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Cracker etiquette :
b stories from somebody's South
h [electronic resource] /
by Philip Booth.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
ABSTRACT: It might be said that the Old South and the New South meet in this collection of stories, largely set in Florida and centered on characters whose lives are tied to the state. The protagonists, mostly men and boys, are often observed during moments of crisis. The middle-aged narrator of "Falling," sifting through bittersweet memories, attempts to come to terms with a loved one's loss, the impact of that tragedy on his life, and the burden of misplaced guilt. In "Smile," a young man struggles with an uncaring lover and makes a fateful decision about a stash of stolen money during a strange trip to Key West, a journey spiked with pop-culture references and viewed through the haze of LSD.A romance between a good woman and a hard-drinking man, begun during the 1940s, is at the center of "Cracker Etiquette: A Sort-of Memoir," which visits largely-forgotten times and places in Old Florida and rural Georgia. The rules of romance, circa the 1980s, are examined in "Just a Kiss," a story of twenty-something sexual frustration and emotional angst set in Tampa and indebted, in part, to a Hemingway story.An entirely different milieu is explored in "The Night Frank Sinatra Saved Pop's Life," which takes place at a New Jersey family's beach house in South Florida and centers on a Mafia hit man's retelling of his long-ago encounter with the Chairman of the Board. "What the Neighbor Saw,"; the most psychedelic of these stories, and one of the author's oldest pieces of fiction, closes the collection with a murder mystery told from the point of view of a disturbed suburbanite.These tales offer a unique perspective on a South that may have existed only inside one writer's mind.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2006.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 92 pages.
Adviser: John Fleming, Ph.D.
Rock and roll.
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
Cracker Etiquette: Stories From Somebodys South by Philip Booth A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: John Fleming, Ph.D. Rita Ciresi, M.F.A. Phillip Sipiora, Ph.D. Date of Approval: April 10, 2006 Keywords: florida, fiction, key west, movies, rock and roll Copyright 2006, Philip Booth
i Table of Contents Abstract ii Introduction 1 Smile 11 Cracker Etiquette: A Sort-of Memoir 30 Just a Kiss 45 Falling 62 The Night Frank Sinatra Saved Pops Life 75 What the Neighbor Saw 86
ii Cracker Etiquette: Stories From Somebodys South Philip Booth ABSTRACT It might be said that the Old South and the New South meet in this collection of stories, largely set in Florida and centered on ch aracters whose lives are tied to the state. The protagonists, mostly men and boys, are of ten observed during moments of crisis. The middle-aged narrator of Falli ng, sifting through bittersw eet memories, attempts to come to terms with a loved ones loss, the impact of that tragedy on his life, and the burden of misplaced guilt. In Smile, a young man struggles with an uncaring lover and makes a fateful decision about a stash of stol en money during a strang e trip to Key West, a journey spiked with pop-culture referenc es and viewed through the haze of LSD. A romance between a good woman and a hard-drinking man, begun during the 1940s, is at the center of Cracker Etiquette : A Sort-of Memoir, which visits largelyforgotten times and places in Old Florida and rural Georgia. The rules of romance, circa the 1980s, are examined in Just a Kiss, a st ory of twenty-something sexual frustration and emotional angst set in Tampa and inde bted, in part, to a Hemingway story. An entirely different milieu is explored in The Night Frank Sinatra Saved Pops Life, which takes place at a New Jersey familys beach house in South Florida and centers on a Mafia hit mans rete lling of his long-ago encounter with the Chairman of the Board.
iii What the Neighbor Saw, the most psychedelic of these stories, and one of the authors oldest pieces of fiction, closes the collection with a murder mystery told from the point of view of a disturbed suburbanite. These tales offer a unique perspective on a South that may have existed only inside one writers mind.
1 Introduction Journalism is literature in a hurry, the Victorian poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold wrote. As a longtime journalist, Ive always subscribed to that view, believing that the news reporting of, say, Bob Woodw ard and Carl Bernstein in The Washington Post on the fall of the Nixon White House was every bit as compelling as the finest fiction of the period. Theirs was a bracing narrative filled with a fascinating cast of characters, an engaging true-life story that began with s ecrets and lies at the highest levels of government, continued with unraveling career s and concluded with the fall of a oncemighty ruler. No wonder the resultant book, All the Presidents Men and the movie of the same name, inspired so many writers of my generation to pursue careers in journalism. Fertile, stunningly told stories, too, drawn from real life and driven by engaging narrative arcs, are also to be found in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the other nonfiction work of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson; Tom Wolfes true-life countercultural explorations in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and elsewhere; the longform journalism of Norm an Mailer, including his The Armies of the Night ; and Truman Capotes In Cold Blood born as a series of articles in The New Yorker In recent months, fascinating, deeply m oving stories of tragedy, survival and hope have emerged from Hurricane Katrinas devast ation of New Orleans and the Gulf coast,
2 in the pages of publications as varied as The New Orleans Times-Picayune, The New York Times and No Depression magazine; these kinds of richly woven, emotionally resonant tales, too, emerged in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Journalism and literature have always b een connected in another, perhaps more obvious way, too: Talented journalists, like Mark Twain, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway and, more recently, the Florid a crime writer Carl Hiaasen, moved beyond newspapers to become formidable creators of fiction. The hard, sometimes monotonous work of reporting gathering facts, seeki ng out sources, intervie wing people, running into dead ends, analyzing info rmation, relating the results to the public as entertainingly as possible paid off for these writers, and many others. They were each able to successfully transition from the craft of r ecounting and illuminating the deeds and lives of real people to the art of fabricating and enlivening characters who may or may not bear remarkable resemblances to people living or dead. So that was the path I had in mind when I made my first serious attempts at fiction writing, about the same time that I was admitted to the University of South Floridas graduate program in English, in th e fall of 2003. I had successfully worked in the field of journalism, as a staff writer and a full-time freelancer, and over a period of two decades I had written hundreds, if not thousands of news stories, feature stories and reviews for dozens of daily and weekly ne wspapers, magazines and Web publications around the country. As a journalis t, I knew how to give readers and, more importantly, editors what they wanted, or what they thought they wanted, and at the same time satisfy my own sense of storytelling. And I hoped that I could accomplish the same thing with literary fiction.
