18 April 2015

Neither Peanuts Nor Cracker Jacks, Thank You, A Trip to the Ballpark

My vantage point from view reserved.

The first bit was written on MUNI on the way to a baseball game Thursday night. The reset I scribbled here today. Just so ya know.

The misery of this long slow hot bus ride. Crowded and smelly as the Chinese have shopped with raw fish and chicken among their buys. And I deep into an all consuming depression of dark grasping inexplicable sorrow a heart aching despite a life rich in gifts and health and great love. Odors so strong breathing becomes a chore I dream of sitting by a cool mountain stream with fog dipping into my eyesight and happy birds providing the only sounds. Glum and irretrievably solemn I languish in the searing suffering of the melancholy unable to fathom relief. Solace in knowing my destination is the ballpark and a cool outdoor baseball game. Following I'll return home to that perfect wife who gives all and asks little. I remember to look forward and to at least feign a smile. Ode to joy.
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I used to go to as many as 30 baseball games a season. Once I went to 39. Later it was down to about 20 and now its closer to ten. I've got other interests. Plus I get frustrated with how long games last now. Thankfully Major League Baseball is making efforts to speed up the game. In some respects I'm fully sated. My favorite team has won the World Series three times in the last five years. Prior to that they hadn't been champions since the year I was born. They were in New York then. They're in San Francisco now. My dad took me to games when I was a kid. Willie Mays was in centerfield. Growing up watching Mays play was an incredible treat. I've always said that my dad and Willie Mays are the only two people in the world who could tell me to do something and I'd do it without hesitation no matter what.

Another reason I go to fewer games is that I'm less comfortable around the people there. When the missus and I were in London two years ago we went to the theater and saw a play starring Helen Mirren. I felt at home with the people in the theater. Maybe I'm becoming a snob. Or have become. Thursday night behind me and to my right sat two young men in their early or mid twenties. They were not too dissimilar from what I was like at that age. Especially given the fact that they were sloshing down beer after beer and yakking non stop. However it was their constant and loud use of the word fuck or fucking or fucked that got to be annoying. I'm pretty liberal with my use of such words but tend not to use them loudly in public unless I've just had an anvil dropped on my foot.

Behind me and to my left I noticed a huge woman of about 30. Her belly was falling out of her shirt. She was wearing a half a ton of make up including some pretty thick eye liner. She was eating cotton candy. Later I happened to look back and noted that she was eating beef jerky. I intentionally took a third peek later on and she was working on some candy. Yikes.

Directly in front of me were a quartet that spent an inordinate amount of their time taking selfies. When they weren't taking pictures with their cell phones they were staring at their cell phones. They seemed oblivious to the fact that a baseball game was being played. A lot of people at sports events are only marginally interested in the sports part of the event. For a lot of people a baseball game is a golden opportunity to spend large portions of their paycheck eating overly priced unhealthy food. You see people making repeated trips to the concession stands missing several innings of play so that they can fatten up on junk. Of course the modern ballpark, like so many other places, is specifically designed to separate people from their money. Spending options are everywhere and are convenient and tempting. I always feel like spending too but realize there's little I want or need and everything is over priced.

There's a lot to do and see in modern stadiums. Plenty of distractions. Being an old geezer I go just to watch the game. Oldest daughter is my favorite person to go to the ballpark with. I started bringing her regularly when she was nine years old. She was not too interested in all the nonsense going on at the ballyard, even that designed for kids, she was there to watch the game and enjoyed doing so. As a young teen she began keeping score. One of my favorite memories is going to a game with my dad and daughter. Three generations.

The Giants fell behind, rallied to within one and tied the game with two out in the bottom of the 9th. Cheers and high fives and happy faces all around. But they blew a chance to win it after loading the bases. On to extra innings. They gave up a run and the earlier rally seemed wasted. But the Giants tied it again and loaded the bases again, this time with just one out. Again they failed to push across the winning run. On to the 11th and then the 12th the inning in which they fell behind by two. Again a rally, but this time only one run scored and it was over. Had they lost in in nine it would have saved me a lot of time and frustration. Sports will do that. They can get you dancing down the street and they can make you cranky and unhappy. Actually I've learned not to stay cranky or unhappy as the result of game for more than about 15 minutes after it ends. What's the point? Plus I have many years of experience suffering crushing defeats (I'm looking at you Cal football). I know from sports heartache and I know not to dwell on the pain. Wins on the other are worth going nuts over.

Sports is always to be put into perspective which can be pretty hard to do when you invest time, money, and most importantly, passion into it. The hardest part is the utter helplessness of it all. Sure you can cheer your lungs out, but really you have no influence over events. I love going to certain sports events but am weary of some of my fellow fans' behavior and their lack of appreciation for the efforts of participants. This is particularly noticeable among people who have never or rarely played a sport. They often complain and boo the loudest when an athlete making their best effort comes up short. When vitriol is directed at college athletes (remember these are very young adults who are not only not professional but are simultaneously studying at a university) I am particularly peeved.

Despite the failure of the hometown heroes my trip to the ballpark served its purpose to get me out and about and participating in a communal exercise. Depression was held at bay for awhile.  I'll be dragging my sorry ass out there again soon, I'm sure. You can't keep a good fan down.

(Shout out to my old friend Phil one of my favorite people to go to games with. He's living in the UK and rarely makes it to a baseball game but I'm keeping a seat warm for him.)

13 April 2015

Panic and Depression Are Not All They're Cracked Up to Be

I am a fist of my unease - Anne Sexton

I wouldn't know how to handle sanity. What does the fully functional, happy mind do? How do you think when it's so easy and painless without impediments? It's like excepting mediocrity as your base line. Vanilla.

Yet chronic mental illness is draining. Saps your energy. Leaves you limp and your blood feeling cold. Aggravated by the smallest inconvenience. Expelling great loud sighs and pondering a bleak future.

I avoided all that during the flat line phase of my life, faking sanity, getting by on heavy doses of anti depressants. Smiling amiably and feeling very little. My thought process was often bland and uninteresting and my creativity was deflavorized.

Ever disbelieve your happiness? I do. I don’t trust good moods. They are deceits, they are lies I tell myself. There is nothing there giving me joy, it is all illusion. The darkness beckons. The warm comfortable bath of depression. The sinking into melancholy. Surrounded by deep rich waters with waves washing over me and all is misery. The pain is steady and palpable and the most real feeling imaginable. Joy seems a canard. A lie life tells you to mask its truth. And there is no greater truth than panic....

Your hand reaches into a front pocket, pulling, tugging, grasping. The hand comes out and fumbles around. You feel your body temperature go up and your skin gets prickly and you clench your fists and buttocks. You feel light on your feet, much too light, as if you are about to float into the stratosphere. Your face is in a rictus. Teeth clenched. Fear is coursing through your brains. No, you don’t feel as if you are dying. You wish you could. You are more alive than anyone could possibly want to be and it is utterly terrifying and the worst of it is that this feels like your new reality. It is never going away. You are in a permanent state of hysteria and wouldn’t a gallon of alcohol guzzled quickly level things nicely or a pill. You have pills for this and hungrily reach for the bottle and fingers shaking put one in your mouth. You look at the time calculating when you will start to feel normal although just the taking of the pill is a comfort. You are a junky. A different kind to be sure, but you need this pill to feel normal. Meanwhile you twitch and your eyes open wide because closing them would be horrific. Finally you remember to breath normally. A little deeper than normal feels good. Just don’t hyperventilate. You know you can make it. But you’re not sure. You’re sure you can make it. But you don’t know. Finally the magic pill --ativan does nicely --  takes effect and you start to feel better, as if you maybe could function and will not go stark raving mad after all. But you are shaken, to the core of your being. You are no longer in a state of panic but are depressed because once again you were struck quite unexpectedly by the terror of a full fledged panic attack. You feel vulnerable and defeated and not at all in charge of your life. There is no solace. The depression will deepen in the coming hours and days. You will recover and feel good again. Until next time.

And so I struggle but I keep on getting up and moving and doing and being and pushing ahead and trying and searching and I have joys and satisfactions and pleasant encounters and with the wife kisses and more and there are hugs and hellos and two wonderful children and compliments and meals and coffee and tea and there is running and sweating and there is literature and films and music and dreams and poems and there is sometimes meaning and the lights of knowledge and understandings and there is ceaseless curiosity and always there is hope and I wouldn’t know how to give up.

I watched my father die and he never gave into it, he struggled to get up and to talk and to move. Death was all that was wrong with life to him. He wanted to be and fought that battle until I had to tell him it was over and he needed to let go and I’m sorry I did but I had to do it. Never yield. Never give an inch. In all the shit storms never bow out. It is only through the constant struggle that we grow and attain and really become and are who and what we are. Else is meaningless.


12 April 2015

The Creative Writing Teacher

“What should your expectations be when you write?” After introductions and distribution of the course syllabus, Mrs. Lemmings liked to ask this question on the first day of her adult education creative writing class.

There were 13 students in the class, one over her limit. Two students raised tentative hands. One was an elderly woman named Miss Ashby. Mrs. Lemmings was doubtful that Miss Ashby would live long enough to complete the eight week course as the poor old woman seemed to have one foot firmly in the grave and the other making its way in that direction. The other hand was raised by a student who was the polar opposite of the aging Miss Ashby. This was a young man who appeared a good ten years younger than the next oldest student and about three score younger than Old Lady Ashby. This was Tom Blake who Mrs. Lemmings would have a hard time not thinking of as Little Tommy Blake.

