............................................................................................................................................................... I met a guy in a bar a few months ago. I’d seen him around this small college town a number of times but never actually talked to him. He fell asleep crossing Main Street one Tuesday afternoon. I was driving toward C-lot and he was completely unconscious in the crosswalk. Three cars stopped, I turned right and parked at a buck an hour. Walking with a quickened pace up the warm cement steps I saw the short cop was now there, not the tall one that looks like Stalin, but the short one who can be cool and not give you a ticket every time you’re one minute late and the meter expired, he was directing traffic and trying to wake the sleeping man.
“Ken, you alright?” He said quickly shaking the man’s shoulder.
The man jerked forward and continued on his way mumbling something about, “Ungrateful pigs.” I walked to class, glad no one was hurt but almost amused as the absurdity of the situation. That semester came and went. I got three A’s and an F. I focused on the A’s as a means for celebration the afternoon I happened to meet Ken.
I was sitting in the stool next to one of those video poker machines slowly sipping a tall, Absolute White Russian when he came in. My bartender greeted him with a smile.
“You have a tab to take care of; did you bring any money today?” She asks. Her tone was soothing as if to quiet a crying child. She knew he wouldn’t have any money but the boss didn’t want people just hanging around so she asked reluctantly.
Ken turned to leave and I spoke up, “May I buy him a drink?”
“I don’t know. . . he has a tab."
“How much is his tab?” She peeled back five slips of paper stained yellow and stapled to the wall. She totaled them up with a clunky, old claculator. Circling the bottom line she showed it to me while Ken stopped his exit, waiting to see if I would pay off his tab. “Well, I can’t pay that. Can I just buy him a drink?”
“I probably shouldn’t give him one until he pays this,” She said with some hesitation, “But I guess if you’re buying, okay, just one.” She turned back to Ken who was now lighting an unfiltered cigarette with a worn book of matches. “Gin?”
“(Inaudible mumbling)” Ken turned to me with what could have been a smile. “Thank you very much.” He said with his head cocked down to the floor.
“Anytime, can I bum a smoke?” The words came out as habit. I had a fresh pack in my right pants pocket but I wanted to hear his story so I needed an ice-breaker.
“Sure, sure.” Ken coughed and a raspy rumble echoed from the bottom of his gasping lungs. There was a cool blast of oxygen coming from the tank that ran a thin, transparent tube under his nose. I took the cigarette sticking out of his soft pack and lit it with black bic lighter I found on the ground earlier.
I inhaled deeply and let the poison pass from my lips to nose and back out. Looking down at what could have been the worst-tasting cigarette produced in the country I smiled, nodded my head, and let a, “Thank you,” mix with the foul smoke in the air. I stared at the tabs she stapled back to the wall. He looked at the polished brass framing the oak bar. I had a few hundred on me but his total was $216.50. I thought briefly about paying what I could but then realized I don’t even know this guy. He reached the bottom of his pint glass filled with sloe gin and three melted ice cubes in under a minute. I sucked down the last half of my drink until it made an obnoxious slurping sound loud enough to summons our bartender from her sociology book. “May we please have another round?” There must have been a subconscious wink or batted eyelash to accompany my rare smile because she didn’t say a word and when I came back from the bathroom there were two more drinks in front of Ken and I.
We sat in silence for three rounds. The mid-day sun died behind us and our shadows grew long. They disappeared among an array of displayed booze bottles. Ken smoked one cigarette after another and coughed into a dirty rag. Periodically, his oxygen tank would charge with a similar sound to the tanks that fueled our bartender’s soda gun each time she drank a Diet Coke. I thought about the empty calories a doctor once told me Diet Coke contained. The drink has zero nutritional value and no advantages to consuming it. Looking down at the cup of vodka and kaluha, with a splash of milk for color, I chuckled to my hypocratic self and caught a glimpse of my seasoned reflection sneering back from behind The Budweiser Anniversary mirror. There was a desperate need for human contact sitting in the three vacant chairs between Ken and I but the differences in our appearance seemed to prevent any healthy social interaction. Each time he finished his drink I was quick to follow. The effects became hard to hide but swaying in your seat is completely acceptable behavior for a bar room. As is tapping your foot not exactly in time to the music and belching loudly. I was wearing a red, silk button-down with a pair of new, black half-dressy pants that just touched the top of my size thirteen, polished, leather shoes. Ken ran out of cigarettes and I pretended to just remember the pack in my pocket. I lit one and handed him another.