3 I had studied literature, too, and in gr aduate school I explored Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the modernists; Mailer, J ack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, Toni Morrison, Jonathan Franzen, and other contemporary noveli sts; the sci-fi worlds of Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick; and, variously, Dickens and Twain. In creative writing classes, I delved into the stories of John Updike, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Andre Dubus, Stuart Dybek, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Louise Erdrich, Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, Sandra Cisneros, Mark Costello, Lorrie Moore and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among many others, attempti ng to understand how and why their short fiction worked for readers, and what skills and techniques might be useful in my own work. On my own, I eagerly consumed the tough-guy crime writings of Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke, the psychological crim e thrillers of Patricia Highsmith and the pulp horror of Stephen King; the tales of Southern grotesques in the work of Gainesville writer Harry Crews and New Orleans writer Jo hn Kennedy Toole; and the portraits of Northern grotesques in Sherwood Andersons Winesburg, Ohio. I reveled in the comic strains of British social satirist Kingsley Amis, and such forebears as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene; and the more darkly tinted work of Amiss son, so-called Britpack writer Martin Amis. The short stories and novels of Russell Banks, who brought a sculptors knife to his beautif ully crafted work centered on bleak themes and characters who often struggle with family dysfunction a nd addiction, perhaps have had more of an influence on my writing in recent year s than the work of any other author. I also learned much from the storytel ling found in contemporary screenplays, particularly those that were the basis for the work of the filmmakers who were part of
4 Hollywoods creative renaissance of the s Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Spielberg, Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Paul Mazursky and Stanley Kubrick along with se veral who emerged in the s, including Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles and Oliver Stone, and s talents Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky and Paul Thomas Anderson. All of these directors to some degree have explored the nature of identity in an America whose sense of itself, of its place in the world, had lost its moorings duri ng the political and social upheaval of the s, and had yet to be healed of its malaise. That sense of contemporary angst, a kind of non-religious spiritual suffering accompanied by an endless quest for answers, also attracted me to the tales of the drifters, losers and seekers in the music of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams. Even artists from across the pond tapped into that feeling; it is present in the music of the latter-day Beatles, in the John Lennon and George Harrison solo projects, and in the work of modern rock ers U2, who literalized that sense of lifelong spiritual questing in songs like I Still Havent Found Wh at Im Searching For and Sunday Bloody Sunday (with the lyrics, H ow long must we sing this song?) Those artists secular sear ching, and moments of revela tion, paralleled religious experiences that I had undergone in the S outh. As a child and young adult, I attended a variety of Protestant churches, cycling thr ough several mainstream denominations, and as a teenager I had a born again experience at a summer church camp. Later, I became closely affiliated with severa l evangelical churches. I have never abandoned my faith, but I have gone through several phases and diffe ring degrees of religious devotion. I have experienced feelings of simila r, neo-religious spiritual tr anscendence while listening to
5 music, too, whether absorbing the deep, ree dy woodwinds and primal percussion of the World Saxophone Quartet with African drums at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, zoning into the throbbing bass and hypnotic patterns of the bands on stage all night at Reggae Sunsplash in Jamaica, investigating the mournful laments recorded by guitarist Robert Johnson and his Delta blues musical kin or tuning into the open-ended, musically eclectic improvisations of the Grat eful Dead, Phish and other jam bands that have continued to play in a similar vein. And, long ago, briefly, chemical stimulants paved a trip through the doors of perception, as Aldous Huxley referred to his own encounters with mind-expanding drugs. So all of these influences fed my creative impulses as a writer, giving rise, first, to journalistic accounts of places I had visite d and musicians and filmmakers I had interviewed, and, later, to fiction. But the r eality of moving from journalism to fiction was far more complicated than I might have imagined. Its one thing to successfully assemble character portraits, describe settings and devise pieces of dialogue. Its another thing to bring characters to life, and to move them around in a manner thats compelling to readers. I believe that Iv e made real progress in these areas over the last few years, although Im convinced that I have much more to learn about the craft of fiction writing; the best fiction writers, I believe, are lifelong students of the art and craft of writing. A story, Ive learned, is never finished until its published, and even then its not too late to revise (in public readings story collections, etc.) What the Neighbor Saw, included in this collection, grew out of my first real attempt at fiction writing. Its genesis was an ex ercise in free writi ng, during a session at the Florida Suncoast Writers Conference at the USF campus in St. Petersburg. The story
6 began as a single, simple image a man is able to look across the way and observe the possibly sinister goings-on of his neighbors that might have had some connection with the action that takes place in Alfred Hitchcocks Rear Window ; while briefly enrolled in the cinema studies program at NYU, I had st udied Hitchcocks four Jimmy Stewart films quite closely. The story also reverberates, I think, with the feeling of the torrid breezes and tropical landscapes of South Florida, possibly as a result of the many occasions, when I was a child, that I visited my pate rnal grandparents at their old, rambling twostory house in West Palm Beach. What th e Neighbor Saw, too, is influenced by adventures in psychedelics; ther es a playful, nonsensical edge to the story meant to leave the reader with some mystery about what actua lly happens to the main character. Does a murder really take place? Are there multiple mu rders? If so, does the killer get away with his misdeeds? Or do these events merely pl ay out in the mind of a narrator who is decidedly unreliable? And what should readers make of the ongoi ng war between the sexes described in these stories? The protagonist in What the Neighbor Saw apparently kills his love interest in the story because she may get in the way of his perfect crime. In an early version of Smile, also set in South Flor ida even farther sout h, all the way down in Key West protagonist Marc symbolically murders his ever-complaining girlfriend Christine, with a single flash of his pearly white teeth. In a later version, he decides to abandon his girlfriend to a pair of biker toughs who are bent on retrieving the money that Marc has inadvertently stolen from them. In the final version, or at least, the one contained in this collection, Marc is the one who suffers for his temporary brush with good fortune.
7 In Just a Kiss, Stuarts angst, or an ger, about his relationship with Jennifer seems to reach the boiling point. He cant get wh at he wants, at firs t, and he blames it on the object of his affection, or lust. Nor can he come to terms with Je nnifers point of view about the rape scene in Hemingways Up in Michigan. In Cracker Etiquette: A Sort-of Memoir, women kill their male lovers in separate sections of the story, much of which is told in flashback. Poppy, one of the storys tw o main characters, is stabbed to death by a woman he meets long after hes split from Mama, the storys other main character. Mama, as a child, witnesses a jealous wife pl unge a knife into the heart of a philandering preacher. Is all of this a result of misogyny? Self-loathing? A co mbustible mixture of both? Answers (respectively): I hope not I dont think so. And maybe so. At any rate, Id like to think that the male-female relationships depi cted in these stories reflect something true about the nature of the unceasing struggle between the sexes, a recognition of the delicate, extremely fragile balance that ex ists between men and women, and the vast potential for misunderstanding. None of these stories are true memoirs, in terms of honest at tempts at recreating moments from my own life. But every stor y, aside from What the Neighbor Saw, contains slightly fictionali zed, loosely autobiographical episodes. Just a Kiss indeed does stem from a misfired near-relationship that began with a sexua lly charged flirtation and continued with an extended discussion, held on several occasions, in person and by telephone, about the nature of dating. Its set during a particular time and place the Tampa Bay area, during the la te 1980s and I employed a journalistic approach at several points in the story, attempting to recrea te the look, feel and sound of that setting,
8 in that period. Smile, similarly, is based on a trip not dissimilar to the on e described in the story. The idea, again, was to bring back to life a particular milie u, and use that as a springboard for a story about one young mans experiences his fi rst-time encounter with LSD, his agonizing relationship with a self-centered romantic partner, and misadventures involving a cache of stolen m oney. No, my own real-life journey to Key West did not involve the di scovery of purloined loot. Falling probably fits the cat egory of memoir more than any of the other stories in this collection. Its a loos ely connected series of vignette s largely based on a series of events that took place in and around Central Fl orida, incidents that my late brother, Bobby, and I experienced. The job here for me, I think, was to revisit and recreate these episodes without resorting to se ntimentality, to give these ch aracters the older brother, telling the story in flashbac k, and his terminally ill younger brother enough sharp edges to bring them to life without portrayi ng either one as saint or sinner. If I were to probe deeply enough into my reasons for writing the story, which was originally titled Two, I d probably discover that it resu lted from a couple of related motivations. First, I suspect that the syndrome called survivors guilt by some psychologists played into it to some degr ee: Maybe Ive needed to employ creative writing to explore the questions that I have had about the fact that my brother inherited a genetic heart defect that I did not inherit; why did he pass away, while I survived? Secondly, Im guessing that the story was sparke d by a subconscious desire to create a tribute to my brother, a way to memoriali ze and perhaps keep him alive, by documenting some of our experiences together, memories that will be lost at some point in the future.
9 Maybe theres something larger here, in terms of why writers write: Is it not an effort to validate ones own experiences a nd feelings by working them out on the page, and leaving them behind as a proof of ones own existence? Trite, maybe, but true: I write, therefore I am. Cracker Etiquette: A Sort-of Memoir, by the same token, could be an attempt to explore the meaning of family legacy; the title derives from the fact that all four of my grandparents were born in Ge orgia. The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, according to Euripides. A similar concept is sounded in the Old Testament: I the lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting th e iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5). The P oppy character, a man with innate intelligence whose life was felled by alcohol addiction, came from a family of alcoholics, and died at the hands of his fe male companion, also a heavy drinker. Hes based in part on my own mate rnal grandfather, whose life fit the above description and my paternal grandfather, who stopped dri nking and smoking, cold tu rkey, at age 40. The characters wife, Mama, is inspired by my ma ternal grandmother, who passed away last summer at the age of 94. Like Mama, my grandmother was a nurse who made many untold personal sacrifices for her children, in an effort to keep them well-fed and secure in the wake of an absent father. Ive always been curious about my maternal grandparents early life together, and I never heard many details about those years, so Ive ficti onalized them in the story. Ive also always had a keen interest in the im pact of ones own life ones good deeds and misdeeds on future generations. And C racker Etiquette: A Sort-of Memoir undoubtedly has something to do with an effort to work out that problem on paper.
10 The entire collection, too, mi ght be said to reflect my attempt to use creative writing as a tool for a home-made brand of ps ychoanalysis. Its an act of discovery, to some degree, and the process goes something like this: By creating, or re-creating, these characters, and setting them in motion, Im able to come to a greater understanding of their real-life counterparts. Does it work out th at way? Thats yet to be determined. More importantly, of course, is whether Ive b een able to transform semi-autobiographical memory pieces into narratives with story arcs and characters appealing enough to hook readers and keep them interested until the conc lusion of each piece. Thats a task that Ive attempted to achieve with each story in Cracker Etiquette.