Seeing no third hand go up she opted to call on Mr. Blake, fearing that Miss Ashby might expire mid answer. “My expectation when I write is to create something special. Like I have to have a high, really high standard for myself. Every time I’ve got to do my best. I wanna be a great writer someday. Soon. I wanna be like Kerouac.”

“Thank you, Mr. Blake.” Really Mrs. Lemmings wasn’t all that thankful for young Mr. Blake’s answer. He sounded to her like an idiot. Frankly most students did and very little of worth came out of the question but it got students to think and had the added benefit of killing some class time.

“Okay who else will share?” With the ice broken several other hands shot up but Mrs. Lemmings felt duty bound to call on the nearly deceased Miss Ashby.

“I expect that I am going to be able to tell more of my story, more about my life. You see I’m trying to leave behind a record of what I’ve done and seen in my life. I take a creative writing class only to make my writing more interesting, you know. I want to add a little spice so that people will actually enjoy my stories….” Mrs. Lemmings quickly realized that Old Lady Ashby was one of those elderly people who would just ramble on if given half a chance and what she had know was a full chance.

“Thank you,” Mrs. Lemmings cut in when Miss Ashby took a breath, it was either that or watch as other students began to doze off one by one. She called on a few more students including a Ms. Regent who said she was going to write a revenge novel to expose her dirty, cheating, lying ex-husband Curtis and her expectations when she wrote was to work towards achieving that goal. Though of course she didn’t say so, Lemmings thought that was not only the best answer of the evening but one of the best she had ever heard. Unlike Ms. Regent, Lemmings had not been cheated on by a lying scumbag of a husband. Rolf Lemmings had taken the coward’s way out and jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge leaving a ton of debt, a cat named Angus and a note saying: “Can’t face another day. Sorry all. Rolf Lemmings.” Not much of an explanation or a legacy. That was three years ago and Angus was still around and so was most of the debt but the grief had passed surprisingly quickly. It took her husband jumping into the Pacific Ocean to realize that she didn’t really love him anymore. So now she was 43 years old, childless and without a steady beau and teaching at a community college five days a week and adult ed once a week. None of her writing was selling and hadn’t in over 15 years. Still Priscilla Lemmings (nee Ashcroft) was happy. Maybe it was because her health remained good owing to a rigid diet, daily runs and frequent backpacking trips. Maybe it was because those backpacking trips afforded her an escape from the city and into the wilds of California, Nevada and Oregon where fresh air and beautiful vistas were plentiful. Maybe it was because she had a wide circle of friends and a sister, brother and assorted nieces and nephews and cousins. Maybe it was because she had a huge personal library of poetry and literature much of which had been bequeathed to Lemmings by her late father who had been a long time professor of literature. Or maybe it was because she had availed herself of the assignations possible from a website called Affair Alert through which one could find members of the opposite — or for that matter the same — gender for no-strings-attached sexual liaisons.

It had been a year now since her first “hook up” and Lemmings had since met with nearly two dozen men for individual nights of sex. Only a few of those of nights had been disappointments for one reason or another. That was more than out-weighed by the six or seven nights of pure sexual bliss. Lemmings had never been promiscuous, having only three lovers previous to Rolf who she married at age 27 and had been exclusive with for two years prior. In fact, Lemmings had been something of a prude when it came to sex, at least compared to her friends. Now she was making up for lost time. She kept to a strict rule of seeing none of these men a second time no matter “how good it is.” Frankly, Lemmings told her best friend Dora, she feared forming an emotional attachment to the type of men who would cheat on their spouse (as most admittedly were) or would need to use such a website to find a sexual partner (never mind the apparent hypocrisy of her position, she would say). Plus knowing it was for that one night only made it extra thrilling.

Lemmings refused to meet men at her house, which created problems with the ones with a wife at home. Usually men would spring for a room or had an available room, and if not Lemmings was willing to split the cost of a room. Several times she had been house sitting for a friend or relative and thus had an available place to use.

Only Dora knew of Lemmings occasional nocturnal activities and being saddled with an overweight husband and four children she was thrilled to live vicariously through Lemmings. Dora was only slightly disappointed that Lemmings never had anything kinky to report. It was always the usual kind of foreplay, a bit of oral sex and then a few standard positions of love making. Often with encores. Still it beat the hell out of Dora having to talk about her fat husband and whining children.

Lemming was neither proud nor ashamed of her sexual escapades. She viewed them as necessities. They were no different than a brisk hike in the Sierras or a morning run through her Berkeley neighborhood. They were a damn sight more interesting than teaching this adult ed class, though minus the monetary compensation. Lemmings frequently thought she’d like to re-marry but she was in no hurry and didn’t currently see any prospects. It was enough right now to be the boss of her own life with the only real burden being the debt that was years away from being vanquished. When the debt was gone she could bid adieu to teaching adult ed. Meanwhile….

“I’d like you to start out by writing one strong paragraph that describes an imaginary place. It doesn’t need to be a fantasy, you can be describing a realistic place, as long as it is only one that exists in your imagination. Please take your time with this. You have 15 minutes so I really want you to give this some thought.”

Two and half hours was too long for a class. Lemmings had tried to convince the acting director of the adult ed program that two classes a week at an hour and a quarter would be better. But the acting director reminded Lemmings that the word acting was affixed to his title and there would be no schedule changes until he was permanent or a new person took over and even then space limitations would probably prohibit such a change. Lemmings hated bureaucracy  She especially hated bureaucrats. They were generally both spineless and heartless and lacking any imaginative.

Mercifully the clock finally neared the class end time of 9:30 and Lemmings was able to give the homework assignment and tell everyone how nice it was to meet them and how she looked forward to working with them. It was total bullshit but obligatory. The teacher was not surprised when the decaying Miss Ashby approached with a question before she could get out the door. After her question was answered Miss Ashby tried to launch into a monologue. Lemmings saw that the old bag was going to talk well into the wee hours so -- as politely as possible -- made her excuses and got into her 1999 Audi and drove home little expecting what would await her.

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When Priscilla Lemmings pulled into the driveway of her North Berkeley cottage she immediately knew something was different. She got out of the car hurriedly anxious to discern what was amiss. It wasn't until Lemmings was on her porch with her key that she realized that there was a man sprawled out in front of her front door.

It was difficult to be sure because she'd forgotten to leave the porch light on but the man appeared to be asleep. Lemmings leaned forward using the light from her cell phone to illuminate the man.

"I am the fucking king of Sweden!" he bellowed, scaring the bejeezus out of Lemmings in the process.

She stepped back dropping her phone in the process and nearly tumbling down the three steps of the porch. The man stood. It was Rolf. Her late husband. In the flesh. Or a ghost. Priscilla Lemmings gasped, her right hand reaching for her heart. A heart that was now beating very fast.

"Didn't expect to see me, did you?" Rolf asked.

Priscilla felt a wave of panic. She gulped, blinked and physically steadied herself. It occurred to her that this was not a nightmare despite very much feeling like one.

"Relax, let me explain." Rolf then paused and wiped the dust off his suit. Priscilla felt calmer, she liked the idea that an explanation was forthcoming. One was certainly required given that she had identified Rolf's body. It had been picked up by the coast guard just a few minutes after hitting the water as a trawler happened to be just 100 yards away from impact and a few on board had even seen Rolf's swan dive.

As Rolf continued to tidy himself and delaying his explanation,  Priscilla finally managed to speak: "You can't be Rolf. I saw you dead. You were cremated --"

Rolf caught it."Yes about that cremation, I never said I wanted that. Then again I left no instructions at all so I can't say as I blame you. I trust the life insurance was enough to make things comfortable for you?"

"There was no life insurance!" Priscilla had accepted that this was her late husband -- just like that. "You lied to me. You told me a couple of times you had life insurance and I believed you."

Now Rolf was the one who was surprised. "I didn't have life insurance? What the hell was I thinking. It seems eons ago."

"Yes and very little in the savings," she added.

"Yes I suppose I didn't plan very well. I'd been feeling blue for a long time but only decided to end it all a few days before. Say can we go in? It's getting a little chilly."

Priscilla somehow couldn't think of any reason why they shouldn't go in. She immediately sat in her usual spot on the sofa. Rolf sat in a chair opposite.

"It's nice to be home. The place looks spiffy." Rolf was being pleasant and enthusiastic. More so than Priscilla could ever remember him being.

"I could go for something to drink. Got a beer?'

Something had been bothering Priscilla -- aside from the fact that the ghost of her husband was sitting across from her -- something wasn't right. Even if she accepted the idea that Rolf -- dead these three plus years -- was sitting across from her, there was something phony about the whole scene. The request for a beer was what did it.

"You're not Rolf! Rolf never, ever drank beer. I hope you're not going to suggest this is something you picked up in heaven or hell or limbo or wherever you've been. And Rolf never said the word 'spiffy' and you also said feeling 'blue' another expression Rolf never used. And the birthmark on your cheek seems to have disappeared. Who are you and why are you doing this and you better talk fast because I've got the police on speed dial and can scream pretty fucking loud." Priscilla had gotten angrier with each word she spoke.

"Ahh shit...I'm Rolf's cousin Yale. From back east. We met a couple of times..." Yale's voice faded. He slumped, he studied his lap.

