screwed around like you and left the paper to the last minute,” somebody said.

By now Tom’s eyes were red. “You guys–you’re the greatest!” he said. He’d had a few beers.

“C’mon,” a guy named Bates said. “No time for emoting–we’ve got a lot of writing to do.”

As the only guy in the room who had mastered touch typing, I was assigned the role of scrivener. I loaded a manual typewriter with a sheet of white paper, rolled it up, and centered it for the title.

“Okay–’The Great Gatsby–colon,” I said. “What comes next, and it has to be a question.”

“Why’s that?” Tom asked.

“Because if it’s a question, you don’t have to have a thesis,” Bates said. “You’re just raising an issue . . . ”

” . . . for consideration by future generations of scholars,” said a guy named Jack.

“Uh, let’s see–Threat or Menace?” I offered.

“Too sociological. How about–’Process or Event’?” Jack suggested.

“You used that for your Haymarket Anarchist Bombing paper,” Bates said. “What about–’Icon or Shibboleth’?”

“Great,” I said and typed it in. “Okay–we’ve got to be organized, otherwise you’re going to drive me crazy,” I said. “We’ll go around the room–Russian Roulette style–and take turns. One sentence per person, then on to the next–okay?”

“I’m in,” said Bates, as he put on the Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation” album at a volume just slightly below the level that would attract the attention of a resident assistant.

“You really think that’s a good idea?” Tom said. “Don’t we have to like–concentrate?”

“Dude, you took too many science classes,” Bates said. “This is how creative-types do their thing.”

“First sentence–somebody, anybody,” I called out.  Bates had already taken a few tokes on a reefer on the quad below, so his creative juices were flowing freely.

“Uh, ‘The Great Gatsby is a seminal work that calls attention to, and plays upon, class distinctions that are customarily submerged beneath the surface in America due to the leveling pressure of democratic principles.’”

“Great start!” I exclaimed as I tapped out the opening lines. “Next.”

“The narrator, young Nick Carraway, serves as the . . . uh . . . sounding board for Fitzgerald’s critique of the American dream, as he is alternately attracted to and repulsed by the materialism with which Gatsby has surrounded himself,” Alan said.

“Got it–who’s next?”

“I guess me,” Jack said. ‘Carraway is sucked into’ . . .”

“Scratch that,” Bates said. “Not high-toned enough. Say ‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life’–something like that.”

“Okay,” Jack said, a bit peevishly I thought. Pride of authorship. “‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life because he is second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, whom Gatsby desires because she is from a social class above his, and thus unattainable.”

I looked over at Tom as I typed and noticed that his mouth was hanging open. “You guys are–incredible!” he said, a big smile on his face.

“Why don’t you take a turn?” Bates asked, as he passed the joint to Tom.

“Me? But . . . I only read the first chapter!”

“That’s enough man–go ahead,” Bates said. “Give it a shot!”

Tom inhaled, held his breath for a moment, then opened his mouth to allow the smoke to escape, along with these words. “In this respect, Daisy represents the American Dream, always luring us onward, always receding as we draw near it.”


Arnold Rothstein, fictionalized as Meyer Wolfsheim

 

“See–you don’t need to read the book,” I said. “It’s in the air you breathe.”

We continued in that vein for several hours until we had collectively banged out three pages–double-spaced, inch-and-a-half margins–of the most bogus symbol-spotting literary claptrap that ever issued from the mind of an American undergraduate. As we wrapped things up with the obligatory analytical pecking and poking at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, I pulled the last sheet of paper out of the typewriter, and everyone gathered around to admire our work.

“You know,” Bates said as took a final hit on what was left of the joint, “it’s true what they say about art having a cathartic effect.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. He was a little blissed out, but recovered enough to realize he may have missed something. “What exactly does that mean?”

“I dunno,” Bates said. “But it sounded good.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddling Anymore.”