11 Smile The good stuff kicked in at th e restaurant, Captain Carls, a pit stop on Marc and Christinas meandering tour of Old Town in Key West. They ordered jumbo fried shrimp, conch chowder, a pitcher of Mich Light to soak it all up, and key lime pie for dessert. They waited on their food for three long hours. Maybe it just felt like three hours. Christina scanned the juke box selections Jimmy Buffetts request Wasted Away in Margaritaville and Son of a Son of a Sailor, singles by Hogtown homeboy Tom Petty, the Eagles, Santana, the Rolling Stones and other old-school rockers. She peered at the autographed celebrity photos, encased in glass frames, some dusty, some cracked, plastered irregularly all over the front wall of the place, and craned her neck back to look up at the yellowing do llar bills stapled to the ceiling. Marc used crayons to cover every inch of the childrens menu, from the connectthe-dots sailboat to the word scramble. Time slowed, practica lly stopping to sync with the lazy rhythms of Bob Marleys reggae hits Meanwhile, the action was beginning to pick up in front of Marcs eyes, right there on the black-and-white checked tablecloth: Tiny gnomish men swung from square to square hanging on the vertices like penny-sized monkeys. Steamboat Willie steered his ship to the north, south, east, west, shouting out instructions in that familiar, inimitable he lium squeak. Gumby chatted with Pokey, the two bending into impossibly contorted positio ns, and disturbing sexual images briefly flickered through Marcs mind.
12 Marc told Christina what hed seen, and wondered if she had noticed, too. Youre hallucinating, shithead, she said. It happens. Quit grinning. No, I mean, this is really weird. Get a fucking grip. Be norma l. Its called tripping. He winced, and stopped and stared at her for several long moments. Chill out, Christina, he said, before jumping fr om his seat to visit the bathroom. Marc waited for a burly man in a leather vest and tattoos, a guy apparently in a big hurry, to pass in the narrow hallway before he entered the tiny mens room. He locked the door, peed, and stayed at the ur inal for a while, his eyes transfixed on the patterns created by the shiny black and white linoleum squares, like the tablecloth. At the sink, he splashed his face three times in quick succession, and looked into the mirror, zoning out before he noticed something odd. An acoustical tile, direc tly above the toilet to Marcs right, was sagging, and a tiny piece of paper could be seen protruding onto the metal frame. A dollar bill? Resting his left hand on the sink for levera ge, Marc climbed up on the toilet seat, and almost fell off before he regained his balance. He pushed up on the tile, and several $100 bills slipped out, fluttering down to the floor. Was this a hallucination, too? With his right hand, he reached up as far as he could go, walking his fingers toward the middle of the tile, and felt a stack of paper, and then a second and a third. He pulled all three out, and then sat down on the toilet and inspected his discovery three mounds of $100 bills, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Marc scratche d his left cheek, har d, and reacted to the pain. At the moment, he wasnt hallucinating. He felt his heart pounding, and noticed that his shirt was soaked through with sweat.
13 Hard knocking on the door interrupted his reverie. Hey, buddy, let me in. Ive gotta pee. How much longer are you gonna be in there? Give me a minute, Marc shouted, a little too loudly. Im almost done. Marc stuffed the cash into his front and back pockets, untucked his long t-shirt to cover up the bulges, flushed the toilet and wa lked out into the dark hallway. The man outside, another rough-looking guy with long sa ndy brown hair, a dark beard, a Daytona Beach Bike Week t-shirt and ratty jeans, a ge t-up straight out of the Allman Brothers, rushed into the bathroom, brushing pa st Marc without looking at him. Back at the table, Christinas mood had soured. Where have you been? she barked. Youre not gonna believe this, he sai d, but I found hidden treasure in the bathroom. Is that what you call it now? ***** The affair had begun routinely enough, back in Tampa. The two were already acquainted through a mutual friend, her little college boyfriend Kevin, Marcs colleague at the newspaper. There, as the papers pop music critic, Marc vicari ously lived the rock and roll life, and Kevin picked up J-school cred it as a clerk on the communications desk. Marc and Christina ran into each other at a Cr amps concert on a misty night in February, at a courtyard in the areas historic Latin Qu arter. The cartoony horro r-show music of the sleazy psychobilly rebels handily matched the gloomy skies and faux-New Orleans feel of Ybor City: It was gaudy but vaguely s pooky -a sexy neon graveyard. Freaky-deaky
14 creatures like Lux Interi or and his sidekick Poison Ivy always put Christina in the mood. So did John Waters movies. Soon enough, they split the show, and went back to Marcs apartment, on the second floor of a 60-year-old Spanish stu cco building in Hyde Park. The place was crammed with all manner of printed material audiovisual goodies and other pop-culture detritus. There were souvenirs from the fall of the Berlin Wall, multicolor Pez dispensers, Rocky Horror posters, a cardboard cut-out of Arnold Schwarzenegger, an d his rock-life prize, a framed, handwritten di atribe from Courtney Love, pr oof that a bona-fide Rock Star had paid attention to something Marc wrote: Dear Marky Marc Simpson, Regarding your review of our Beacon show -Roses are red Violets are blue Rock critics blow And that means you. Fuck you very much. XXX OOO, Courtney Also in the apartment vinyl boxed sets ga lore, a Dick Clark dartboard, a Charlie Chaplin autobiography, everything written by Elmore Leonard, a black Thelonious Monk t-shirt, a Bird Lives bump er sticker and a gold-embossed red silk bookmark from the Dickens house in London. Christina marveled at Marcs treasure tr ove, and they made friends with her bong before undressing each other. She crawled slow ly up his torso, pushing her firm flesh against his body, wrapping her warm feet around his icy toes, taking her time before she
15 straddled him and began moving, ever so slowly at first. He thrilled to her touch, the way their bodies fit together so pr ecisely, so naturally, like two lo ng-lost pieces of a puzzle. He liked what he saw, and felt. She said she did, too. Thats the most Ive ever had, she whis pered into his ear, kissing it and sending chills up Marcs spine. I like it like that. I really like it that way. Wanna go again? He started grinning, and couldnt stop, and they locked limbs again. The next morning was oddly surreal, fo r him. She opened her eyes, looked around, and whispered, Hey, its Marc Simpson. Youre Marc Simpson. Im in bed with Marc Simpson. Yeah, congratulations, baby. Now what? Marc Simpson. Marc Simpson. I cant believe it. Im in Marc Simpsons bed. That afternoon, he figured it out: She wa s marveling over the somehow vastly entertaining notion of instant intimacy with a minor, sort-of celebrity, a guy whose name had measurable cachet in certain circles a nd under limited circumstances. It was a poor mans version of the proverbial star fuck. In a parallel universe, he was Quentin Tarantino and she was a nubile willing starlet. He was Mi ck Jagger the young Mick, a cloven-hoofed Satyr, crowned prince of the ol d British Invasion and she was an eager, curvaceous groupie, handpicked from the front row by a loyal crew member. Strange, thought. ***** At Captain Carls Marc paid the bill, and walked outside. Christina had already left the place in a huff, jetting away on her red Vespa one of two they had rented for the occasion and sticking him w ith the bill. As he pushed open the screen
16 door, he thought he heard someone slamming around in the bathroom. He hopped on his matching black Vespa and headed to Mallory Square. Marc pulled into a parking spot, got off the scooter and began walking aimlessl y. He was lost but plea santly addled, and wearing a Bugs Bunny grin when he suddenl y spied Christina, laughing and talking animatedly to a couple of athletic-looking guys wearing University of Miami muscle Tshirts. Christina glared at Marc, like she wasn t all that happy to see him, but she stopped her conversation and walked over. The UM guys chuckled, and walked away. Quit smiling, dummy, she said. Come on, cut it out. You look stupid. Stop it. Dont be a witch, Marc said, or thought he said. He flashed back to the morning after thei r first night together. Has anyone ever talked to you about that lit tle quirk of yours, you know? I m ean, have you ever thought about doing something about that goofy grin thats always plastered on your face? Christina had paused, trying to read his f ace. No offense, okay? Im just asking. Embarrassed, she had let her words keep on rolling out, in an unstoppable stream. The more she talked, the deeper she had s unk into her own pile of dirty verbal quicksand. I mean, its goofy. Its crooked, you know? Look, he said, at Mallor y Square, trying hard to focu s. I want to show you something. He walked away from the cr owd, to a side street lead ing back to town, and she followed, complaining. He sat on the curb, and she did likewise. What is it? He pulled out one of the stacks of bills. She began laughing. Marc waved
17 the stack in her face, close enough to slap her nose. She jumped back. Thats not for real, she said. Thats Monopoly money, my sad friend. Youre so full of shit, you cant even see straight. Christina, look at this, Marc said. Give me a fucking break. I really shouldnt have dosed you. I thought youd be able to handle the shit better than this. She stood up and began moving away from Marc. Im walking now, okay? Come with me if you want. She disappeared into the crowd. Christina, come on, said Marc, starting to panic. But he couldnt pull together the motivation to follow her; his legs wouldnt obey his comm ands to get up and walk. The stuff was really kicking in now. Dont fight it, Marc thought. Just give in to the high. He kept smiling, focusing on inanimate objects with delight, reveling in the sudden, inexplicable profundity of a butterfly in flight, bouncing on th e tips of his toes. The planet cheese was full in the Key West night sky, practically winking at him, like in that ancient Melies short. And yet, somehow, he was treading lightly on the moon s surface, leaping across great distances in a single bound, eyeing a lunar module, his chest swelling with pride at the sight of the American flag, planted there by Neil Armstrong, once a stranger and now, temporarily, his best pal. Everything was going to be oka y, he thought. Besides, he had a huge wad of cash, the silver lining to a romantic Key West tr ip adventure gone bad, and nothing was going
18 to change that. Marc finally moved again. He got up from the curb, walked toward the square, and consoled himself with a leisurely stroll. Passing a pair of hac ky-sack slackers, he walked over to the promenade, the water to his right, the salt spray in his nostrils. He weaved through the overeager jugglers, fire eaters and unicyclists, and shifted his attention to the vendors selling multicolor kite s, train whistles, hippie bead jewelry and tie-dye shirts. The sounds a one-man band here, the mad barking of a trick dog walking on a rope suspended between two barrels, hip-hop blaring from the worlds largest boom box coagulated, creating a bu zzing rush in his brain. He stopped at a booth where a Jesus-looki ng guy straight black hair, scraggly beard, scraped-up sandals, Walkman, cell phone, lap top and all was selling hemp products. Marc glanced at a little mirror, adorned with tiny blue dolphins. Yeah, he was wearing a silly, lopsided, shiteating grin. He was sure that everyone could tell. Then again, maybe nobody noticed. Maybe that wench Christina was the only one bothered by his looks. You ever try on one of these shirts, bud? The Messiah fellow was trying, too hard, to push his goods. Theyre awesome, dude. Marc paused, wondering how much he should reveal about his situation, and whether anyone not on his astral plan e at the moment would be able to understand his words. Tell me, have you seen a pretty college girl blonde, green eyes, built, with tight jeans an d a black Janes Addiction shirt? I dont know, man. Ive seen lo ts of girls tonight. Theyre all pretty, and theyre all wearing jeans and black T-shirts.