Now Lemmings felt empowered. Her confidence was back. Her eyes were like slits as she studied the impostor. "I remember you were at the wedding and an anniversary for Rolf's parents. I also remember how much you looked like Rolf. But why this, this sick joke -- and it better be good."

Yale explained that it he was in San Francisco for a few weeks and instead of just popping over for a visit or calling first he thought it might be fun to play a little trick. It had especially helped that he'd been drinking a lot all day. He'd come to the house several hours earlier not realizing that Lemmings was teaching a night class. He'd fallen asleep where she found him although he actually woke up when she closed her car door. Yale said the declaration that he was the king of Sweden was based on a childhood game he'd played with Rolf.

"Can I crash here tonight? It's kind of late to make it back to my hotel in San Fran."

The weary Lemmings agreed adding that she'd be up about seven for a run before getting ready to teach a 10:00 am class at the city college. "Try to be gone as early as possible. Maybe we can have lunch before you go back. Assuming you're sober." Lemmings made a bed for Rolf's cousin on the bed and then retired for the evening. That night she had a very vivid dream.

The dream took place that very night in which she was sleeping. In it Lemmings got out of bed and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. Standing there was the ghostly apparition of her deceased husband Rolf. He'd poured two glasses of water, one he gave to her. There was a very serious tone to their encounter. She talked with Rolf updating him about her life and Rolf in turn explained his suicide and the terrible depressions that had plagued him and gone untreated his whole life. Both of them cried. They hugged, then Rolf vanished. Lemmings returned to her bed and awoke from the dream. She was quite shaken by the dream and the whole experience of Yale's stupid practical joke and her first prolonged dream of Rolf.

It was near time to go for her morning run so Lemmings put on her shorts, running shoes and sweat shirt. On her way out the door she noticed that Yale had already left. Oddly there was no sign he'd slept on the sofa at all. Maybe he'd thought better of it and made his way back to the city right after she went to bed.

It was a particularly good run. Some are better than others. Occasionally she'll feel like superwoman as if she could run forever and had infinite speed and strength. This was such an occasion.

Lemmings showered and ate breakfast and thought about her teaching day. It was a Thursday which meant two classes, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon.

Lemmings started to pick up around the house and what she didn't notice bothered her -- the bedding. What had Yale done with the bedding she'd laid out on the sofa? Lemmings double checked but sure enough it wasn't there. He couldn't have known what closet to put it in, but just the same she checked. It was there. Folded. Why would he put it back an without washing it, unless he didn't use it? This made no sense. Lemmings remembered that Yale said he was staying at the Commodore Vincent Hotel. It was an easy name to remember, especially since she and Rolf spent a night there one New Year's Eve. She called the hotel and asked for Yale. No one of that name was registered there. What the fuck?

Priscilla Lemmings was sure she had seen and talked to Rolf's cousin Yale the night before. In her house. It wasn't a dream. Rolf's visit was in the kitchen was a dream. The beer bottle. Yale had drank a beer. But there was no bottle in the living room or in recycling. But she's served him one. Or had she? How could I? I never have beer in the house. Lemmings was scared.

She thought to check the kitchen again. There was a glass of water. Not hers. Where Rolf had stood. in her dream. Priscilla refused to believe she was cracking up. But the evidence seemed to suggest otherwise.

The phone rang. It was an administrative assistant from the city college. "Mrs. Lemmings, we need you to drop off your keys," she said.

"What on earth for?" Lemmings couldn't imagine why.

"Why, you can't have keys when you're no longer employed with us. We discussed this last week when you were let go."

Lemmings sat heavily onto her sofa. She vaguely remembered a conversation with some people at the school including a dean about her no longer being able to fulfill her duties adequately and her classes being taken over by someone else. This must mean she had no classes to teach today. How could she have forgotten that something, she wasn't sure what, had caused them to let her go. "And again Ms. Lemmings, I'm so sorry about your loss, I realize that the shock of your husband's sudden passing last Summer was still too fresh in your mind to allow you to return to the classroom."

Last Summer? But it was three years ago, not six months. Wasn't it? Had her mind fast forwarded two and half years?

A memory. Rolf coming home unexpectedly from a business trip. Finding her in bed with a man she'd met on Affair Alert. Discovering that she'd been using the site to meet men. A week later jumping to his death.

"What now, what do I do now?" Lemmings asked aloud. "I'm so goddamned confused!" she added in a shout. Lemmings shuffled into the kitchen. Yesterday's newspaper was still on the table. Above the crease there was an article about a home invasion on Regent Street in Berkeley. An old woman named Ashby had been attacked, but the assailant, whose name was Tom Blake, had been arrested.

Lemmings began to weep. Those were names from her writing class last night. Or had she made up the class just as she had made up Yale's strange visit? Lemmings realized she was cracking up. She needed help. The only real thing that had happened was Rolf's visit. But he was dead. Lemmings looked out the kitchen window and noticed a hummingbird.

Over by the sink was her new butcher knife. It was stainless steel. Long, sharp and beautiful. Lemmings held it up letting the overhead light reflect off the blade.


05 April 2015

The Seemingly Unbelievable But I Swear to God True Story of When Edwin Meeks Disrespected Hitler

Edwin Meeks
This is a true story and I’ll fight any man who says it isn’t. It’s about what happened when Edwin Meeks met Hitler. I know a lot of people have called me a liar but I’ve put this story together from FACTS. I came upon those FACTS from letters, newspaper accounts, talking to folks and from what mostly from the himself. I happen to know more about Meeks than anyone else outside his family probably ever did. Come to think of it I knew MORE than anyone in his family because he barely had a family. His folks both died when he was growing up and his brother moved off when Meeks was just out of high school and his sister and him didn't much get along. It's me who knows Meeks and his story. Anyway, here it is.

Meeks was a writer. He pounded out stories for the local paper every day of the week. Drunk driving arrests, high school basketball games, city council meetings, record sized fish caught, you name it. He also re-worked wire service stories, although that generally was just a matter of editing them for length. He hunted and pecked at his old Royal typewriter on the old pine desk in the old room he had in the old newspaper office, often with his hat still on and a cigarette between his teeth. Besides the editor, Sam McGee, and the ad man, Chester Grant, Meeks was the only full timer on the paper. And there weren't too many part timers at that.

Thing about Meeks was that he fancied himself more than just a purveyor of local trivia and scandal. Why when Meeks got home the first thing he'd do was to sit himself down and start pounding out short stories, fictional ones, that is, on his other Royal typewriter. His plan was to someday compile the stories into several collections to be published to, these are his words, "widespread acclaim." Oh sure those few fiction pieces he’d had in print so far — mostly in a county magazine — had been called things like  “simplistic doggerel” or “base humor” or “unimaginative and cliche ridden” by snooty critics, but Meeks didn't care, he said he was saving the good stuff. No way he was putting his best material in those low circulation periodicals. Nope. He was aiming higher.

Everyone in town knew Meeks. He had been born and raised in Catchings and had hardly strayed except when he went to the state capital (that was Madison because, you see, Catchings is in Wisconsin) for some kind of story or once when he vacationed all the way down in Florida. Meeks had a wife for a short time but she run off with a salesman who came through town once. Meeks had never seemed interested in replacing her. “One wife for a lifetime is enough,” he'd say. But secretly he really missed Sadie and hoped that once he hit it big she’d come running back or that he’d find himself another gal. "Maybe one a lot younger and prettier than Sadie" he'd say, though that was not likely for Sadie was a real beaut. Speculation was she wanted more out of life than a town like Catchings and a fella like Meek could offer, so hitched her wagon to the first real hotshot that came through town and showed an interest in her. Last I heard she'd busted up with the guy and was waitressing in some dive in Chicago. Serves her right for runnin' off.

Yeah so Meeks was a homebody. You could generally find him at his desk in the Catchings Gazette or at home or at Merv’s. That was a cafe where Meeks took a lot of his meals. He’d almost always order whatever the daily special was for dinner. That was Meeks, a creature of habit. The only variance to his usual routine was when Meeks chasing a story or when he would go down to the Badger’s Bucket to wet his whistle -- which he’d done most Friday nights since prohibition had come to a merciful end three years before this story commences. Meeks was not a big drinker but he could hold his own with some of the big, rough loggers who sauntered into the Bucket.

Sometimes Meeks would, as he put it himself, "quaff beer" and other times it was whiskey. Meeks was a medium sized fella with a pretty good build. He'd played some ball in school but never starred. I suppose he was a handsome enough fellow though a few people over the years poked fun at his bigger than average proboscis. "It's cause I got a nose for news," Meeks would say to explain his schnoz.

Me, I'm Brent Hillegass and I'm the baker in Catchings but also chief of the volunteer fire department and the best amateur fisherman and hunter in the area. You can ask anybody, they'll confirm it.

What happened to Meeks was something so amazing he'd have never imagined it for one of those stories he was always writing.

It was a Wednesday the first of April 1936. I remember exactly because I'd been complaining early that morning to my wife, Maude that now that April was hear the dang snow was welcome to leave. And I know it was a Wednesday because that's the night of the town council meetings which I always attended and there was one that night that was mostly gonna be for jawing about building a new bridge over Willow Creek.

It was late morning and I stopped in at Merv's to see if they needed anything special for the next day and how was the new rhubarb pie I'd baked selling. Meeks was at his usual spot at the counter sipping a coffee and smoking a cigarette and ogling the new waitress named Beulah who was as cute as could be and damn well knew it. I sat for a spell next to Meeks, us being good pals and all, and we shot the breeze. I noticed that he had a bunch of letters in one of this coat pockets and happened to ask what they were. No reason, just making conversation. Meeks said: "my morning mail. Haven't opened it yet. I like to let it age a bit before seeing what I got."