Ken showed no visible signs of intoxication. “I need to ask you a question that you don’t have to answer.” It sounded like a riddle dancing on my tongue. His intrigue was clearly motivated by my willingness to buy another round. We both knew it and accepted the reality of the situation.
“What do you want to ask me?” Ken inquired without enthusiasm. I took a long drag to prepare myself.
“How did you lose them.” I finally asked.
“Shrapnel, Vietnam.” He said in seconds.
I looked down at the pant legs he had tucked underneath him and at the tattered American flag on his electric wheelchair.
“How much do they give you?” I didn’t want to know the answer but I had to ask the question.
“Enough to pay for my room and my pills.” He reached into the small bag he held and produced a handful of large white ovals. “Want one?” I did want one because I recognized them from years ago but it didn’t seem right to take medicine from a man who is in pain. “They don’t do much for me anymore,” He said washing several down with a mouthful of gin.
“What’s the strength?” I asked as if I didn’t know.
“These are twenties; I got a bunch more at home.” Ken swallowed a few more and then chewed a couple up like they were antacid tablets.
“No thanks, I used to have a problem with morphine,” I admitted and looked at the floor. “Doctors will give anything you want when you get sick.”
“You must have been pretty sick.”
“I was. But now I’m alright. Cancer fucking sucks!” I knew I was getting loud but at that point didn’t care.
“I know. I had it twice. The second time was real bad,” Ken uttered casually.
“Does it hurt much?”
“Cancer, yeah it hurts.”
“No not cancer."
Oh, you mean, do these hurt?” He pointed down at the area just before the knee where his legs stopped. “Only when I don’t have one of these,” he said raising the empty glass. I ordered two more, paid for our drinks, and used the bathroom one last time.
“Well, it was very nice to meet you Ken,” I said shaking his hand.
“Nice to meet you too,” he said. I turned to head for the door, got halfway, and turned back around.
“I’m going to tell this story one day Ken, and people will hear it.”
“God bless you,” he said tipping his glass toward me. I wasn’t sure if he was thanking me for the drinks or for the future story but it didn’t matter. My eyes glazed over and a tear fell onto the floor. A tear for Ken.
...................................................... My first instinct was to run. Looking up to the rearview mirror all I could see were blue lights flashing through the darkness. There was distinct smell of gunpowder or some other such charge they pack into the airbags as to inflate so quickly. It was cold. I could see my breath and taste the blood that ran from my forehead down the front of my grey Sean John.
I opened the driver's-side door, unbuckled my seat belt, and fell into the rose bushes. Standing to the rear of the Jeep I met my pursuing officer and the wrong end of a ceramic nine millimeter.
"Felony position!" His voice trembled just a bit.
"Hands behind your back!" A louder voice shouted.
I turned around and lay on the front lawn of my neighbor's house with my arms extended and my palms facing up. As the rear right rim spun to a stop I could see my reflection clearly in the polished chrome. Fresh blood ran through a scar I've had for more than twenty years and all I could think about was that bag of apples.
"What's the cover?"
"Ten, may I see your ID sir?"
I show the gentleman my driver's license, he looks me in the eyes, glances down at my ID and then back up at me quickly. I flip through my wad of C-notes to the middle where the small bills are. Peeling a crisp twenty off, I fold it twice, and shake the man's hand. Just habit I guess.
Two tall men in tuxedos open the twin oak doors and I am hit with music, lights, and a dazzling display of visual stimulation.
"What will it be?" The barmaid has to lean in and shout from less than two feet away.
"B-52, chilled, martini glass,” I yell back.
"What's in that?"
"KGB - an easy acronym to remember."
She shoots me a look of both surprise and offense. "Kaluha, Grand Mariner, and Bailey’s, iced, strained, and served in a chilled martini glass, please,” I humbly request with a little annoyance at her unfamiliarity with my obscure drink. She wastes no time. I turn to look at the talent on stage. Candi and Mandi are just finishing up their routine.
"Fifteen dollars,” My barmaid says. I hand her a twenty and walk away. Candi nudges Mandi as they walk off stage. I wave. They both wave. I sit in the back where the partition obstructs three quarters of the view of the club. Five minutes later they join me.