19 Come on, I need some help. Her name is Christina. No, man. I dont know any Chri stina. Sorry, guy. His momentary clarity vanished, and Marc resumed leaping across dunes, floating on air, riding an Everglades airboat over the Sea of Tranquility. On the outside, where his flesh interfaced with fresh air, he barely moved. He was paralyzed in concentration, gawking at a trio of men, each of whom looked as if he had just walked out of Marcs scratched-up print of Papa in Cuba. One of them was wearing a gold ribbon. They glared back, puffing hard on smelly stogies, rebuking him in unison. Funny how a tiny square of porous paper, with a Cheshire Cat stamped on top, soaked long enough in the right stuff and applie d to the tip of ones tongue, could up-end reality so quickly, and so thoroughly. Hey, you Ernies, Marc sai d, finally, vibrating and pointing and eventually getting around to asking the white beards about the best way to get to that house of theirs on Whitehead Street, and why all those cats didn t just go ahead and have eight or nine toes on their paws, rather than the one or two extra. And, oh yeah, had they seen a tall, sexy blonde chick, with a pony tail and a bad atti tude? Did they meet Christina or see a girl with that description? They nodded their heads simultaneously and then, one by one, said no. The one with the gold ribbon, the Hemingway on the le ft, chortled. The Hem on the right said, She knows about the cash, and youre in trouble now. The one in the middle pointed to Marc and then made a throat-cut ting motion with his right hand. Marc suddenly felt queasy, like he was a bout to heave up his jumbo shrimp
20 dinner. But did Marc actually talk with the Hemingways? Maybe he had just imagined the exchange. Who really knew? Sad how Christ ina couldnt be there to enjoy it all with him, or at least to help him figure out wh at was what. Where wa s that little tramp, anyway? And what did she know about the money? ***** After their first few romps in the sack, Christina wasnt quite as generous in bed. And she bored easily. Still, he couldnt help doing a double take, clicking off a quick snapshot in his minds eye, transferring it to his mental hard drive, when he saw her strolling naked around his apartment, those l ong, sun-bronzed legs ri sing up into a tight little butt. Overall, curves in all the right places. And an unusually pretty, fresh-scrubbed face, lifted off the body of a contestant in a Kans as City beauty pagean t. Quite the little package. Not bad. And because of his status, be cause of who he was, she had come after him. Not bad, indeed. Yeah, she was cute enough. And th ey could talk. Christina was one of the few twenty-somethings hed ever met who understood why it was all downhill for Michael Jackson after Off the Wall, how it was crucial to the survival of rock and roll that the mighty Neil Young stay as far away as possible from those ass clowns Crosby, Stills and Nash, and why it was necessary for Yoko to pay for her sins against rock and roll by immediately being taken behind a shed a nd shot, never to caterwaul another horrid note on a concert stage or in a recording studi o again. Marc, as he told Christina and anyone else who would listen to his biweekly diatribes on the subjec t of the Beatles untimely dissolution, would be more than happy to pull the trigger. She got movies, too. Christina c ould recite entire passages from The Godfather
21 and trade key bits of dialogue from The Usual Suspects She understood what was so funny about that Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall There was no loving Steel Magnolias or Sleepless in Seattle for this woman, a bona-fide female enemy of chick flicks. And, again, how about that body of hers, with breasts and a derrier e straight off a kitschy Florida postcard, the kind with alliga tors nipping at the bottom of a buxom beach babe? Youre just a dirty sort-of young man, she said, laughing, when Marc complimented her on her positive attributes. No maam, Im just a connoisseur of the finer things in life, hed respond, turning on his best dim-bulb Southern accent, Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by way of the Strother Martin character in Cool Hand Luke. What we have here is failure to communicate. Even better, she clung tigh tly to the idea of Marc as a celebrity, and to her position as the girlfriend of a local some body. They both got what they wanted temporarily, at least. Gradually, Marc and Ch ristina settled into a routine that was practically domestic, staying at her spartan ap artment, near the university, most nights, and at his place on weekends. Fridays and Saturdays, shed accompany him on his rockreviewing assignments, to see headbangers or pop bands or classic rock acts or nostalgia shows at the local enormo-dome or one of th e areas outdoor amphith eaters or concert halls. Late nights, theyd often end up at parties where shed proudl y introduce Marc to her friends, or at the Chatterbox, where th eyd play boozy games of pool with UT students to the sound of Worried Man Blues on the jukebox. No worries with this
22 chick, he figured, until he got to know Christin a better, until that whole celebrity-status thing started wearing off, and her inne r selfish brat began shining through. ***** As Marc continued his stroll around Mallory Square, he heard a blues band limping through a tired version of Sweet Home Chicago in the near distance, probably coming from a bar over on Duval, and Marc ga sped, nearly overwhelmed by the smell of funnel cakes frying, and the whole carn ie-food menu, emanating from a nearby concession stand. He gagged. He sat down on a bench, and was serenade d by a quartet of bagpipe players, balding guys with serious demeanors and loud kilts. As soon as they finished My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, he described Christina, and asked if they had seen her. No Christinas, tonight, said the youngest of the four, who introduced himself as Raymond. But Id gladly trade my Elaine for two of your Christinas thatd be a 44year-old for two 22-year-olds. What do ya think, ready to make the deal? Raymond smirked, and glanced at his comp anions, who burst out laughing. No, thanks. Just looking for a girl, Marc said. And so are we all, my friend, said the oldest of the bagpipers. So are we all. Thanks, fellas. Marc kept walking, and at about 100 paces on he noticed that the surly fellow in the Bike Week shirt was talking to the four bagpipers of the Apocalypse. Time shifted, locking in place, sliding backward and then exploding forward again, like a booster rocket, slowing only when its parachute caugh t wind. Minutes, seconds, hours contracted and expanded at will. Did what just happened with the guys in kilts really just happen?
