As Other Taboos Fall, Earlobe-Nibblers Still Face Scorn

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. This quaint town on the outermost point of Cape Cod has historically been known for its location on the extreme end of another measure; the liberality of its residents’ views on matters sexual. “The first settlers ran the Puritans out of town when they came up from Plimouth Plantation,” says Matt Skerkel, using the original spelling as he drapes his arm around his husband, Tom Skerkel-Manning. “We’re got every variety in the GLBT produce section–even dogs and cats living together.”

earlobe
“Oh, yes!”

 

But one practice is still considered beyond the pale here, as honeymooners Jim and Sandra Meznick find out when they snuggle together in a booth at the Lamplighter Inn and he leans in to first nuzzle his nose in her hair, then furtively takes a bite of her earlobe. “Hey you two perverts!” shouts bartender Courtney Balstrom from behind the beer taps. “I seen youse, and there’s none of that allowed in here.”

The faces of the two turn red with embarrassment and the husband reaches for his wallet while his wife wraps her shawl around shoulders as they prepare to leave. Jim drops three twenties on the table in payment of a $45 dinner tab but is too mortified to wait for change and pops the collar on his jacket to hide his face as the couple heads for the exit.

EARlobe2

“Absolutely disgusting,” says Jim Hampy, a local fisherman who has formed a bestiality support network for others like him with dreams of getting “scrod” by the official fish of the state, the cod, under its other, more risque name. “It’s people like you who give this town a bad name!” he shouts after the Meznicks as they scurry into a crowded t-shirt shop next door to avoid detection.

Earlobe-nibbling is perhaps the last sexual taboo remaining in America, a practice that attracts the obloquy and scorn of both the strait-laced and the liberated. “I don’t mind the scorn,” says Niles Herstrom, a greeting card buyer for a large drugstore chain and a closet earlobe-nibbler. “It’s the obloquy that gets to me. I don’t even know what obloquy is!” he says before turning away to fight back tears.

earlobe3

“The human earlobe is the last erogenous frontier,” says Philip Gluz, the Norman O. Brown Professor of Polymorphous Perversity at the University of Cape Cod, who teaches a seminar on the subject that has drawn criticism from state legislators as a front for indoctrination of young people. “Earlobe nibbling does not result in human reproduction, so the weirdos who do it have to perpetuate their species by other means,” says Rep. Mike O’Bannon (D-Seekonk). “We used to burn witches for lesser offenses, which was wholesome entertainment for the whole family.”

earlobe4
Inter-species earlobe nibbling was common in ancient Rome.

 

There is currently no specific law prohibiting earlobe-nibbling in the state, but prosecutors sometimes resort to a statute adopted in 1635 as part of The Book of the General Lauus and Libertyes of Maffachufets to repress the practice. “If any man or woman fhall LYE WITH ANY BEAFT, or fhall NIBBLE UPON THE LOBE OF ANY PERFON’S EARE,” the law reads, “they fhall furely be put to death.” Defense counsel argue that the law should be stricken from the books under the principle of desuetude, or that its enforcement should be suspended until a new shipment of s’s arrives from England.

But that won’t help couples like the Meznicks, who say they just want to pursue their love according to their own lights. “Why canth they just leaf uth alone,” Jim says as Sandra moans softly. “Ith really a victimleth crime.”

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.

Me and Baudelaire in the Backseat on Vacation

I first encountered Charles Baudelaire as a sophomore in college when I read Les Fleurs du mal, and to say that dawn broke on Marblehead, as the expression has it here in Massachusetts, would not be an understatement. No more “patter of little feet” poetry, all was changed, changed utterly to quote my buddy Bill Yeats. Check out Les Metamorphoses du vampire, par example: “the woman, in husky tones/Twisting her body like a serpent upon hot stones/And straining her white breasts from their imprisonment.” Who needs to sneak a peek at Playboy with lines like that?


Baudelaire: Dippity Do, for hard-to-control bangs.

 

We’ve stayed in touch over the years, but only sporadically. When I see one of his aphorisms in the “Quote of the Day” feature next to F Minus in the comics I’ll send him a text along the lines of “Good one” or “You’re nuts!” Sometimes I hear back, sometimes I don’t.