"You're an odd duck in some ways," I said. I added a big smile just in case Meeks didn't know I was kidding him.

"I suppose," he said. "If it'll make you feel better I'll take a look at what I got." And with that Meeks tore into them. The first three were nothing of interest, bills and such I guess. But when Meeks started reading the last of them his eyes got as big as pie pans.

I noticed his wide-eyed gaze and asked him, "what the dickens is it, Bub?" ( I usually called Meeks, by that nickname, Bub.)

"I just can't believe. I can...not...believe it. It's my brother, Hank."

From that I figured ole Hank had died and this letter was notifying Meeks of that fact. I was wrong.

"Bad news, there Bub?"

"Not hardly. Hank is in Germany of all places. And he's invited me to come to the Olympic games there this Summer."

I wouldn't have guessed such a thing if you'd given me a million chances. "Since when has Hank been in Germany?"

That's Merv's with Merv at the counter and yours truly.
Then by way of explanation Meeks read me the pertinent part of the letter: "Came to this part of the world last year and have made a lot of money so have settled for awhile. I want to share my good fortune with my only brother. Feel bad that I haven't seen you in so long and this will be a way of repaying you. If you agree to come out I will arrange passage on an ocean liner all paid for and you can stay with me in Berlin for the entire time of the Olympics. Course I'll also cover expenses for your trip home too."

"He say what kind of business?"

"Not here but I imagine its in plastics. That's what he'd been involved in last I heard." Then after a pause Meeks practically shouted, "holy cow my brother is doin' business with the damn Nazis." Beulah turned around to see what the fuss was and ole Merv himself gave us the eye from over at the cash register. Merv liked a lot of chatter in his cafe but he didn't care for raised voices or cuss words. "That's for the Bucket," he'd say.

Meeks apologized. We talked some more and Meeks did some thinking and realized he hadn't seen Hank since 1925 and then for a day, when he swung through town. He'd not seen him before then since Hank left Catchings in 1916 when Meeks was just graduating high school.

The way Meeks figured it he had to go. There was no way in the world he could pass up going to Nazi Germany and to the Olympic games and covering them not just for the Gazette but for other nearby rags that'd be getting exclusive reports from a local lad. Heck, Meeks figured he could write up some stuff that would get national play. That was Meeks, always the optimist.

Of course Old Man McGee was glad for Meeks to go to Germany and find out what it was all about over there and write it up for the Gazette. He probably knew he'd need to hire several part timers to fill in for Meeks while he was gone in addition to doin' a bit of extra work himself, but McGee was probably glad to get Meeks out of his hair (what little he had) for awhile. Like I said Meeks and I were pals but I knew good and well he could be a pest, especially to work with, what with all the ideas, inspirations and suggestions he constantly had.

For the three months before he left, Meeks was doing one of three things: researching and planning for his trip; talking about his trip; or doing his usual routine at the Gazette. Most of us were good and ready for him to be on his way when he finally took the train to New York (which is where he was booked on a liner for Europe). He'd damn near talked all our ears off. I've never seen a grown man more excited in my life.

Now I wasn't a witness to the rest of this but I pieced it all together from various sources including the letters Meeks wrote direct to me. Whatever else Meeks was he was no liar nor even a teller of tall tales. Heck, the man didn't so much as exaggerate. So here goes.

Of all the surprises and shocks and who'd've-thunk-its from Meeks' trip, one of the most stunning was that he had a shipboard romance. It was with an English woman name of Cynthia Dixon of who was some highfalutin society dame. Why she fell for a regular fella like Meeks when she coulda landed her a duke or an earl or maybe even a prince I don't know. But she did. Like I said earlier Meeks was not exactly on the prowl for a romance so he really must have been taken by this Dixon gal. Anyway she was going to Germany for the Olympics too so they arranged to sit together on the train from Hamburg to Berlin. Whether they carried on like a married couple -- if you know what I mean -- I cannot say nor would I. Meeks sure wouldn't have told if they did. But in his own words they were "mostly inseparable."

When they got to Berlin Meeks' brother was waiting to take him to this big fancy apartment he had there. Miss Dixon went off with her people which included her folks, a brother and a sister. The sister was in an Olympic horse riding competition, which is why the family was in Berlin.

The way Meeks tells it his brother was making big business deals with the Nazis selling them things to use plastics for or plastics to make things with I don't recall which. Meeks flat out told Hank that he thought it was wrong to be selling to Nazis. But Hank told him there was nothing to all the stories about Hitler and them being so awful. Sure they didn't like Jews but they weren't going to do them nor anyone else any harm. Meeks never believed his brother and thought all he cared about was making a buck and would do business with the devil himself (which he pretty much was doing).

That bastard Hitler's in the middle of the picture at the Olympics.
The Olympics started and a day or two after Meeks got there. He was at the opening ceremony where he saw Hitler himself. Hank had managed seats that were pretty darn good. Turns out Hank had gotten to be a pretty big wheel. He was making big money and meeting all the top brass not just in Germany but wherever he went.

Meeks was writing up a storm about anything and everything he saw including all his impressions and thoughts and feelings. He suspected that the Nazis had swept a lot under the rug before their visit (boy howdy was he right about them). Meeks was no fool and he'd been studying up on them since they came to power. He was the first person I knew of to predict that they'd bring nothing but trouble to the world and they were making life miserable for their Jewish citizens. He didn't like the way the Germans were smiling and acting like everything was jake during the Olympics, it just didn't set with everything he knew. Plus their way of marching around and always "Heil" this and "Heil" that seemed wrong. Meeks saw right through them sonsabitches. After a day or two he realized that arguing with Hank about it wouldn't come to nothing so he let it go. Besides Hank was his brother and had provided this opportunity for him

Meeks may have been able to put differences aside and get along with his big brother but Miss Dixon had no such luck with her family. They didn't cotton to her being squired around by some common American fella who couldn't have afforded to pay his own way around Europe. Seems Miss Dixon was what you might call quite a playgirl and had been going out with all manner of hotshots from all over the world. The family was ready to see her settle down and they didn't want her wasting time with the likes of Edwin Meeks, reporter from Catchings, Wisconsin. I guess they had the pull with her to make their objections law so that was that for Meeks' romance. In other circumstances Meeks might have suffered a broken heart but he was so excited about his journalistic adventure that he managed to put the affair with Miss Dixon behind him with no bitterness towards the family. He's a better man than I ever was.

Much of the ado at the 1936 Olympics was about the great U.S. Negro runner Jesse Owens and his gold medal wins that made a fool of Hitler and the whole Nazi notion of a master race. Meeks wrote all about it and even managed an interview with Owens and you can find his stories in the Catchings Gazette as well as other papers and magazines. Meeks also wrote what he thought of Berlin and the Olympics and the damn Nazis and made the papers with them. There were enough other reporters who were there long before and stayed well after that no one was so interested in what Meeks had to say other than papers around our area. When it came right down to it Meeks was a good but his writing wasn't special enough to interest the big city rags or national magazines. I hate to say it about an old pal, but Meeks was no great talent. A man to be admired and respected and in places like Catchings valued, but nothing out of the ordinary.

It was towards the end of the Olympics that Hank was invited by the top Nazi brass for a reception and dinner that featured none other than Adolph Hitler himself. Being a bigwig Hank was able to finagle an invite for his baby brother. Meeks was overjoyed. It wasn't that he was so excited about shaking hands with the head of the Third Reich, it was more that he could turn his observations of the occasion into a story that editors all over the U.S. would be unable to resist.

So now we get to the big event of this whole story and practically the whole purpose for telling it. Meeks was a journalist and a dedicated, hard-working one who took his job seriously. But he was also a very moral man who didn't care for things like fascists or bullies or big phonies. Also, Meeks was -- as I didn't find out until later -- half Jewish. His mother's maiden name was Horowitz.

Come the day of the reception and Meeks was of two minds. I don't know about you, but I believe when you've got a task at hand its best to be focused on it and have your mind made up. But Meeks went to that reception half way thinking he was a journalist who was recording history and half way thinking he hated these people and what they had done and were liable to do and wanting them to know it. Its plain that the second half one over.

The reception was in some huge hall that was decorated all fancy and of course had them big Nazi swastika flags all over. Meeks and his brother were greeted by some English speaking Nazi who knew Hank pretty well. He told them all about the protocol like what to do and say when they met Hitler. Meeks said he didn't hear much of the what this mucky muck said because he was beginning to do a slow burn being among all these uniformed Nazis and them big flags and Nazi symbols. Wasn't too much later that they were led into a big room were Hitler was greeting people. Meeks and Hank got into a line to shake the Fuhrer's hand. Meeks tried to talk himself into doing the proper thing and shaking the bastard's hand and saying this greeting he'd learned in German. I believe he really meant to. But as the moment came Meeks thought about his mother and what lousy bastards he figured these Nazis were and he couldn't do it. Meeks said it came to him only as he was next in line. What he did was that instead of shaking hands with Hitler he took one step back away from him and thumbed his nose at the head Nazi. It was the full thumb to nose and fingers wriggling treatment. Then Meeks broke away from the line not knowing what he was going to do next.