“I never noticed that scar before," Candi says plainly.
“I’ve had it for a long time,” I answer, “I got attacked by a parrot at a Buffet show in ’69. But enough about me.” There are two blank deer-in-headlights stares. I crack a smile and they begin to dance.
Outside yet another questionable establishment years ago two-hundred kids wait in line, some as young as sixteen, others as old as thirty-five. I turn to Tammy, my date for the night, and grab her hand tightly. She stands four feet-eleven inches with short blonde hair. She carries with her an heir of innocence but holds hands with the guy that might just ruin her life, or show her the best time she has ever had, these nights could go either way. We met at work. She was the manager and I needed to pay my lawyer. I somehow persuaded her to let me change the Musak station to one of my buddy's radio stations. The dance music was a little too hip for the Bugle Boy shopping crowd so we had to switch it back after numerous complaints from little, old ladies buying the wrong size jeans for grandchildren they only see on Christmas, but not before I called in and won two tickets to the five-year Boom reunion party. All the original DJ's were going to be there and Tammy had never been to a rave before. I swore to myself that I would never go to another big party after they found that kid dead in the bathroom one year prior but one more party couldn't hurt after the hundreds of others.
A kid with a bullhorn addresses the crowd with instructions to stay on the sidewalk, out of the parking lot, and wait patiently for the doors to open. Meanwhile limos are pulling up to drop off the high-profile DJ's and their respective posses. The crowd gets increasingly restless and begins pushing toward the doors. This can become a dangerous situation if anyone over-reacts. It is not uncommon to see the some people get trampled or to see the police in riot gear, mace, and bean-bag guns open up on innocent kids.
A black Escalade speeds into the lot parking two wheels on the curb in front of the club. Two guys and four girls hop out. "Just act like we're better than the rest of these people,” I whisper into Tammy's ear. As the valet pulls the Escalade off the curb I step in line behind our leading DJ's friends. Tammy is at my side with her head held high and now an heir of arrogance in her smile. We don't have to pay the fifty-dollar cover. When security asks what's in my saddle-bag I say, "Vinyl,” and continue walking.
record booth is a candy store because the front doors aren't opened yet. This line is worth waiting for. I get eight Mitsubishis, two white Nikes, and a bag of glass for a hundred bucks. Hours pass like seconds and we dance until it's time to go. We leave the club to watch the sun rise over the ocean and make love in the sand for our first and last time. Following the afterglow and just before the guilt she asks me, "How did you get that scar?" Childhood shame rushes back with remorse for the sins of the night and I cannot answer.
K.C. Masterpiece, we used to call him, because this guy was a work of art. He was a homeless kid on the run for dealing and hiding out that particular summer on the most populated beach in the area. Timmy and I cooked at an Italian place, so we got K.C. a job doing dishes. He worked cheap and he worked hard but he wouldn't ever shut up. He was constantly going on about places he'd been, people he'd met, and the deals he'd made. It was no wonder this kid got caught.
One night K.C. volunteered to stay late and do the floors. It sounded like he was trying to put in some extra effort at work and honestly thank us for getting him hired. The next day the cash box and all the bottles of Jack Daniels were gone. We all knew who did it, there was never any question, but because we got him hired, Timmy and I were blamed for K.C.'s theft. About a week later we were walking to work and saw K.C. drunk on the steps of the casino. We worked him over pretty good, took his backpack, and let him crawl away with his pockets turned inside-out. A few guys from work heard about it before we got there and we got a welcomed reception upon entering the kitchen that day with some of the money and an unopened bottle of booze.
That night after work K.C. was waiting for us. He met Timmy and I at the back door with a straight-razor. K.C. lunged forward and caught Timmy on the hand. I grabbed the closest thing I could, an old two by four leaning up against the chain-link fence with a few rusty ten-penny nails sticking out the end, I swung it at K.C. and it stuck deep into his right shoulder. He screamed this primal scream and pulled the board out. Timmy charged at him, landing two quick left jabs and a killer right hook. Timmy always had a good right hook. K.C. dropped to the ground, temporarily unconscious. It was about eleven at night so there were people everywhere. Soon a crowd gathered and someone must have called the cops because the paddy wagon was there in under a minute. It makes sense though because the police station is just around the corner. We hopped the fence and ran into the shadow of a nearby hotel parking lot. I stopped to catch my breath and saw Timmy staring back at the restaurant. K.C. regained consciousness and grabbed the razor just in time to get tackled by six rookie cops, all with a badge and a hard-on for some drunk kid holding a knife. They tossed a bloody K.C. Masterpiece into the back of the paddy-wagon and that was the last time we saw him.