F Minus by Tony Carillo

 

One caught my eye the other day–”Genius is childhood recalled at will”–that really struck me. I mean, when something like that hits you the proper response isn’t “LOL” or ;) or something similarly e-stupid. You need to go down to the depths, like a pearl diver, to understand it.

“Charles,” I said to him as recalled a childhood summer at will and we climbed into the back seat of my dad’s ’57 Oldsmobile with my two sisters, “what did you mean by that one?”

“Where are we going?” he asked in reply.

“We’re on vacation–we’re going to the Garment District in New York to buy next season’s inventory for my dad’s store.”

“Doesn’t sound like much of a vacation to me,” he said. We were crammed into the middle, along the transmission hump.

“You stink,” said Big Sister, with her forbidding harlequin glasses, by way of greeting to the great poet.

“I eat a lot of garlic,” Baudelaire said.

“I don’t have a boyfriend yet,” Little Sister said, batting her eyelashes coquettishly.

“Neither do I,” Baudelaire replied, hoping to put her off by shock tactics.

“Yuck!” she exclaimed, then turned back to her Nancy Drew mystery.

“How long of a drive is it?” Baudelaire asked.

“Too long if you’re going to blab the whole way,” Big Sister said.

“To you, mon cher, I give only carefully selected garbage,” Baudelaire said with a sneer. He wasn’t backing down.

Big Sister turned away and stared out the window, then whirled suddenly and punched Baudelaire in the arm yelling “Four hole Buick!”

“Ow,” the great poet screamed. “What’d you do that for?”

“Rules of the road,” I said apologetically. “The first person to see a Buick with four holes on the side gets to punch somebody.”

“What kind of stupid rule is that?”

“Hey–you’re the one who said ‘Genius is childhood recalled at will,’” I said shrugging my shoulders. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us, so it’s probably not a good idea to take any naps.”

He frowned, rubbed his shoulder and fell back on one of his provocative aphorisms: “Personally, I think that the unique and supreme delight lies in the certainty of doing evil,” he said as he glared at Big Sister.

“You snooze, you lose,” was all she had to say back.

We rode in silence for awhile, then whining time began.

“When are we gonna be there?” Little Sister asked.

“Can we stop for ice cream?” Big Sister chimed in.

“We need to go 500 miles today, kids,” Dad said from the front seat.

That made Big Sister more irritated than normal, and I avoided her glare and kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t, however, warn Charles, as she made a little circle with her thumb and forefinger and moved it discreetly below her waist. Baudelaire didn’t know what she was doing and his eyes followed her arm down to her hand, at which point she punched him again.

“Now what?” he yelled, caught by surprise.

“Made you look!” she squealed with delight.

“What is this stupidity?” he said as he turned to me, holding his hand on his bicep for protection.

“Another childhood game,” I explained. “If she makes the OK sign below your waist or above your head and you look, she gets to punch you unless you get your finger through the loop before she says ‘Made you look.’”


“If I hide my hand, maybe she won’t punch it.”

 

“It is all so complicated,” he said. “I will be beaten to a bloody pulp before we reach Nouveau York.

“You have to play Barbie and Ken with me now,” Little Sister said.

“Who are these Barbie and Kens?”

“They’re boyfriend and girlfriend,” she said suggestively.

Little sister pulled the hard plastic lovers out of her traveling Barbie bag and began to walk them back and forth across the seat as they engaged in the sort of humdrum, everyday conversation she assumed was the daily bread of a happy marriage from listening to our parents.

“Remember, we have bridge at the McCuskers tonight,” she mouthed as Barbie’s words to Ken.

“Those bores? I’d rather be dead in a ditch,” she had Ken reply in a slightly deeper voice.

“He’s the bore, she’s nice,” Barbie replied with the help of Little Sister.

“That is so stupid,” Big Sister and Baudelaire said simultaneously, at which point Big Sister said “Jinx you owe me a penny 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 . . .”

“Is she going to hit me again?” Baudelaire asked me with fear in his voice.

“Say stop–fast!” I said.

“Why?”

“Because the higher she counts, the more money you owe her?”

“Why do I owe her money?”

“Because you said the same word at the same time and she said ‘Jinx’ first so she gets to fine you.”

“STOP!” Baudelaire finally said as he realized the longer he waited, the deeper in debt he’d go.

“Okay, you owe me 29 cents,” Big Sister said with smug satisfaction.

“Also I want to stop the whole thing.”