Well he needn't have worried about his next move, that was settled for him. Before he knew it Meeks was surrounded by angry Nazis and his brother Hank who was angriest of them all. There was quite the commotion as Meeks was led out of the building and told he'd made a big insult and practically ruined the evening and strained U.S.-German relations and on and on. Hank followed Meeks out and gave him what for telling him to get the hell out of his place and he wasn't no brother of his anymore and that was it between them and that he'd better not have ruined his business deals and that he was worse than the Nazis for being so rude.

Next day Meeks was led by some Nazis to the train station and sent to Hamburg to take the next boat out of Germany and don't ever come back.

This whole time Meeks was thinking two things: I sure screwed up and by god I'd do the same again. For the rest of his life he held in his mind these two opposite feelings of the occasion. Personally I agree with him on both counts.

Meeks came back to Catchings and everyone wanted to talk to him and hear about Germany and the Olympics. Most of us thought he was a hero for thumbing his nose at Hitler although at that time a lot of folks never believed that Hitler would amount to much of a threat and would have laughed if you'd said he'd start another world war or kill of millions of Jews. There were also some yokels who didn't believe Meeks' story. The hell with them, I say. Like I said, Meeks was no liar.

Of course Meeks went straight back to work at the Gazette where he ran of series of articles about his trip -- leaving out his romance and the fact that he thumbed his nose at Hitler. A few papers in the area picked up his stories but Meeks was never able to get anything published outside of Wisconsin, nor even Milwaukee for that matter.

Meeks kept writing at the Gazette and he kept writing his short stories many of which now included Nazis in 'em (I know cause I often read Meeks' stuff). But he never got any of his fiction published. Not one story. When the war broke out everyone told Meeks how right he was about the dirty Nazis. Meeks had a notion to try to go to Europe to cover the story but somehow could never get out of Catchings. It was during the war that met he met a school teacher who'd move into town. She was a widow by the name of Nora Bowditch. They was about the same age and they hit it off and before you know it were married. Meeks was happy.

When the war ended and everyone found out how horrible those concentration camps were Meeks again was reminded about how he'd seen it coming. I don't know that the man took much satisfaction in being proved right about such terrible things.

Meeks kept pounding away at his royal typewriters, the one at the office and the one in the little house he lived in with Nora. Everyday the Gazette was filled with his articles, but try as he might none of his fiction ever got published anywhere. Meeks kept at it until late late in 1953 when cancer laid him low. He'd been diagnosed that Spring but kept working as long as he could. Nora took leave from the school and stayed at his bedside. Meeks finally passed on February 27, 1954 at the age of 56.

That was six weeks ago and I've finally been able to write his story. Now that I have I'm not sure what to do with it. Maybe in the future someone will find this and think it worth sharing. But right now I miss Meeks and wish that instead of writing this I could be sitting with him in Merv's drinking coffee and having a slab of pie.








30 March 2015

Jerry Joins the Army

When Jerry Oliver left his girlfriend’s house she started playing an album by this chick singer named Joni Mitchell. Jerry could hear it coming out of her window as he got into his car. For some reason Jerry felt like Monya — that was his girlfriend — would think of some other guy when she listened to this Mitchell gal sing. In fact he couldn’t shake the thought.

Jerry knew for a fact that Monya had been with several guys before they met and even when they first started dating.  Jerry was kind of okay with all this, after all he was a modern guy plus Monya was a really pretty girl and free spirited and all too.

Sometimes Jerry thought how lucky he was to be with Monya. Sometimes he felt like he wasn’t in her league. Jerry wasn't some big stud and hadn't even played football in high school. Jerry was average height, a fairly good tennis player but mediocre in other sports. He was good enough looking but no Steve McQueen. Jerry would have been the first to admit all of this. As for Monya, well she was a straight up fox. It was a heckuva boost to Jerry's ego that his girlfriend was beautiful.

So Jerry drove home on this warm April night in 1969 wondering what guys Monya thought about when she listened to Joni Mitchell. He also started thinking again about joining the service. This was a topic he’d given a lot of consideration to lately. What he liked best about it was the GI Bill and what he liked least was the idea of going to some shithole like Vietnam and getting his dick shot off.

Jerry had worked his way through two years of college and it was a royal pain. Yeah his folks had offered him dough but he wanted to be fully independent, especially since mom and dad just got by themselves. Also he hated the shit jobs he’d had since sophomore year of high school: bagging in the goddamned grocery store, pumping gas, unloading crates at a warehouse. No, if he did some time in the military, he could finish college and wouldn’t have to scrape together pennies to do it or go straight from classes to work. On top of all that Jerry needed a break from school. From kindergarten through two years of university it had been pretty much non stop, especially since his mom always made him go to Summer School.

When Jerry got home he called his brother Ronnie who was six years older and in Jerry’s mind sixty years wiser. Ronnie had a good job as sales executive and had been giving Jerry advice since forever. Ronnie wasn’t to crazy about his kid brother going into the army what with a war going on and told him so. But he also said that the army could be really good for him and teach him some valuable life lessons. Plus he could see that Jerry wanted a break from college. Working full time for awhile might be an option but it would probably be at some crappy job. Ronnie told him all this but again added, "I still don’t like the idea of you getting shipped to Vietnam.” Then Ronnie added: “but it is a helluva good thing for you to do, to serve your country and all, being patriotic is important and all this will look good on your resume.”

That pretty much sold Ronnie. He’d go down and enlist the next day, as long as they’d let him finish this semester of college.

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When Jerry went down to the induction center he went alone. He'd had dinner with his parents, Ronnie and his kid sister Julie the night before. He said his goodbyes to friends at a party the day before that and that evening had gone out with Monya one last time. He could tell that Monya was ready for him to go. The passion had been going out of their relationship since before Jerry's enlistment. In fact Jerry was pretty sure that Monya had been seeing other guys already. It was hard to stay in love with a girl who had mentally and emotionally checked out of your relationship. Maybe Jerry would write to Monya from the army and maybe he wouldn't. They did make love that last night together and for the first in months there'd been some real intensity and excitement. Jerry figured it was because it was the last time they'd do it. Maybe if Monya had stayed hot for him Jerry would never have enlisted. Maybe.

As Jerry waited in the induction center to be processed, he wondered how often he'd get laid while in the army. He also started missing friends and activities like playing poker and tennis and shootin' the shit with his pals. Jerry wondered if maybe he'd made a mistake. So he forced himself to focus on the long run and how this was going to be the best thing for the rest of his life. If nothing else he would have some powerful and different experiences that would shape him into what his dad liked to call, "a real man." Dad was proud as hell that Jerry was going into the service. He'd done a stint himself and that was during World War II. Mom was nervous and worried but she got nervous and worried when one of her kids so much as went to the movies. That's just the way moms are, Jerry figured.

There were two guys sitting next to Jerry and he got to talking to them. One was from Jerry's rival high school and they kind of knew a few of the same people and neighborhoods. His name was Lance Dorsett and he seemed like someone Jerry could be buddies with. The other fella was from a small town about an hour away. He seemed pretty depressed like this was the last place he wanted to be. His name was Mason Oglethorpe. Jerry had a hard time not laughing at the name. It totally blew that Mason was so gloomy but Jerry figured he'd get over it and maybe they'd become buddies too. Mason was a big fella who looked strong as an ox. Lance was built about like Jerry, more nimble than strong.

It was good to get to know some guys right away. Jerry could see that he was going to meet a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds, this was another big plus to joining the service. Heck, some of these guys could be friends for life and some could provide valuable connections in years to come. By the time of the induction Jerry was feeling pretty good about life.

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This one time on leave Jerry went into a little bar that wasn't too crowded. He'd no sooner ordered his beer than someone put a song on the jukebox and it was that Joni Mitchell number that Jerry had heard wafting out of Monya's bedroom that one time. It gave Jerry a kind of sick feeling in his stomach. Not like nausea but more like jealousy. He imagined her kissing some other guy, maybe being in the sack with someone. Jerry had written to Monya a couple of times and received one letter. It was pretty short and didn't say a whole lot. It sure wasn't very affectionate or lovey dovey. Jerry had pretty much resigned himself to the fact that it was over with Monya but still she had been the closest girlfriend he'd ever had. Jerry sipped his beer and felt kind of lousy. Finally his buddies showed up. One of them was Lance who he'd been inducted with. The other guy was Johnny Packard who was from Alabama. Johnny was what you would call a redneck. His political views seemed pretty out there to Jerry but he was a cool guy in most other ways and a lot of fun to hang with so Jerry let the political stuff go.

The trio ended up carousing all over town that night, at one point ending up in a party with a bunch of hippies. Someone produced marijuana and everyone smoked it except Johnny who said grass was "for niggers and drug addicts." The hippies didn't seem too bothered by Johnny despite all the insults he ended up hurling at them, probably because they were so high. Lance ended up scoring with one of the chicks. Lance was what Jerry considered to be a ladies man. Jerry tried to get one of the chicks into the sack too but she was with this big hippie and not interested in a solider with a crewcut. The next day Jerry had a pretty good hangover but a ten mile hike with a full pack on a hot day sweated it out.

Jerry was loving and hating the service at the same time. He liked the discipline, figuring it would be good for him in the future. He also liked the camaraderie. Most of the other guys were pretty cool. Jerry had never had trouble making friends anyway. At the same time Jerry found all the drills and duties to be draining and often purposeless. He also hated the loss of so many basic freedoms and the way sergeants would yell at you for the littlest thing. But overall Jerry was pretty happy with his decision to enlist. Well, until the day he found out he was being deployed to Vietnam, then he felt sick to his stomach about it.