23 Marc couldnt feel his face. Were those his feet he just dipped in the Atlantic? Did Christina really walk by, snap her fingers in his face and say Wake up, you moron!? There was really no way of telling. Was there a nyone who could help him if he were to fall too deeply into the trip? Was he ever coming back to earth? Would he ever find Christina? And why was the biker guy followi ng him? Was that Gregg Allman, and did he recognize Marc from a back -stage interview? Maybe he should have just stopped and talked to the guy, Marc thought. Maybe Allman was dying for an interview. Maybe Marc could go back to the tour bus with Gregg, and they could get high together and share rock and roll secrets. ***** It had been Christinas id ea to visit the Conch Republic that summer, and Marc was up for the adventure. After all, he had never traveled that far south, and he had always wanted to check out Sloppy Joes, make fun of Margaritaville, soak up the whole Hemingway vibe, see the little pastel-colored houseboats, the ones officially doomed for destruction every time hurricane season roll ed around, and maybe do a little snorkeling and deep-sea fishing. Ten miles east of Tampa, the knocking sounds started. He turned up the Seattle grunge (her choice), but they could still h ear the pounding, and things started getting tense inside his Nissan. Stop! she shrieke d. My bike! Her mount ain bike, not quite secured to a rack on the back of the car, had slipped, and was dragging on the highway. The frame was bent. So was she. At Yeehaw Junction, he stopped at a Circle K, loaded up on Doritos and
24 beer, and, for a kick, bought Christina a Great est Truckin Hits ca ssette and a single rose, lovingly encased in a plastic tube, with Your my everything thoughtfully written on a note attached to the casing. She tossed the stuff in the back seat and went back to sleep. In Miami, they pulled off the highway and into La Cocina Cubana, a 24-hour diner, and did the Miami breakfast thing, orde ring caf con leche and a Cuban tortilla from Rosalita. Quiero este mucho , Marc told Rosie, she of th e crucifix earrings, too much makeup, and a limited grasp of English. Esto esta delicioso . Thanks, sweetie, Christina said to Ro sie. Could you warm this up? And to Marc: Whats with this junk? Next time I want a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit from Mickie Ds, okay? They drove all night, tracking the suns ri se over the ocean and finally pulling up to the quaint, gay-owned 1920s bed and breakfast at 8 a.m., parking out front and crashing in the 98 until the purple-and-pink inn opened. He sprawled on the front seat, dozing, and she slept in the back. Normally, pa ssersby might have noticed, and inquired: Was something askew? But this wasnt normal. This was Key West, the tail end of the South, the last stop before Fidel. Stand clos e enough to the ocean down there, and you could feel the last skirmishes of the Cold War. Anything was liable to happen in Key West, and that was okay. That afternoon, in their bedroom at the inn, she pulled ou t her sheet of blotter acid, and gave him a hit. Just put this little square under your t ongue, she said. Watch what happens. Am I going to like it? Will it freak me out?
25 Theres always a first time, she said, pulling off her sun dress and pulling him down on the bed. Youll dig it. Trust me. Youll be fine. An hour later, he sat cross-legged in front of the mini fridge, his AE-1 in his hands, taking pictures of a blue bong on the t op shelf, and working hard to finesse the composition of each shot. He was making art. Obviously. ***** Half an hour after meeting the bagpipers Marc began downshifting from his altered state. On his Vespa again, he sped down Duval, in the direction of the inn. Passing an Irish pub, he noticed a red Vespa out front, an d parked his scooter ne xt to it. It was a Saturday, and the bar was jammed. Seated at a ta ble near the front was a girl with blonde hair, a ponytail and a black t-shirt. Christina, Marc said, ta pping on the womans shoulder. She whipped her head to the right, stared at Marc, and said, Can I help you, honey? As Marc eyes focused on the womans face, he realized that she was a he, a 50ish man with a bent nose, heavy blue blush, thick eyeliner, a diamond earring in his right ear, a five oclock shadow and more facial ha ir than any Christina that Marc had ever met. Sorry, I thought you were somebody else. I can be anybody youd like tonight, sweetheart. Pick your poison. Uh, pardon me. Im looking for somebody. Not you. The transvestite paused, sizing Marc up.
26 I am somebody, he said, loudly enough to draw the attention of others in the bar. My name is Miss Sally Anne. Who the fuck are you, and what do you want? Sorry, Marc said. Im not trying to cause trouble here. Miss Sally stared at Marc, waiting to see if he would flinch. Then the tension hissed out of the exchange, and the man visibly relaxed. Well if you must know, dear, a nice-looki ng little gal who looke d like me from the rear, you see, honey left by the back door just a few minutes ago. Thanks, bud. I owe you. You certainly do, Miss Sally said, winking at a friend. Marc rushed outside, just in time to catch a glimpse of Christina, speeding away on her Vespa. Seconds later, a biker guy z oomed by. Marc waved, ra n to his scooter, jumped on and followed. ***** Back on his scooter, Marc lo st sight of Christina and the biker guy, and slowed down, figuring hed find her back at the inn. He parked in his usual place, and began walking toward the lobby entrance when he th e biker dude suddenly stepped in front of Marc. Wheres the cash? What are you talking about? Marc saw a flash of silver, and felt a knifes edge against his throat. Another man, previously unseen, emerged from the shadows, and yanked Marcs arms back and up, from behind. He gulped. Listen, said Bike Week, his face close enough for Marc to smell the
27 guys nicotine-and-whiskey breat h. Bits of fried fish clung to the mans unkempt beard. I know that you dont know what the fuck you re dealing with, so Im gonna let you off easy. All I want is my money. Okay, okay, Marc said, as the second man released pressure on Marcs arms. Its up there, he said, pointing to his room. Theres only one way out of that place. Give me five minutes and Ill have it for you. Bike Week raised his eyebrows, and exchanged glances with his partner. Get the cash, and well leave, he sai d. Were in the mood to cut you a break. No harm done. I swear to God, Marc said. I tll only take a few minutes. Back upstairs, Marc found Christina vegging on the couch, in frilly red panties and a pink tank top, watching a Red Hot Chili Peppers video on MTV. Where the hell have you been? she said, without looking up. He threw his arms in the air, and walk ed out on the ornately decorated balcony, ringed by wrought-iron latticework and surround ed by tropical foliage. The sun was beginning to slip below the horizon, its Techni color pink and orange and purple strands breaking up into illogically long tentacles, r eaching toward his face, cradling his entire body in its glow. It was exhilarating, and, so mehow, suddenly, peaceful. He saw Bike Week, and the guys younger buddy, in the parking lot below. Marc held up five fingers and went back inside. More rapidly now, he began descending from the stratosphere, reality fading back in as the lunar voyage dissipate d. Christina did, too, bitching all the way
28 through an extraordinarily ugly return to terra firma. He vowed to get a good nights sleep, check out of the hotel the next morning, and leave Ke y West, with or without Christina. He gathered the cash, and dropped it all into a paper bag. At the last minute, he pulled out a stack of bills, and stuffed them into a pair of socks in his suitcase. Itd be a great consolation prize for a sh itty weekend, Marc though. Christina was too absorbed in a Peter Gabriel vi deo to notice what was going on. Hey, Christina, Ive gotta go outside for a minute, he said, finally. These biker guys want to talk to me. They want to hang out for a little while. Di d you notice that they look just like the A llman Brothers? Whatever, she said. Do what you want. But whatever you do, please take that goofy fucking grin off your face. I cant handle it. I really cant take it anymore. Screw you, Marc thought, as Christina s face melted, threatening to slide off her skull into her lap. Little devils horns popped out on top of her head. That, at least, is what Marc saw, before he left the room. Ill be back in a minute, he said on the way out. Marc walked down the stairs, passed the reception desk and ambled in to the parking lot. Bike Week was waiting, impatiently. His buddy was nowhere in sight. Well? Its here, Marc sai d, grinning broadly, like he was doing the toughs a favor. What the hell are you smiling about? Bike Week said.
29 Nothing, dude, just giving you what you want. Marc opened the bag, and the man ripped it from Marcs hands. All of a sudden, his arms were pinned behind his back, by th e same younger biker. Marc could feel handcuffs being placed on his wrists. What are you doing, man? Your money is here. No, its not, Bike Week said. Its short about 20 grand. Youre trying to fuck us over, arent you, you little shit? With that, he threw a right punch at Marc square on his nose, hard enough to break it. Blood began trickling down Marcs cheeks, and he started crying. The second biker then slammed Marc onto the ground, face forward. He started coughing, choking on blood, tears and dust. Lets teach this kid a lesson, Bike Week said. Hey, Turbo, lets see if we cant kick the cash out of him. Those were the last words Marc heard before losing consciousness.