“What whole thing?” I asked.

“This whole recollection of your childhood at will. I was wrong–this is not a work of genius, it is a form of torture.”

“Fine with me,” I said. “It was your idea.”

“Perhaps, but I have a new idea.”

“What’s that?”

“For a new book of evil poetry.”

“A sequel to Fleurs du mal?”

“Yes–Soeurs du mal.

“My French is a little rusty–what’s that mean?”

“Sisters of evil.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

Me and Barbie

Typical Saturday for me, browsing through the thrift stores in my new home town, looking for old books and records, when I spied a familiar face out of the corner of my eye.

“Barbie?” I asked tentatively.

She rolled over in the toy bin where she lay and looked up at me.  “Oh–hi,” she said as she brushed her blonde hair out of her eyes.  “It . . . it’s been a long time.”

She looked like she’d seen the wrong end of too many little bottles of gin, her skin faded from the perfect flesh tone I remembered to a shade that recalled jaundice.  Probably the result of long hours under fluorescent lights on the one hand, and the bright glare of the sun through the front window on the other.

“How’ve you been?” I asked.

“Oh, you know–hangin’ in there.”  Just barely, I figured.  “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for old records, Benny Moten, Andy Kirk–Kansas City jazz.  And books–George Ade, Ring Lardner, you know, Midwestern smart alecks.”


Bennie Moten by R. Crumb

 

A laugh issued from her oh-so-delicate little mouth.  “I guess you can take the boy out of the Queen City of the Prairies and the Gateway to the Ozarks . . .”

“Don’t forget the State Fair City,” I added out of a sense of completeness.

” . . . but you can’t take the–”

“Right,” I said, cutting her off.  I want to get a bike ride in today.


In her prime

 

There was an awkward silence as she batted her lashes, heavy with mascara, and looked away, at the busy street out the window.

“So . . . find anything?” she said finally.

“Nope–no luck today,” I said.  Again–stiff silence, both of us at a loss for words.  “How’s Ken?” I asked finally–bad move.  Old lawyers’ rule–never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.  Old lawyer should have followed it.


Ken, after the breakup

 

She snorted with contempt.  “Haven’t seen him in years.  He can go shit in his hat for all I care.”

O-kay.  I felt sorry that I’d brought back painful memories and hurt her little plastic heart, and I decided to try and make it up to her.

“Say–you want to get out of here and get a cup of coffee?”

She looked surprised–I guess years of rejection, of being picked over, picked up and thrown back into the bin had taken their toll.

“Well, sure,” she said after a moment.  “I’m not really dressed . . .”

“You look fine,” I said.  “Everyone dresses more casually these days.”

“Okay,” she said tentatively.  “You’ll have to pay . . .”

“Sure–it’s on me.”


“Hmm–what is this guy’s game?”

 

“No–I mean to take me out of here.”

“Right, right,” I said.  Obviously a touchy subject.  Lincoln freed the slaves, but he did nothing for figureheads of a line of Mattel-brand dolls and accessories.  “How much are you?”

She turned away, and I thought I detected a sniffle.  “Sign’s up there,” she said, burying her face in a Beanie Baby.

Fifty cents–so that’s how far she’d fallen.  Stay upbeat, I told myself–laughter, like herpes, is contagious.

“No problem–come on, let’s blow this pop stand!” I said with enthusiasm.

We checked out and headed down to the Starbucks on the corner.  I trotted her up to the register they way I used to move her around the Barbie Dream House when forced to play with my sisters in order to get them to toss a football with me.


“No foam vanilla latte for . . . Barbie?”

 

“What’ll you have?” I asked.

“I like my coffee like I like my men . . .” she purred, showing signs of her old good nature for the first time now that she was out of the dismal confines of the thrift shop.

“Bold, with flavor notes of hazelnut?”

“No.”

“Tall, with extra foam?”

No . . .”

“Black, with . . .”

“No!  Bitter–like you!”

It was my turn to have my feelings hurt, I guess.  “That was the old me,” I said, and from the look on her face I could tell she knew she’d wounded me, if only a little.

“Sorry–you used to be awfully sarcastic,” she said.

“Yeah, I know, but having kids changed me.  I didn’t want to infect them with my warped view of the world.  I wanted them to look for the good in people.”

“I’m sure you’re a good dad.”