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Jerry was laying in mud and was soaking wet and there was blood trickling out of a flesh wound in his forehead. There was noise coming from everywhere: gunfire, shouts, explosions, screams, chattering, radio static. Jerry was alone and scared. Not quite alone. Lance was laying a few feet away from him but he was dead. Jerry couldn't quite wrap his mind around the notion that this handsome young friend of his had ceased to be. It seemed incompehrensible. He'd seen body bags and he knew guys who'd been killed in action but this was the first time Jerry had seen someone killed. And it was his best army buddy.

Their platoon had been out on patrol when they suddenly started taking heavy fire. They were in a clearing and pinned down. Two guys were wounded, one of the badly. The radio was also a casualty. Their sergeant ordered Jerry and Lance to make their way back to base to report their situation and position and get help. The two buddies had gotten up and sprinted for the trees zig zagging all the way. Somehow they'd made it. But as they were sprinting along the trail toward camp, shots started coming from all directions. Two North Vietnamese soldiers appeared from behind a tree. Lance saw them immediately and shot them both. One of them got off a shot just as he was hit and it took off the top of Lance's head. With bullets flying from Jerry didn't where, he ran towards a big bush and dove behind it, right into a big puddle soaking himself. Jerry rolled out of the puddle and into the mud and waited. He didn't know what for.

Jerry reasoned that he should wait a few minutes and then trying moving back towards camp, it seemed suicidal to move now. Maybe re-enforcements were on the way. Jerry felt in his pockets. His cigarettes were wet and so were his letters. He'd just that morning gotten two letters from home and both had made him as happy as he'd ever been. One was from Monya. She'd written that she'd had a new boyfriend for awhile but it hadn't worked out but it made her realize how special Jerry was. She wondered in the letter why she'd taken him for granted, he was the best guy she'd ever met and she said she hoped they could get back together when he got out of the service. Jerry never expected such a letter from her and was over the moon. The other letter was from his mother telling about how dad had earned a huge bonus at work and that he'd be able to retire sooner than they thought and, whether Jerry liked it or not, they were setting aside some money for him to help finish college with. Jerry could just feel his parents' joy over the windfall and how important it was for them to help Jerry out. He almost cried.

Jerry was sorry the letters were wet and wished he'd had a chance to answer them before this patrol. He was thinking about how great his folks and Monya were when he noticed some movement in the bushes a few yards ahead. A few seconds later Jerry got up on his haunches and looked up to see two North Vietnamese soldiers standing above him with their rifles pointed at his head. Jerry wondered how they'd snuck up on him so quietly.

28 March 2015

The Woman in Black


There’s a woman I see almost everyday on the subway. She always wears black slacks and a blank jacket. She has very long jet black hair and dark eyebrows. She’s a French teacher (as I discovered one day when I sat next to her and noticed her writing a student recommendation letter) and often grades paper during the subway ride. I estimate that she’s in her mid thirties. I’ve never seen her smile. I find something sad about her. Yesterday towards the end of the ride she looked to be in pain, perhaps as the result of a headache.

Students called her Madame Jorgenson because she was the French teacher. The Jorgenson surname came from her idiot husband Greg whose parents were from Sweden. Sometimes she wondered why she took his last name, not that Madame Bartkowski would have rolled off the tongue. Her first name was Linda. She’d been teaching French for seven years at The Academy High School, a private school. Most of Linda’s students were from families that earned twice as much as a goddamned French teacher. Linda knew there was more money and more stability in teaching in public schools, but who wanted to deal with the kind of kids you come across there? Anyway being a French teacher was pretty cushy, especially compared to teaching other subjects. English teachers always had huge piles of essays to grade. History teachers were dealing with bored students. Math teachers, well they had to teach math for chrissakes — what a drag. And Linda could not even imagine teaching PE where you deal with sweat and showers and towels and equipment. Never.

When it came right down to it Linda thought she’d made a mistake going into any kind of teaching. The pay was for shit and the tedium of doing the same crap over and over and constantly dealing with snotty adolescents and their parents....Oh god the fucking parents. Always whining about something. Too much work, not enough work, the wrong kind of work. And then there were administrators who were the ultimate losers. They couldn’t hack it in the classroom and segued into desk jobs in order to collect a few more bucks. Her colleagues were generally okay although the young ones were ridiculously idealistic and the old ones were even more cynical than Linda.

But Linda felt stuck. At 34 she was getting a little too old for any radical career change and there sure as shit was nothing else in education she would consider. Her idiot husband was going nowhere in his job at the bank and everyone knew that but him. They’d be taking out a second mortgage soon because his salary had stagnated. It was four years since they’d been to Europe and the next trip might not be for yet another four years. Linda also was facing the possibility of never having a child though she was ambiguous about the idea on her best days. Greg would raise the topic from time to time though not with any more enthusiasm than she felt. The fact that they almost never made love anymore made the prospects dimmer. If her goddamned mother complained about not having any grandchildren one more time Linda thought she would scream.

Sometimes Linda would daydream about an affair. The new science teacher was cute and young and kind of flirted with Linda but he probably had some hot girlfriend or was gay. It excited and frightened Linda that she would sometimes imagine sex with another man, even to the extent of looking at those websites were married people hook up for assignations.

All this crap was going through Linda’s mind as she sat in the same damn seat on the same damn car of the same day train that left at the same damn time every morning and took her to within a two block walk of the damn school. It was making her head hurt. More than that her head felt like it was being drilled into. Like that one time in college when she had a hangover from drinking vodka. For a couple of years now Linda had been avoiding making any kind of big decision. She had been content with just making it through each day. Trudging through the same routine. The only variety in her life was what she decided to watch on Netflix. But she knew, deep down inside, that something had to give. There simply had to be a change of direction. Linda felt nothing significant had happened in her life since the day she started teaching. The job and her marriage had sucked her into a black hole and it was time to get out.

Well it was Friday so the digging could easily wait until she finished her work day. By 3:45 she’d be out of school and free. Greg would be home late because of some dinner meeting and he had a golf date the next day. He’d taken up golf about a year ago and that had meant they were together a little less. This was a decidedly mixed blessing as far as Linda was concerned. Anyway she’d have plenty of time to decide on an earth shattering move that would change her life forever and for the better. Just thinking this made Linda’s head feel just a little bit better. Well that plus the tylenol with codeine she’d popped. It was left over from a recent injury. Linda had needed only a couple after breaking a toe and carried the bottle around for nasty headaches -- or just to feel better.

Linda’s work day was spectacularly ordinary. The fact was that there was usually some hiccup, if not several, during the course of a normal teaching day. But today was as smooth as silk. No student incidents, nor angry emails from parents, no hassles with colleagues or staff. Linda loved such days. Linda hated such days. More to the point, she hated that about the best she could hope for from a teaching day was that nothing bad happened. Linda had noticed this year that she no longer got much of a thrill from seeing student’s learning French. At first it was a big deal to observe the improvement a student made over the course of a few months. But now she could give a shit. Oh sure it meant job security and fed her ego that she was good at what she did but she really didn't give two shits about the students. Most of them just wanted to fulfill a language requirement to get into Cornell or whatever. They didn't have any passion for French so why should Linda get all excited by teaching them?

So the school day ended and Linda did her usual “have-a-nice-weekends” with everyone and headed out the door for the subway. And yes, she was resolved to find a way out of her rut. Something, some momentous decision, some great change. She could do it. She would do it. Maybe the first step would be not to get on the usual subway train. No. Linda was going to deviate from the norm. She got out her cellphone and called Allison. Allison had been her roommate in college and they were still good friends, especially since Allison’s divorce which had given her more time and prompted her to move back to the area. Allison worked just a few blocks away and got off at 4:00 on Fridays. They arranged to meet at a nearby bar.

Unlike Linda, Allison was a pretty big drinker. Not like an alcoholic or anything but on Fridays and at parties and such Allison could keep 'em up with the best of them. On this day Linda found herself keeping up with Allison. They were drinking whiskey sours, which Linda had never tried before. By 7:00 Linda was pretty well swacked and hungry. They went to an Italian restaurant and had huge plates of pasta preceded by appetizers and accompanied by a bottle of wine.

Linda had explained to Allison everything she’d been thinking about that day which was really just the culmination of what she’d been processing for a good long while. Allison’s advice was clear: do something.

“You only get one shot. That’s why I immediately got a divorce when I could see things with Rupert were never going to work out. Why hang on when the end result is inevitable? Ya know what I mean? You need to make a clear decision about what you want to do and do it. And for crying out loud, don’t waste your time talking to some fucking counselor or shrink or anything. They’ll suck you in for years by which time your life is nearly over. You’re a big girl. Decide for yourself and trust yourself.”

Linda thought that this was brilliant advice. The fact was that Linda had long admired Allison's smarts and that she had always had the courage of her conviction.

The two friends spent most of the rest of their time together reminiscing and gossiping about old friends. It was nearly ten o'clock when a drunken Linda finally got on the subway. She fell asleep straight away and nearly missed her stop. Like the school, Linda's house was just a short walk from a subway station. She staggered home dropping the keys several times as she walked up the steps. Greg was home and heard her so he opened the door.

"Where have you been?" He sounded angry, worried and exasperated.

Linda just looked at him with a crooked smile.

"Why didn't you answer your phone?" he demanded.