30 Cracker Etique tte: A Sort-of Memoir 1. That Devil Woman Louise Kills Poppy Long after Mama and Poppy had their troubl es and split up, divorcing for the third and last time, we heard that Poppy wa s stabbed to death by some loose woman named Louise. They were living out in one of those little sh otgun shacks, tiny onebedroom concrete places all in a row over by the Mexican community in Wimauma, tiny front yards crowded out with Australian pines and overgrown with weeds and backed up against a scummy pond. Thats where the prisoners used to stay before returning to mainstream society. They were halfway houses, except Mama said th at most of the convicts there got halfway out of their bottles, lived like decent folks for a while, and then climbed all the way back in, never again to emerge whole. They we re bloodied by the battle with the bottle, Mama always said, and the bleeding couldnt be stopped, except by di vine intervention. Not even Mama, with all her medical tr aining, could stop peoples bleeding from the insides, from their souls, she said, not ev en for Poppy, and his help from Christ never came. Or he never received it. He was ju st the wrong kind of man, according to Mama. It was a Saturday night in August, so hot that even the mosquitoes from the pond were too tired to sting, and Louise and Poppy were drunk again, pounding down the Schlitz and fighting like dogs, when the argum ent came to blows. That wicked woman won the battle, pounding a steak knife into her live-in-boyfriends neck as three dirty
31 little kids, Poppys second family, the brood he started after quitting Mama, looked on in horror. And Mama wasnt around to help out. We never heard the whole story about Poppys death, but Patty told me it was in all the Tampa papers. I wish it werent true, and I never looked it up. But I think it probably was true Jimbo, one of Poppy and Louise s little brats, twenty years later told me a little bit about what he had seen, the start of the fight, before he and his brothers ran out the back screen door and hid under the hous e, down in the dirt with the broken-down lawn mowers and the dusty beer bottles a nd the old mangy dogs and the ratty thrownaway mattresses. Me and Scooter and Johnny Boy could hear them slamming around and breaking glasses, Jimbo told me one time when I ra n into him down at the Crab Shack in Palmetto. And then we heard Poppy scream out like an old wounded coyote, and then it was like a big rock crashe d to the ground, and there was nothing. Damn, Jimbo, what did you all do? I asked. There wasnt nothing we could do, he said. I th ink we knew that somebody was dead. And then we heard Louise cr ying, and we knew Poppy was gone. After a while, she came and got us and wouldnt let us back in the house. And the police came up three cars of them and put the handcuffs on her. She never even said goodbye. That sounded like the truth. I guess it probably was. Its a wonder my twin sister Sally and I made it to th irty three, the same age Jesus was when he died. But we did. A nd at the end of that year, Poppy was gone, cold in his grave, mostly forgotten, except by a few loyal relatives, drinking buddies and good-time bar floozies all over Florida. And several dozen creditors, too.
32 2. Mama Watches a Man Die in Waycross Poppys stabbing death reminded Mama about what had happened with poor old Reverend Roy all those years ago, b ack in Waycross. This time, though, in Wimauma, when Poppy gave up the ghost, she wasnt around to help a bleeding man. Not that she would have felt like she owed Poppy anything, as mean as he had been to her all that time so long ago. But she probably would have tried to save him. She never really stopped loving him. Thats just th e way Mama was anyway, helping people out even after they had hurt her so badly. That was her weakness, Patty and I always said. She didnt know any better. In Cracker Georgia, Mama grew up in th e old clapboard homestead, dug hard into red clay. There, stray dogs and chickens roam ed free, and the flies practically took over in the summer, when the screenless doors and windows were left open to cool the house. Mama only saw the neighbors on Sundays, when Waycross Baptist opened its doors for four straight hours of hardshell preaching, teaching, fellowshipping, and socializing. The little white church with the tall steeple, reach ing high into the sky in a gesture of hope, was an oasis in her childhood desert of loneliness. One day, when she was seven, Mama her real name was Lorraine did something that changed everything. A vi siting preacher, the Reverend Roy Red Rooster, had just finished saying the blessi ng for Sunday dinner on the lawn when a teary woman ran up to him, opened up her purse, pull ed out a steak knife and plunged it into his heart, turning his gleaming white Sunday suit, tailor-made on a recent trip to Atlanta, to a dark pink. As it turns out the attacker was Reverend Roys jealous wife, Evelyn. The preacher had been messing around with a flirty young girl, Charlene, a visitor from North
33 Carolina. She was fourteen, busty for her age, and looking for trouble, even though everybody thought she was so sweet and innocent. Evelyn figured out about the affair when she was making the bed, and found the girls locket under Reverend Roys pillow. She shrieked loud enough for people to hear the next county over. Lands sake, Mama said, telling the story to us many decades later. That was the most scared Id ever been in my whole life, but I pressed hard on the bleeding place until it stopped gushing. I almost fainted. Mercy me. Reverend Roy died anyway. Good riddanc e, said Evelyn. Hell be there directly, she said, smirking, l ooking up to heaven. The wifes lit tle rival, Charlene, just cried and cried and cried and then cried some more, boohooing until her eyes were practically swollen shut and her stomach re fused food. For an hour, she stood behind the sanctuary, up against a tomato field, throwi ng up until there was nothing left to puke out of her stomach. The church ladies watched, too sad to tut-tut but too angry to help the dazed girl. Three months later, Charlene wound up pregnant by her best friends daddy. Evelyn came to a bad end, too, as most of Mama s people expected; af ter all, Evelyn was an outsider, a college girl educated at Ole Mi ss. She went to jail at the state prison in Reidsville, only to return to Waycross for he r own funeral, forty years later. Her son, Billy, and a new preacher were the only people who came to pay their respects. Grandma Gladys and Grandpa Bill, my mate rnal grandparents, told Mama that she was a good girl for helping Reverend Roy. I think thats the day she decided to become a nurse. Some of the other church people and the school teacher said Mama ought to go into one of the helping professions. She believed it, and that was good enough for her. And thats just what she did.
34 3. Poppy Grows Up Hard Poppy was the wrong kind of man, like Mama said. By that, I mean he was wrong for his time -ahead of his time or maybe be hind his time. He wasnt a good fit. Maybe thats why he had to die so hard. He kept tr ying to stuff himself in to the wrong hole, one that wasnt right for his soul. Poppy finally got it right, Mama said, when he ended up in a hole in the ground. He was home at last, she said, home at last, in a place where he couldnt get hurt and he couldnt hurt anybody else. Poppys real name was George Robert, and he was born in Blackshear not far from where Mama grew up but raised from five years old on the wrong side of the tracks in West Palm Beach, a world away from the ritzy mansions. He had come from a long line of alcoholics red-faced, barrel-ch ested men with bad habits and nasty tempers. Most of Poppys people had paid in spades for their vices. They didnt live to tell. Poppys father, Leonard, orphaned by drunke n parents, was killed in a car accident when he and Granny Shirley drove from Waycross to Atlanta for a funeral of an old friend whose throat had been cut duri ng a bar fight in Macon. When the smoke cleared, the cops found empty Pabst Blue Ri bbon cans all over the back seat of the old Chevy. Leonards little brother, Buddy, Pop pys uncle, also a big drinker, died less than a year later when he was working under a ca r in his driveway in Jupiter, and the jack suddenly came loose. Buddy had been sipping whiskey for three hours straight, Poppy told me once. Poppys big brother, Erwin, died at twenty two during a fishing trip on a tranquil day. He drowned after falling off a boat off of Vero Beach. That was from the drinking, too, everybody said. Popp ys stepfather, my Grandpa Jo e, didnt quit the booze
35 until he was almost fifty and only because Gra nny Shirley threatened to leave him. He stopped smoking and swearing, too. Mama said that was evidence of Gods handiwork. Grandpa Joe said he cut out all that stuff b ecause he didnt have a choice. And then he didnt die until he was ninety eight he had a heart attack at dinner one night, after mowing the yard all afternoon one day in A ugust when the temperature reached one hundred and four degrees. Poppy didnt exactly make his entrance into our world in a bad way, although its good to remember that were all born in sin, and theres only one who can really do anything about that. My daddy grew into his wrong ways by degree, you might say. At first he was full of hope for the future, a bright kid with street smarts, a head for numbers and science and a world of pot ential, and the next thing you know he was living like a bum drunk, mad, mean and full of the devil, and all about making somebody hurt on the outside as much as he did on the inside. Poppy was weak from his hurt, the heart hurt he felt from his own daddy, and Satan was already th ere, just waiting for his chance to take over. And every chance he got, he would take over. He did, too, like always, with Poppy. Once the horned one got involved, that wa s it: Poppy was done for. My daddy didnt stand a chance. Poppy would wake up on a breezy, sunshiny summers day, clean from his shower the night before. Raring to see what the day would bring, hed fill his stomach full of cheese grits and sausage links and sc rambled eggs. Then, by noon, hed have a six pack in him, and hed be mean as the devil. Hed walk down the old dirt alley to the beach, and rage at the seagulls, scream at th e sailboats, and blame the tides for his bad luck. In the evening, still drinking, hed stand in the moonlight, and curse the man in the