“Of course, they’re hopelessly naive, but life will knock that benighted crap out of them.  How’s . . .” I stopped myself before I stepped in it again.

“Skipper?” she said, picking up the thread.

“Right.”

“I don’t hear from her much,” she said as she turned her head with a far-off look in her eye.

“Yeah, sisters are like that . . .”

“She wasn’t my sister,” she said bitterly, whipping her head around to face me squarely.

“She wasn’t?”

She looked down at her cup and hesitated before she spoke.  “That’s what Mattel wanted you to think,” she said.  “She was Ken’s love child.  Then he dumps me for Midge.”

I understood then why she’d been so negative when I mentioned his name.

“I . . . had no idea.”

“Nobody did,” she said.  “We had a million-dollar marketing campaign to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.”

“Nobody can break your heart like a kid can,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” she said.  She seemed to have regained her sense of self-possession, so I tried to turn the conversation back to happier topics.  “Speaking of pulling the wool over something, you look like you keep yourself in great shape.”

She smiled–flattery will get you somewhere.  “You would know,” she said.

I blushed.  Dressing and undressing Barbie back in the day had been my introduction to the female anatomy.  “Yeah–but I had to, remember.”

“Bullfeathers,” she snapped, but she was smiling.  “You could’ve played ball with the Morris boys, or George Kuehn, or Billy Shue, or . . .”

“Okay–you got me.  I . . . used to enjoy slipping on your stewardess outfit, and the MBA one . . .”

“The one with the floppy bow tie and the briefcase?”  She threw her head back and laughed loud enough that a guy pretending he was writing a novel on his laptop two tables away glared at us.

“I used to pick those out, you know,” I said, smiling but a little embarrassed.

“You did?”

“Sure.  It was easy shopping for you . . . I mean my sister.  Every Christmas or birthday, just go to the toy store, grab something off the rack and you’re all set.”

“Oh, gawd,” she groaned.  “Well, I guess I was in style for the times.  Still, when I look back . . .”

“I know–it seems weird.  Say . . .”

“What?”

“You look like–and don’t take this the wrong way . . . it might be fun to go shopping again.”

She looked at me, sizing me up, one eyebrow raised, but still a trace of a smile at the corner of her mouth.

“That’s kind of a ‘couple’ thing to do, isn’t it?”

“Well, yeah.”

“And you’ve got a ring on your finger . . .”

“Right, but . . .”

“But what?”

“My wife doesn’t mind me handling artificial boobs as long as they’re attached to a plastic body.”

The Night of the Red Sox Living Dead

One afternoon, while heading home
Upon a hot commuter train,
I fell asleep, and dreamed this poem,
As summer’s light began to wane.

I saw a scene of baseball’s past
When stadiums were built to last
With brick-and-ivy outfield walls
Bombarded hard by sluggers’ balls.

And every man, and every maid
Would swelter in the noon-day heat.
And by the time the game’d been played
They’d smell as bad as postmen’s feet.

My reverie became a wish
That bordered close on heresy:
That Fenway Park, the Red Sox home,
Become an air-conditioned dome.

And as I slept the train rolled on
Past Back Bay then to Newtonville,
My narcoleptic state absorbed
What otherwise was time to kill.

Through Wellesley Farms to Wellesley Hills
And Wellesley Square I slept.
Through Natick and West Natick too
The engineer appointments kept.

When hot and groggy I awoke
To the conductor’s awful yawp,
The scenery out my window showed
We’d rolled four stations past my stop.

I stumbled off the train to see
A wave of fans in front of me
With baseball caps upon their heads
That bore the letter “B” in red;

it was–

The Night of the Red Sox Living Dead.

Their heads had swelled (or was it mine,
That lay asleep for all that time?)
“Ortiz” and “Schilling” on their backs.
With wild surmise and looks quite wacked.

They staggered towards me, two by two,
I froze, then turned and tried to flee.
Well, what exactly would you do,
If I were you, and you were me?

They seemed intent on mayhem mad
Or maybe something even worse.
As I imagined just how bad,
A mother hit me with her purse.

“Get out the way, we’re comin’ through!”
She screamed from deep within her lungs.
She pushed a snot-nosed kid or two–
Why is youth wasted on the young?

I stumbled back on to the train
Not knowing how or even why.
Crushed flat beneath a press of flesh
I thought that I was going to die.