To Linda, Greg, who was tall blonde and both All-American and boyish looking, sounded utterly ridiculous. He had no capacity for expressing emotion. Greg had always just seemed silly when trying to be angry. In truth everyone who had ever met Greg agreed that he was just about the sweetest man on Earth. Linda had fallen for how genuine and kind he was. He was the polar opposite of most everyone in her family. Okay he could be dull as dishwater but no one was more considerate.

"You're no good at expressing emotion. Ya know that Gregory," she slurred, still sporting a goofy grin and swaying as she spoke.

"You couldn't call?"

"Sorry." And with that Linda plopped onto a chair. She looked around the living room at all the furniture. She peered around Greg at the dining room and marveled at how big it was. Beyond it was the kitchen which was also much bigger than they needed.

"Why do we have all this space? Why do we need such a big house? Why don't we sell it and move into an apartment? We could...."

"I can't talk to you when you're drunk," Greg said.

Linda waved her hand at him and slumped deeper in the chair.

"Here, let me get you to bed. You were with Allison, weren't you? I've never seen you like this before. You shouldn't ever have more than a cocktail and two glasses of wine. Ever."

"I'll get myself to bed, thank you very much," Linda said. With that she stood. Linda undressed on her way to the bedroom just letting her clothes drop. She collapsed naked on the bed and was soon dead to the world. Greg walked in after brushing his teeth and peeing and saw her naked ass staring up at him. For the first time in months Greg was turned on. He was, in fact, very turned on. Greg pulled off his pajama bottoms and and without a moment's hesitation screwed Linda. Although she would never remember it, Linda became conscious and moaned with enjoyment throughout and even had an orgasm.

Linda spent the next day at home with an awful hangover. She watched TV and surfed the web. No great decision was made. Even thinking hurt. For many days after Linda felt chastened by her drunken behavior and was particularly solicitous of Greg.

A few weeks later Linda found out that she was pregnant. She was going to be a mom. Greg actually did a get a promotion at work. Linda gave birth to a baby boy nine months to the day after her husband gratified himself with her drunken body. She quit teaching.

25 March 2015

When Cobb Got a Job

Cobb, far right, with his buddies
Cobb got a job.

His friends liked saying that after Wendell Cobb got hired as a laborer by a construction firm. For a few weeks after they’d break out with the chant: “Cobb got a job, Cobb got a job…” After dropping out of SF State at the beginning of his sophomore year, Cobb had bummed around living off money some rich great aunt left him. He’d gone down to Mexico once and made several trips to Lake Tahoe plus he had this girlfriend in Stockton for awhile who he’d go out with and spend a lot of dough on, but Cobb had avoided work like the plague for what seemed to everyone like the longest time. In fact it was barely two years.

Finally the money was running out and Cobb didn’t want to move back in with his parents — who by this time had moved out to the suburbs, some burg called Orinda — or become a leach like Lester Coogan who everyone was starting to hate. So he looked for work and got hooked up with this construction firm that was building apartment complexes in and around San Francisco.

The pay was really good and there were benefits and best of all the work promised to be steady. The foreman on his job was a nice enough guy whose younger brother was an ex classmate of Cobb’s from Balboa High. That was all the connection Cobb had needed. And it didn’t hurt that Cobb was a big fella who looked the part of a laborer and in fact had worked one Summer helping build a church. Cobb had it made in the shade.

Then things went a little haywire. It started innocently enough. It was the weekend after Cobb’s third week on the job. Due to one thing or another the gang hadn’t gotten together for over a month and they were going to make up for lost time. Saturday night there was a big barbecue at Tucker’s place. His folks were pretty cool and liked having all the boys over. All they asked was that guests kindly respect the BYOB policy they’d enacted when Tucker and company came of age. His dad ran a butcher shop so there were plenty of meats of all variety to put “on the cue” as Old Man Tucker called it. Tucker’s mom made a gigantic potato salad and steamed some vegetables so they were all set.

Tucker’s sister Lana put on the hi fi and kept the platters spinning so it was a real festive atmosphere. Somehow nobody got too drunk at Tucker’s, maybe out of respect for his parents. But just the same everyone had a good time and they all ended up in the basement rec room playing pool or darts or just gabbing. There was some talk about the coming presidential election with most agreeing that even though they wanted Kennedy to win it seemed likely that Nixon would somehow steal it.

Next day everyone headed to Kezar Stadium to see the 49ers play the Browns. It was a pretty warm Indian Summer day so everyone was constantly stopping the beer vendor and slaking their thirst. Cobb was keeping pace with everyone. He was feeling particularly good what with the new job. The 49ers went on to beat the Browns on a late touchdown pass so post game everyone was in a celebratory mood.

Cobb said that whoever wanted could come to his place. They’d pick up some burgers on the way not to mention several six packs of Olympia.

Tucker, Jankowski and D’Angelo all made it over. There was a colored fella who lived next door name of Casey who was a big 49er fan so Cobb invited him over. No one objected, although if Berger was with them he’d have kicked up a fuss, Berger was an unabashed bigot and big fan of the John Birch Society. But he had headed straight home after the game on account of his wife being seven months pregnant.

Casey brought over some beer of his own although it was Hamm’s. That was fine with everyone. Sure they preferred Olys but to each his own and after you been drinking all day there’s not much difference, truth to tell.

Everyone was getting good and stinko and after an hour or so Tucker and D’Angelo made for home. Jankowski and Casey stuck around and it wasn’t long before another trip to the liquor store was in order. As they got in Jankowski’s Chevy, Cobb thought how it was getting kinda late and he had work early the next morning so maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. But he also thought what the heck he was having a great time and he’d be fine in the morning.

The evening was warm and the three of them — Cobb, Jankwoski and Casey — sat on Cobb’s front porch. Before long they started singing. They sounded awful and Casey’s wife came out once and told them to keep it down so they finally went inside. No sooner had they closed the front door than Jankowski passed out. He fell face forward on the floor. Drunk as Cobb was he would never forget the sight of his good buddy just falling straight ahead like a tree.

Casey helped Cobb put Janowski on the big sofa in the living room. He was small enough and the sofa big enough that even with Jankowski sprawled across it Cobb and Casey had room to sit on either side of him. The two new buddies kept on drinking until Cobb finally fell asleep sitting up on the sofa next to his passed out friend. Casey took that as his cue to go home. It was 1:30 in the morning.

Three hours later Jankowski finally woke up. It took him awhile to realize where he was and what had happened. Once he did he went and took a piss then hopped into his Chevy and drove home.

Though dead to the world, Cobb must have sensed the absence of the body that had laid next to him because once Jankowski got up he sprawled out on the sofa. From then on he didn’t move a muscles for hours.

When Cobb finally started to wake up his first sense was total confusion. He had no idea where he was or what day it was. Once things cleared enough for him to think straight it was like an alarm went off in Cobb’s brain. This alarm wasn’t like the ringing of his clock but the loud blare of a danger signal. When Cobb looked at his watch and saw that it was half past ten he could feel the panic coming straight from his ass up his spine. He actually began to shake and did so for a few seconds.

“I don’t know whether to shit or wind my watch,” Cobb said out loud. He finally decided on a cold shower and a change of clothes, then he’d hop into his his car and head for work thinking up an excuse for being late on the way. In between the shower and leaving the house Cobb wolfed down a couple of pieces of bread and made a sandwich for lunch.

Cobb alternated between feeling pure dread that he would be fired and absolute confidence that it would all be fine. After all, people had been late to work before and if they had a legit excuse there was nothing worse that came of it then a warning and a little loss in pay. But Cobb was pretty new and maybe the foreman wouldn’t be so forgiving. The drive to the work site would take about 15 minutes, ample time to concoct a story.

The second Cobb stepped outside he could tell something was wrong, that something was missing. His car. Oh goddamn it the car was gone. His car had been stolen! It was a beat up old '52 Dodge hardly worth a nickel and someone had stolen it. Cobb was totally screwed. Cobb was scared. Cobb was outraged. Cobb didn’t know what to do. Was it even worth calling the cops over? Hell yes it was. This was his transportation. Plus it had his tools in it. The world was falling out from under Cobb. He wanted to cry and he wanted to kill someone. He paced around the front lawn for a good minute trying to decide whether to catch a bus to work — he wouldn’t even know which one to take — or call the cops. Cobb thought of calling a cab but all he had on him was some loose change.

Finally he went inside to call the cops and saw that the damn phone was off the hook. Oh hell, he thought, they’ve probably been trying to call me from work and haven’t been able to get through.
Cobb put the phone back in the cradle and sat down, shaking again. He’d have to steady his nerves. Then the damn phone rang. Oh hell, Cobb thought, it’s work. I’ll just tell 'em I’m sick.

“Hello.”

“Hey Cobb, it’s me.”

“D’Angelo?”

“Yeah lissun your car is still over at my place. You gonna pick it up or what? I’ve been trying to call you but the line’s busy.”

“Oh thank merciful God,” said Cobb who had heretofore not been the religious type. "Sorry,  I’ll be right over.”

“Cool, see ya.”

Cobb felt like dancing a jig. He’d never been so relieved in his life. With all the drinking the day before he’d forgotten that he’d left the car at D’Angelo’s house, which was only three blocks away. Why the hell had I left it there in the first place, he wondered.