Timmy took off his shirt and wrapped it around his hand. "Did he get you, too?" He gasped out of breath.
"No, I don't think so," I answered with relief.
"There's a cut over your eye."
"That's an old one," I said rubbing the scar just below my eyebrow.
In the sixth grade the entire class was brought to the cafeteria one afternoon with the principal, vice principal, and a police officer standing before us. The class was silent. Looks of concern, some of fear, and a few of genuine interest came across the sea of young faces. The principal said a few words about peer pressure and then introduced our new D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officer, Aaron. Aaron was very tall with short, dark hair and that unmistakable cop mustache that resembled Hitler in the right light. His eyes were kind and invited conversation but there was a silent uneasiness that hid behind the welcoming façade of his endearing demeanor. Aaron took the rest of the day to talk to us about drugs. He even had a black briefcase that contained labeled samples of things I had never seen and some I had. There were colloquial police terms for street slang and funny names for drugs no one does anymore. The presentation made a few of us more curious about drugs than we had been prior to it. There were those that were scared straight before they ever smelled pot. There were those that smashed the protective glass on his unguarded suitcase with hopes that some of the display items might be more than just props. Of course they weren't. The most interesting item was his handcuffs. He invited the kids down front to try them on. Most of us thought it was harmless and even rather amusing in the controlled environment of the school with so very many witnesses but a few students would later find out that Aaron liked the company of young boys, and, especially the handcuffs on them. Ten years later he was dismissed from the police force for molesting two young boys. No charges were filed. He just lost his job as a police officer in Hampton. Aaron Pickering was his name last I knew. I heard he changed it, moved away, and is now molesting children in the back rooms of a department store when they get caught stealing. I’ll never forget performing the D.A.R.E. song during our graduation from the program. The girl I sang it with killed herself, and the other guy is in jail on armed robbery and possession charges. I am still unclear on how successful the program was. Just after high school I was picked up with an open container and public intoxication violation. Aaron was the arresting officer. I asked him if he remembered me. He joked with a colleague saying, “I knew this one would never make it.” The two officers laughed. I spit through the wire mesh of the steel cage and caught Aaron right in his eye.
“Yeah shitbag, I might have some alcohol problems but at least I don’t diddle little boys, you sick fuck!” I don’t remember thinking about the words. They just came out and I heard myself saying them with almost as much shock as the two officers had in hearing them. I was taken into the last cell, the one with no cameras. I was strip-searched and beaten unconscious and it was worth it. The Hampton Union had a great story on him some months later and a number of victims came forward after that. If you’re ever in a department store when your kid gets picked up for shoplifting please go with him to see the store detective so he doesn’t get scarred for life.
There was a bailiff I met in my much younger days who actually seemed to care about making a positive impact on people’s lives. His name was Bill. Bill the bailiff. Bill took me out to Friendly’s for lunch while we waited for the judge to return from his chambers. Bill told me that the road I was taking was a long road to travel. Everyone that had taken that road has ended up dead, in jail, or reformed some time later. Most times it’s too late. He also told me that the only people that make it out of the downward spiral are the ones that realize they’re in it and honestly want to change. Then he told me that he could see in my face that I didn’t believe him and that was a shame. It was true I didn’t believe him. I had never known an adult I could believe in or trust. Why should the bailiff from my next court date be the first one? I had a chicken club with fries. Bill had a medium-rare cheeseburger with chips. It was the best lunch I would eat for the next six months. When it came time to go I reached for my wallet and remembered it was confiscated. I had three-hundred for the next Jacksonville trip but it was all on the judge’s desk in the courthouse. I asked Bill if he would mind picking up the tab this time. He laughed and shook his head with a kind smile. He told me I was very mature for my age. Hitch-hiking up and down the east coast at fourteen will do that. Five years would pass before I would get any word from him. Bill died of a heart attack before I ever thanked him for the sandwich. I’ll never forget Bill’s advice and the kindness he showed me. He said that someday what he talked about would make sense. He also told me that scars fade whether they’re on the outside or on the inside.