We rattled back towards the town
From whence I’d come when wide awake,
Squeezed tight so I could make no sound
Squashed flatter than sardine pancakes.

West Natick first, plain Natick next
By Wellesley Square I’d caught my breath.
“Excuse me,” I could finally say,
“I’m getting off, my stop is next.”

“This guy here thinks he’s getting off!”
A ghoulish fan saw fit to scoff,
And then a chilly chorus said,
“He didn’t say the magic word!”

I racked my brain both high and low,
Then left, then right and upside down.
What sound would cause the zombie hoard
To let me off at Wellesley town?

I couldn’t think, I had to beg,
“Please tell me,” I implored a girl.
“I’m really not too bad an egg,
If not the nicest in the world.”

She looked at me with deep brown eyes
That bore through me like fine drill bits
A loyal fan, quite undersized,
She’d brought along a catcher’s mitt.

Child of the Damned, in schoolgirl clothes,
A tartan kilt of blue and green;
She wore a pair of Mary Janes
Her brown locks tossed by breeze unseen.

“If you want to get off this train
In Wellesley Square, one stop away
You’ll have to say the magic word!
Or ride with us to Yawkey Way!”

I didn’t want to go that far, I’d rather
–if the truth be known–
Be sitting in my easy chair
And watch the stupid game at home.

She read my mind by ESP
The zombies then advanced on me.
“Just say the simple syllable
And we’ll ride on while you go free!”

My mouth was dry, no words would come
I guess you’d say I’d been struck dumb.
In fear I struck a fetal pose,
And on they came, as zombies come.

The little girl sank to the floor
Like Jolson, skidding on her knees,
And screamed “You silly nimmynot–
The word you need to say is ‘Please’!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Red Sox and Yankees: Why Can’t We Be Enemies?”

For Victims of Post-Ice Cream Truck Syndrome, Silence is Golden

LEE’S SUMMIT, Mo.  Jim Hutchinson would prefer it if you set your cell phone on vibrate and kept your handheld device on mute.  He doesn’t like car horns, and when he goes to work every morning in Kansas City, he takes the stairs rather than hear the bell tones that signal when an elevator has arrived in the lobby.

Jim is a victim of “PICTS”–Post-Ice Cream Truck Syndrome–an affliction that affects an estimated half million Americans who drove ice cream trucks in their youth, and thus suffered through an endless loop of ten-second melodies designed to attract young children.  “I can’t get it out of my head,” he says.  ‘Bing-bing-bing, ba-BING bing bing’–over and over again, eight hours a day, six days a week, all summer long.”  He turns his face away from this reporter, and it becomes clear after a moment that he is sobbing quietly.


“We’re out of the Bomb Pops, kid–just pick something, will ya?”

 

As with other forms of trauma brought on by repeated exposure to irritating stimuli, Post-Ice Cream Truck Syndrome causes its victims to withdraw from society, venturing out only for necessities, and then displaying a hair-trigger sensibility that turns their social interactions into potentially volatile encounters.  “I went to the 7-11 to get some milk and bread the other night, and the guy just had to ring me up on the cash register,” says Orel Salkic of Centralia, Illinois.  “If I’d had a gun I woulda shot him, as long as it had a silencer.”


“Daddy, why is that man so angry?”

 

There is some hope that counseling and vocational training can prepare former ice cream truck drivers for useful lives as cab dispatchers or professors of philosophy, but most will drift from job to job and into and out of relationships, unable to find satisfaction in either work or love.  “These men–and ice cream truck drivers are overwhelmingly male–must find a balance between abject misery and the ordinary unhappiness that the rest of us are satisfied with,” says Yvette Young, the nation’s only occupational psychologist with both first and last names that begin with a “Y”.  “Unfortunately, there is no cure for a summer spent fending off snot-nosed kids who want to spoil their dinner when you drive by at three in the afternoon.”


“We were here first, Mister!”

 

But that’s not good enough for Hutchins, who holds out hope that he will eventually overcome his aversion to ring tones and bells of all kinds.  “When I take the Fudge Ripple out of the freezer, it’s just not the same,” he says.  “I want to chase the ice cream truck down the street through traffic like the ten-year old imbecile I once was.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “I Hear America Whining.”

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.)

dreams

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.

dreams1

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.

dreams2

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?

dreams4

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.