Running the whole way Cobb got to D'Angelo's in five minutes.  He waved at D’Angelo, who was in his garage, and drove off to work determined to think of the best excuse ever. First he thought of saying he woke up sick but that would seem too close to a hangover, he’d also have to explain the phone not ringing. Then he considered saying it was a family emergency. Mom was in an accident and when he got the news he was so shook up he must have dropped the phone. Cobb hated the notion of using his mother for an excuse, especially when he’d just tied one on, but it seemed his best option.

Cobb got to the work site and immediately found the foreman. He was confident that the excuse about his mom being in accident would work, after all, who lies about their mom?

“Cobb!” The foreman barked. “Where the hell have you been? We tried calling you and couldn’t get through so we called your folks and they didn’t know what was going on neither.”

Shit. That’s right, his parents were listed as an emergency contact. Good thing he didn’t spout out his phony story before the foreman spoke. Cobb stood there without an excuse. He felt about two feet tall and weak as a kitten and naked and awful and what could he do?

“Well? Speak up!” the foreman said.

“I…I was sick. Sick as a dog. I woke up with diarrhea and vomiting and chills and…” Cobb thought of how he felt when he had the flu last Winter and just described that. “Plus I guess I knocked the phone off the hook last night. I’m real sorry.” Cobb felt relief. He’s spit out an excuse and it was plausible and best of all it was over with.

“Well Cobb you look like hell. You sure you well enough to be here?”

“Yeah I feel a lot better now. Might have just been something I ate.”

“Sure it wasn’t something you drank?” That question scared the hell out of Cobb for two seconds but the foreman followed it with a laugh and a pat on the back. Cobb was in the clear.

Mid afternoon Cobb was sweating profusely even though the fog had returned to San Francisco. He’d become buddies with a guy named Lancaster (like Burt the actor, he'd say) who asked if he was hungover. Cobb admitted it and Lancaster said he knew the only cure.

“What’s that?” Cobb asked.

“Hair of the dog,” Lancaster told him.

“You mean drink again?”

“Just a bottle or two of beer. Not enough to start another bender. Just so’s you can take the edge off.”

Cobb hadn’t gotten drunk too many times in his life and had only had a few hangovers but he’d never even thought to drink when he was already hungover. It seemed crazy to him but he was feeling pretty miserable both physically and mentally so figured once he got home it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Sure enough there was still a six pack left in the fridge so after a TV dinner Cobb downed a beer. It went down surprisingly smoothly and gave him a bit of a glow. But Cobb still had a little case of the blues so he drank another. After the second beer Cobb was feeling really good for the first time all day. It was great to be so up after having been down for the whole day. Cobb figured it was only logical that a third beer would really top things off. He was right, problem was that he couldn't stop, he finished off the second pack.

Cobb was on top of the world but knew that more beer wasn't going to keep the good times rolling. It seemed logical in his sotted brain that it was time for some hard stuff. So Cobb took his checkbook and headed for Al’s Liquors down the street where he bought a pint of whiskey. Not wanting to wait until he got home, Cobb took a couple of pulls from it right there in the parking lot. A few seconds later the world went blurry. But Cobb liked this feeling. He staggered towards home singing a current Bobby Rydell song, but after going a few yards he lost his balance and started pinwheeling into the street.

The truck was going the speed limit, it had its lights on and the driver was obeying all traffic laws. He was not at fault. Coincidentally a police car was coming towards the scene of the accident and saw the whole thing. The police officer, a veteran by the name of Ralph McIntyre, watched Wendell Cobb get smacked by the truck and fly several feet in the air. An ambulance was there within seven minutes.

Cobb suffered a broken leg, broken arm, broken ribs, a concussion, various contusions and lost a few teeth. Bad as it was, the cop, and later the doctors ,thought he got off lucky. Cobb was in the hospital for three weeks. His job was gone and bills had piled up. He had no choice but to move back in with his folks. He vowed never to drink again.

It wasn’t until mid January, just a few days before John Kennedy’s inauguration, that friends could once again chant, Cobb has a job.  He hadn't been well enough to look until December and construction work was out for a time until his leg was 100%. So what Cobb got was a work as the night counter man at a liquor store in San Francisco. Cobb was never tempted to take advantage of the employee discount, at least on booze.

He was sleeping in a spare room at D'Angelo's house until he saved up enough for an apartment. Cobb had a job and this time he was determined not to screw up.

22 March 2015

Victory of the Bland - Thoughts on Corporate CEOs, Mafia Bosses Inspired by the Bob Durst Story

Like a lot of people I was fascinated by the  recent HBO six part series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst about multi millionaire Robert Durst. This is the chap who killed a man and dismembered his body but got off on the claim that it the killing was a combination of self defense and an accident. Durst is believed to be responsible for the murder of his first wife who disappeared in 1982 and for assassinating a friend in Los Angeles in 2000. Some friend.

If you haven’t seen the series I highly recommend it. Its compelling on a number of levels not the least of which being that Durst is making the news right now with his recent arrest. As has been reported, he seems to have accidentally confessed to murder in a recording that can be heard at the end of the final episode.

Durst was extensively interviewed for the series by the makers of the documentary with director Andrew Jarecki asking the questions. It’s fascinating stuff on many levels. Durst seems at once repulsive, likable, weird and not the type of guy with who would going around killing people.
He’s also clearly a liar. For instance he tells of being led to a window by his dad to watch his mother jump (or fall if you believe the family) to her death when he was but seven years old. If it sounds unbelievable that a father would casually take a child to watch mom teetering on the edge of a roof its because it never happened. Then again it did happen in Durst’s mind. In fact in his mind he’s an innocent man who’s a victim of a bizarre string of mishaps. The worst lies you can believe in are your own. They become a person’s narrative, their new reality. Crimes, excesses and conversations can be wiped from a person’s memory. Just as new stories, alternative realities can be added. Someone living in their delusions is pretty hard to deal with.

Douglas Durst
Jinx is intriguing on a number of levels including the fact that it is full of interesting characters, in addition to the main one. One of them is Durst’s brother Douglas who upon the death of the family patrician, Seymour (Doug and Bob’s dad) took charge of the family business. That business is in prime Manhattan real estate. The Dursts are loaded. We see Doug a few times in Jinx but he never sat down for an interview with he filmmakers. That’s not his thing. We do see him on tape giving a deposition and also Jarecki crashed a ceremony where he was given an award for charitable work. It was enough to get an idea of the type of guy Doug Durst is. On the surface there's nothing particularly interesting about Doug, certainly not compared to other personalities we meet in the series. And especially as we only catch glimpses of him. But he reminds me of Michael Corelone (Al Pacino) in The Godfather Part II (1974).

No, I’m not saying that Doug Durst is a mobster. But he is, like Corleone a businessman and more than that a CEO. Indeed he is the archetype. Like the true Mafia boss, the CEO is an insulated figure. He does not give interviews. He does not engage in chit chat with strangers nor even acquaintances and rarely with friends and only sometimes with family. He is has a wall around himself and his immediate family and other than official company policy and major decisions, people do not have access to his opinions. Any embarrassment within the family or organization is to be dealt with swiftly with official statements that are as insipid as possible. The family/company holds no controversial positions, is fiercely private and neutral whenever possible. They do not engage in dialogues, they release terse statements. They have channels and layers to go through. They have specific people with specific tasks. They are protected. They are serious.

Doug Durst said as little as possible about his brother’s legal woes. He sent lawyers. The CEO loves his lawyers, they protect him. The family stayed as far away as possible from the case of Bob’s first wife’s disappearance. They didn’t lift a finger to help “look for her.” (Okay, so maybe they knew or figured Bob had killed her so what would be the point.) It was the same way in which they claimed that Seymour’s wife had fallen to her death rather than jumped. Suicide is embarrassing and raises questions. Accidents happen. Regrettable but nothing to sully the family name.

In Godfather Part II Michael is the quintessential Mafia boss (not the flashy John Gotti type who loves headlines and pays dearly for it) who stays in the background. He is cool, detached and in total control. As his father advised, he never let anyone outside the family know what he's thinking. All his moves were designed to protect the family business and the immediate family. Nothing else mattered. If he had to kill a sibling to protect that family by god he’d do it. Michael’s rages, his emotions were all kept out of sight. Doug seems similarly cool, detached and in control, similarly never letting others know what goes on inside. He too makes sure that ever move is calculated to protect and further the family name and business. He is also a quintessential CEO who stays out of headlines (not the obscenely obnoxious type like Donald Trump).

Michael Corleone
It must be a frightful existence. Lonely. Unnatural. Trapped. To constantly follow such strict rules of conduct to constantly have one’s guard up and to constantly depend on others to keep the facade going. It is the death of personality, spontaneity and creativity and the victory of the bland. I wonder if Bob Durst, despicable as he may be, is at least happier than Doug? I wonder if Fredo (the murdered brother) enjoyed his life more than Michael enjoyed his?

Both Bob and Doug suffered the childhood trauma of their mother’s death. Perhaps as a consequence Bob turned into an amoral killer while Doug cleaved closer to his father and emulated his leadership style.

The further you go up any corporate or government hierarchy less interesting are the people you meet. You see men in plain suits, freshly tailored, recent haircuts, manicured nails, perfunctory smiles and medium strength handshakes. They say little and mean less. Their souls are tucked safely away in storage. Their desks are clean with an obligatory framed family photo. They seem but empty vessels. How mannered and polite and desperately dull they are. How far from their true natures.

Anyway I started out about Bob Durst. No empty vessel he. Then again he probably murdered at least three people so nobody’s perfect.