36 moon. At midnight, hed be face down on the be ach, drooling into the sand, whispering, Damn those sons of bitches, damn them all to hell. Thats what it sounded like to Patty and me one night, when Mama sent us out l ooking for him. He acted like he didnt recognize us, but he followed us back to the house anyway. Its all downhill after twenty one, Grandpa Joe told me once, if he told me a hundred times. Nothing you can do about that. With Joes stepson, my Poppy, it was all downhill after that first drink. He kept on rolling downhill, too, until he reached the bottom of the bottle. There was no climbing out for Poppy. 4. Mama Escapes Mama didnt want to let down her folks, and the church people, and the teacher, so she left Waycross and everything she knew at the age of seventeen. Loaded down with two marbled blue Samsonite suitcases, lugging a heart that was heavy for having to leave home, she got on the Amtrak. She went to Macon to get her L.P.N. That was enough to get the good jobs, she said. Six months later, sh e moved to Florida to take her first real job, working the graveyard shift in the ICU at Tampa General. She shared a garage apartment near Bayshore Boulevard with a Cuba n girlfriend, Sonia, who had recently left Miami. On weekends, Sonia got to cooking, starting the mornings with caf con leche and later fixing fried plantains and chicken and ye llow rice and that wigg ly flan stuff. It wasnt exactly a Southern breakfast, but Ma ma went along with it. When the phone rang, Mama answered hola , and buenas dias, twangy as all get out, just to make Sonia giggle. That was always good for a laugh. Some Sundays, after church at First Baptist downtown, Mama put out her own
37 spread, with baked ham and bl ack-eyed peas and green beans and turnip greens and sweet potatoes and pecan pie. The girl s invited their landlord, Mr. Banks, and his wife to join them for the big lunches. Sonia didnt really like that kind of food so much, but shed eat it anyway, just to please Mama. Muy bien Cleo, muy bien , Sonia would always say. Muchas gracias, senorita . Mama liked that. She even thought about going home with Sonia one Thanksgiving, but it just didnt s eem right. Besides, it was too far to travel, practically all the way to Cuba, as far as Mama was concerned. Thats where Batista ruled, and the gambling was run by the Mafia people, and all the natives pract iced voodoo, running around in trances, possessed by evil spirits. It was the devils pl ayground no place to go for the God-fearing. Thats how Mama put it, at least. 5. Bad Luck Finds Mama Poppy and Raul, Sonias old boyfriend from Miami and Poppys best drinking buddy, showed up at Mama and Sonias apartment for a little Christmas get-together the girls threw on Dec. 13, 1941. At first, it was a sad gathering, because of what had just happened in Pearl Harbor that previous S unday. The Japanese had attacked, and Poppy still hadnt heard whether hi s little brother, Jackson, an Army medic stationed at Schofield Barracks, had survived the inva sion. FDR announced that U.S. was going to go to war. It was a sad week for everybody, because nobody wanted to go off to Europe or the Pacific and die. Poppy felt doubly bad, and guilty, because he wasnt able to serve overseas a bad ticker, the Army told him.
38 The four, plus Sonias Miami girlfriend, Ma ria, had their party anyway. They ate Mamas special grapefruit ambrosia, drank spiked eggnog, played canasta, exchanged early Christmas gifts, listened to Frank Sina tra on the radio, and took their time hanging lights, tinsel and homemade ornaments on a puny little Christmas tree. Later, they drove over to Ybor City, where everybody danced at the Cuban Club a nd the three Miami people got to speak Spanish. The men, tipsy but not yet drunk, talked of revenge. Those slanty eyes will pay for what they did, Poppy said. Jackson didnt get killed on Dec. 7, as Poppy found out two days after the Christmas party. But the Japs got him anyway, in the Battle of Iwo Jima. One day, in March of 1945, a box came to our house, addressed to Poppy. Inside were Jacksons belongings, including several lett ers addressed but never sent ho me. In one of the letters, he said he thanked God for giving him such a swell big brother, and told Poppy to give kisses to their folks and to Mama and ever yone. Poppy always said he hated crybabies. But that day, he sobbed until his eyes were swollen, Mama said. After that holiday party, Mama and Poppy were pretty much a couple. Mama had had plenty of suitors, as she called them, but none quite like Poppy. Sure, he drank too much, he smoked cigarettes, and he didnt care for going to church, but he was tall, dark-haired, brown-eyed and just as manly as any of the matinee idols shed seen on the big screen downtown. Poppy was courtly, and mannered, in hi s own rough way, holding doors open for Mama, and bringing flowers to her every time he came over. Poppy pulled himself up by the bootstraps, he said once, working his way through junior college in West Palm Beach,
39 getting good grades in the scie nces and then finding work as a manager for the phosphate mines south of Mulberry, where we all lived fo r a while before the divorce. He was going places, and then the drinking dragged him b ack down. But Mama couldnt have figured on all of that. And even if she could have she probably wouldnt have done anything about it. Poppy and Mama got married in the spring of 1942, and it was a quiet affair, with about forty people gathered at First Baptist in downtown Tamp a. That was the first time they got married to each other. It almost didnt happen, because Poppy got cold feet on the way, called up Raul and they settled in fo r two hours at the Hub bar, a few blocks away on Zack Street. But then Mamas brothe r, Earl, tracked down Poppy and got him to the church on time. Mama always said she wondered how her lif e might have been different if Earl hadnt made Poppy show up, and she had just told him goodbye. I told her that we wouldnt have been here if they hadnt got ma rried, but that she would have had a nicer, easier life. She cried when she heard me say that. 6. Mama Survives Mama did the best she could, really she did, working double shifts at Manatee Memorial tending to peoples be dsores, cleaning the bedpans, putting up with the slumming society nurses, and the slick young doctors, the well-dressed strivers, on their way up, using the old bayside hospital as a stepping stone to bigger doings in Atlanta, or New Orleans, or Chicago. They were efficient with the patients, but careless with the staff. These doctors wouldnt be running into anyone on the way back down.
40 Weekends, theyd clear way out of town, call their sweeties in from Tampa or Miami, and stay at their beach cottages on Anna Maria or Longboat Key, sipping fruit drinks on sun decks overlooking the sea. Occasionally, one of them would mess around with a nurse, but it was only for play. Miss, cant you read the instructions for these meds, a young doctor would say, impatient, smelling of Hai Karate and disinfectant, ready to get to the next room. Like some of the other doctors, he called all the nurses Miss, even the married ones. And he called the Negro clean-up man a boy. Arent th ey clear to you, Miss ? Well, no, they werent, as usual, but the na tural response wasnt the proper one. Short-time nurses, and even one or two supervisors, had been fired for less. One nurse got the axe for what the administrator called her sass you know, a bad attitude fr om a woman who was clearly not that doctors equal, or so he thought. And Mama was raising us all by herself, so she couldnt take any chances on being out of wor k. Ill read it again, Mama would say. Ill do better next time. I promise. I really do. It wont happen again. At home, after working the graveyard sh ift and walking the floors all morning, too, shed plop down on the settee, stretch out her feet, rub hard on her long toes, and turn on the TV to watch her storie s, she called them, all about romance and danger and big careers and vacations to exotic places. The doctors on the show, too, were just like some of the ones she knew in real life liars, cheat ers, gamblers, thieves and they routinely married the fresh-faced nurses. 7. Poppy Meets the Enemy Poppy, although kind in some ways, never stopped hating the Japs for what they
41 did to Jackson. But something funny happene d one time Poppy was in rehab in West Palm Beach, away from Mama and us, trying to get over his sickness. He shared a room with a man from Toyko named Mr. Murikami. This happened in 1951, when we were all still little and living in Br adenton. The two men got to ta lking about letting bygones be bygones. Poppy helped Mr. Murikami with his English, and even told him some ways to find work in Florida, and which lakes had th e biggest catfish, and where to go on Dixie Highway when you wanted a stiff drink. Mr. Murikami showed Poppy pictures of his wife and two pig-tailed little girls, and said Let us ge t together one day, perhaps? Poppy said sure, but that never happened. Wh en Poppy left rehab, he even shook Mr. Murikamis hand. You are my friend, the man from Tokyo said. Yeah, sure am, said Poppy. Dont take no wooden nickels now. Poppy didnt like black people either. He alwa ys called them the Johnson Boys, and he thought that cracked everybody up. Bu t something funny happened later, when, back in rehab, he shared a South Florida hospital room with Mr. Pierre Dominguez, whose parents were born in Haiti: They traded the sports section of the Palm Beach Post talked fishing and baseball, s ecretly passed a flask back and forth, and talked about what they were missing on Championship Wrestling that weekend. Poppy and Mr. Dominguez joked around a lot, particularly when the cute young nurses were in the room, and the black man told all about his ow n life growing up in Belle Glade, and fishing for bass in Lake Okeechobee. Poppy told the story of the time he took work on the carnival circuit. His job wa s to clean up after the animals when they paraded through town. Poppy and Mr. Dominguez were even better friends than Poppy and the Japanese man. Maybe Poppy was more accepting of black people than he