My earliest childhood memory is of the big white house on Beacon Street in Lowell. We had come home from a day of apple-picking in Hampton Falls. My mother was on the phone, my father was working his night job, and I was in the kitchen alone. On the table was this bushel of apples. The sweetest Washington Apples I can recall ever tasting. It was so great to spend the day with my family in a beautiful place they called the country. I wanted the apples. All that was perfect in my world was in that tall bag atop the kitchen table. I put down the apple I was eating and pushed a chair to the center of the room. Climbing on the chair with some difficulty I managed to get one leg on the table top, then the other, and I swung my tiny body around to lay flat on the top of the table. The bag weighed as much as I did if not more but I was determined to carry it to my room. With both hands and one fluid motion I lifted the bushel and celebrated my victory with a smile. Unfortunately the weight of the bag caught me off balance and I tumbled off the table and struck my forehead on the corner of the solid walnut chair on my way to the floor. It was black for a while. Then I remember my mother franticly calling for help and a warm, wet sensation running down my face. The doctor said I was lucky to only get five stitches and not lose my eye. I still don’t see the luck in all of it. Five years old with five stitches and a permanent scar doesn’t really seem too lucky. Apples don’t taste nearly as sweet as they did in my youth, except the chilled washington Apples.
................................................................................................................................................................... Changing of the Guards
.................. The face on the doctor’s bearskin rug had a grin that was somehow welcoming but the tension of Paul’s unfamiliarity with the foreign atmosphere left an uneasiness in his stomach that felt like too much coffee in the early afternoon. “Paul, this is doctor Korn.”
“Hello Paul. How are you feeing today?”
“How would you feel if you were dragged into a quack’s office because your grades were too good?”
“Mrs. Mahler, could you excuse us for this first session.”
“Paul, I’ll be right in the waiting room if you need me.”
“Thanks Mom thanks a lot.” She slipped quietly out the door and cried into a magazine. “So what, are you going to pump me full of drugs to quell my over-active brain?”
“No, I’d like to refrain from using any medication unless it is absolutely necessary. Could we begin with some medical history?”
“I’m nine. I don’t have a whole lot of medical history.”
The graduating class of 1961 will never forget him. Paul is now a shy high school senior with a brain but without motivation. He is lanky and long-haired with glassy, wide eyes, leather sandals, and the scent of sandalwood mixed with smoke.
His assignments are always done in the twilight hours when sleep-deprivation tricks the brain into believing each reaching paper makes some sort of sense. Sometimes they do, but most times they are misguided, half-hearted, and lack cohesion.
Mrs. Russell knows he has potential or else he wouldn’t have been accepted to the accelerated honors program but he shows up late and stoned on the days he does show up. Often times he sleeps in. When Paul speaks the class clings to his words partly because they often sound like riddles that take some time to unravel and partly because everything he says has some truth. Speaking is not his finest gift. Writing is. His passion for the written word is rivaled only by his passion for debating literary interpretations. Especially Shakespeare. Mrs. Russell’s Shakespeare course offers the flexibility for each motivated student to construct their own curriculum, meet with her one-on-one, and synthesize a senior thesis that ultimately decides the student’s grade.
Paul needs this last class to graduate and move on to his choice of schools. His family does well enough. But first he has to pass Mrs. Russell’s class.
“Mr. Mahler, it is so nice that you grace us with your presence today.” He sulked into his seat closest to the door without a word. It was 9:35. Class ends at 10. “I trust you brought us an assignment to critique?” Paul had a silver pen behind his right ear and a wrinkled package of papers before him on the graffiti-covered desk. He stood, cleared his throat, and took a breath.
“This paper is entitled, ‘My Public Education, Or Much Ado About Nothing’ In studying Shakespeare it is most important to keep an open mind and light heart because the intention of classic drama was never to be scrutinized by untrained eyes centuries hence. These plays were written with a humorous satirical jab at society, and, in pondering the coincidental inconsistencies we truly lose the entertainment value in each piece. It is also important to understand the differences between Shakespeare’s own audience and the popular culture-driven lemmings that are more impressed by shiny things than literature. Shall I continue?”
“No, that is quite enough. See me after class.” The next few minutes took all day and when the bell rang he tried to slide out the door within the heard of cattle but was stopped two feet short of freedom. “Walter we need to talk.” He rolled his eyes subconsciously and returned to his weathered desk. The last of the students filed out with haste as Mrs. Russell closed the door. It slammed hard against the metal frame and cut off all the passing conversation traveling down the open hall. “Your work is sub par, you show up once a week, and your attitude is disrupting the flow of my class.”
“I thought this was our class and that students were encouraged to think on their own.”
“You are encouraged to learn the material and I expect you to be here every day.”
“OK, anything else?”
“Don’t think you’ll just blow me off again and return to this behavior. You have a choice here: you can either learn to work within our system or you can return to the regular class. I believe they’re reading Of Mice and Men.”
“So they finished The Cat in the Hat already? That’s impressive.”
“Your condescending attitude will get you know where in life. And one day you’ll realize that people don’t want to be around you.”
“Just how does that feel? And how is your husband?”
“Get out of my sight. And if you don’t show up on time to every class for the rest of the semester, you will fail. I don’t care that you are a gifted child because you are wasting your gift.”
“Have a nice day Ms. Russell. It was nice chatting with you.” He carried his smug smile out the door and held his head high. The next two classes came and went with all the monotony a Tuesday could hold, and, finally, the lunch period arrived signifying the end of Paul’s academic day. He hopped the fence behind the senior parking lot and walked across the football field, lighting up a cigarette and whistling while he walked.
“They just don’t get it.”
The next day in class Paul got his paper back with a giant, red C at the top. It deserved more. He knew and Mrs. Russell knew that their feud brought the grade down and his attitude brought the class down. He showed up every day from that point on and tailored his work to the tastes of his teacher. The grade went up and Paul graduated on time. He learned more from her in that class than in his entire high school education.
College came and went with keg parties nights and empty-desk mornings but he got by well enough. He met a girl and fell in love over coffee. He got her pregnant and got married over drinks. Paul finished school and got a job teaching. He taught English to kids that didn’t like reading then came home to read drama on days he didn’t like teaching. High school is hard enough when you are a student and the teachers don’t get paid what they should. Paul moved up to the university level where the challenges were much greater but the pay wasn’t. The house grew both in size and in numbers so his life’s work became teaching his take on the world.
Life really does move quickly. Paul blinked and he was sixty. He worked passed his retirement age because he loves the idea of sharing words. In his youth he thought he could change the world. In his middle years, he did, by raising two healthy children and spreading his love for Shakespeare to many others. Now, in his later years, Paul looks back at his life and tries to make some sense of it all. He tries to validate the choices he’s made and he tries to live each day with the utmost respect for human life. He tries to cram his years of knowledge into each class as to pass on his passion for the written word to others so they might know the power these books hold. He tries, but most times, he fails. He fails because the kids in class don’t want to listen to an old man that wears the same sweater every day. He fails because they see only humor in his talks and don’t take his passion seriously. He fails because they say, “Grandpa should stop staring out the window,” they say, “I wonder if the old man took his meds today?” they say, “this guy is nuts.” They say these things because it is easier to shun genius when faced with it. It is hard to tell where genius meets insanity, if at all.
One day in class a young man showed up late in a tie-dyed tee shirt and hemp necklace. His eyes were almost closed and he walked slowly to his desk. Paul broke mid-sentence of his comments on A Mid-summer Nights Dream to address the young man. “Thank you for gracing us with your presence today. Have you any thoughts on today’s reading?”
“Yeah, I was surprised to enjoy it. I didn’t know Puck was more than just a character on The Real World.” Some of the class laughed.
“What is The Real World, a television show?”
“Yeah, it was one of the first in the reality TV genre with seven distinct characters that lived together and had fights all the time. Puck got kicked off the first season. Much like Shakespeare’s Puck, this one was a clever and mischievous soul that helped shape the outcome of the storyline.”
“What is your name?”
“Bill, you are now Puck. I expect you to be in class on time every day for the rest of the semester. Can you do that?”
“I think so.”
“If you can’t do that you can leave now. We will not waste any more class time by coming in late and you are certainly capable of reading the material so I expect to see a paper on the comparison between these two pucks for next week.”
“Yes, see me after class, Puck. We have much to discuss.”