42 thought, or more than anybody knew. But he neve r did call Mr. Dominguez after they got out of the hospital. One time, when we were visiting relatives in West Palm Beach, we saw Mr. Dominguez and his three husky boys drinking from the coloreds-only water fountain at the Woolworths dime store downtown, but P oppy wouldnt say anything to the man. I dont know why. My daddy just walked by Mr. Dominguez and his sons, like he didnt even see them. He never told me why he did that. I never asked. 8. Mama Meets Mr. Morris Mama was always working at the hospital when we were living in Bradenton, but every once in a while on a Saturd ay shed take Sally and me to the old City Pier on Anna Maria, and blow part of her salary on several dozen live bait shrimp, and Coke and sandwiches from the concession st and. One of those times, she struck up a conversation with a tall man who was visiting fr om the north. His wife had died of cancer six months earlier, and his two kids, about our age, were traveling with him on vacation. But they didnt know anything about fishing the boy kept jumping back whenever he tried to fish the shrimp out of the bait bucket, and the girl wouldnt even try. The man, Mr. Morris, started talking to Mama about church things, and Mama started telling him about all the troubles sh e was having with Poppy his drinking and gambling and fighting. I could he ar Mr. Morris talk ing about the love chapter from the Bible, and telling her that it was her duty to love Poppy with all of her heart as long as she could. Mama said that she would try. That man was really nice, Sally said, when we got back into the old Chevy for
43 the ride back to town. Do you think we ll see him and his boy around here again? Mr. Morris was right, Mama said. W e need to stick by your Daddy and not give up. She pretended to stare at the rearview mirror, so that we couldnt see her tears. So thats what were going to do, children. Lets call Poppy when we get home, and see if we cant patch things. Do you think Poppy can be fixed? I asked. Why sure. With God, everything is possibl e. It says so in the Bible. I knew that, but Mr. Morris just reminded me about it. Why was Mr. Morris so nice to you, Mama? Because he was raised right. Hes the right kind of man, son. 9. Poppy Leaves This Earth Poppy came back into our lives after his third time in rehab. Clean and sober for a while, he at first lived in a little apartmen t behind the dunes on Holmes Beach, where he worked as an overnight security guard at some rich guys beach house. Meanwhile, Mama and us were living in the old Spanish stucco house in Bradenton, around the corner from Manatee Junior College. After three m onths, Mama decided to get remarried to Poppy, and the preacher from the Baptist chur ch over on Anna Maria Island agreed to do the ceremony at our house. One cold night in February, Poppy had a relapse, and decided to go on a drinking binge at a beat-up little place on Sixt h Street before heading to the island for work. Six beers and four shots later, he got up from his bar stool, walked outside and nearly ran smack into a young black guy. The collision surprised both of them.
44 Give me all your money, grandpa, the teenage black guy said, halfway serious, halfway just testing the water, looking for a reaction and maybe a quick way to a free quart bottle of malt liquor for the night. Thats the way Poppy explained it to us, later. Give me your cash, old man, the black guy said, right up close in my daddys face. Poppy, without a word of warning, or so they say, pulled out his knife and slammed it into the kids chest. The boy stumbled to the ground and died, over nothing but some loose change in another mans pocket. It wa s early on a chilly Monday, and the street outside the bar was empty, so Poppy s lipped away, and nobody was the wiser. Fifteen years later, the kids attacker w ould be dead, too, felled by another knife, wielded by a woman he said he loved. Sally told me something once, not long after Poppy died. She said, thats the thing about love : Love means the freedom to hurt someone bad, as bad as you want. But that kind of freedom comes with a price: One way or another, that hurt is going to come ri ght back to you. Poppy found that out the hard way.
45 Just a Kiss A kiss is just a kiss. But it s still a real kiss. Unless it s a wet and sloppy smacker, exchanged when youre both lost in a drunken haze at a boozy rock-a nd-roll awards show in a low-rent club on the butt end of Dale Mabry Highway, in a boxy strip mall across the street from the stadium parking lot. Or unl ess the tongue flicking happens while the two of you are knee deep in frozen margaritas at a fashionably downmarket yuppie watering hole overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, glued to adjacent bar stools and listening to some sandal-wearing moron strum away on Jimmy Buffett songs. The things all of us once did for love. But neither of those occasions, on two c onsecutive weekends nearly two decades ago, counted as dates, per se. That was Jennifers reasoning, as she so fi rmly stated after that second, barside kiss. She told me the same thing again when I dropped her off later that evening at her Hyde Park apartment building, the one done up in Spanish stucco and equipped with a buzz-in panel at the entrance, where twin concrete lions stood watch. You know, this isnt a real date, Jennifer said when I leaned over the Hondas stick shift and went in for a little lip lock. Another atomic -powered kiss, I thought, might lead to groping. And groping might lead to Saturday-night sex. Why not? But she pulled away alas, resistance. Courtesy of a brief spasm in the time-sp ace continuum, I momentarily became the guy in the Violent Femmes, spewing out his br ittle, caustic plea over a blast of hard-
46 strummed acoustic rock: Why cant I get just one fuck/Why cant I get just one fuck/I guess its something to do with luck. It was the national anthem of teenage sexual frustration. Yet there I was, an adult, or as close to that as I was gonna get at twenty six. And Jennifer squashed my desires. She shut me dow n. Pity, I thought. What a waste of semiyouthful hormonal desire, for both of us. Listen, Stuart, she said, putting on a pensive face. Listen closely. Im right here, Jennifer. How can I say this nicely? Spit it out. I can take it. I like you, but were not really going out. Dont you know the difference between a wake-me-for-breakfast kiss and a friendly goodbye peck? Sure, hell yeah, but maybe the booze ha d fogged her memory about what had happened at the Rock-It Club last Saturday, and at Bills Beach Bungalow, just that afternoon. We were trashed and all, but thos e were more than little pecks. There was something oddly enveloping about those ki sses, as if our faces and bodies had momentarily fused together for a moment, I imagined that I couldnt tell where my lips stopped and hers began. Each kiss was deep a nd long lasting not he sitant and clumsy, like a first kiss. But maybe a ll of this, her forgetting, was part of her art of seduction. Thats it: She was playing hard to get. Im getting married in June, she said. So Im finished with the whole dating scene. No more meaningless sex. Weekend dalliances are out. I gulped. I glimpsed an image of a constr uction cranes claw, ripping off the roof
47 of a ramshackle house. I still have lots of guy friends, bu t, you know, theyre just friends. Whos the lucky fella? I asked. His name is Enrique, Enrique Ricardo. You wouldnt know him. So where is Ricky Ricardo now? A picture of a cologne-drenched Latin smoothie flashed through my mind. Ladies Ricky said, my very beautiful ladies, let me instruct you in the many ways of amor. Let Ricky Ricardo show you the way. Mi casa o su casa? I smiled, stifling a chortle. She glared at me. Its Enrique. Hes out of town, off on a business trip to a training session in Atlanta. He works for HP. Hell be gone for a week. Darn lucky for us, huh? I regretted those words. It was clearly a tactical error. Her mood suddenly changed and she quickly shoved open her car door I sat there, in my car, slack-jawed, for several minutes, watching as she disappeared into her apartment house. The car door slammed in my face with a m eaningful whoosh as she stepped to the curb. A whiff of fajitas chicken and steak combo, probably, heavy on the guacamole sucked into the car. It was a Saturday night, during the late s, and the Tex-Me x restaurant next door was booming with business; the investment bankers, would-be legal eagles, UT frat boys and social-climbing college chick were out in force. The guys, as a rule, were looking for one-night stands, bragging rights, the better to trump work buddies at the water cooler on Monday. The girls, genera lly speaking, were hoping for a relationship
48 that might still be alive after the inevitab le Sunday-morning hangover, aggravated by the walk of shame and cured with a round of Bloody Marys at brunch. Frankly, prospects for carnal relations with Jennifer, after that little exchange, werent very bright. But I simply couldnt give it a rest. Something about Jennifer, aside from her potential availability as a sex partner, fascinated me. And then, I stumbled onto Some Like It Hot on cable, and a crazy theory popped into my head. Jennifer, with her curly blonde hair, curvy figure, and breathy, girlish voice, was a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe. Id never have the chance to carouse with Jim Morrison on the Sunset Strip, or hang with the Beatles in Liverpool, or pal around with Dennis Hopper on the set of Easy Rider But Jennifer represented an opportunity fo r me to hold and to have my own fleshand-blood screen siren. She could be my ow n personal Norma Jean. Did my interest amount to some sort of necrophilia? Was I me rely obsessed with Dead Marilyn? I dont think so. I hope not. But it did appeal to my pop-culture obsessions, my lust for collecting stuff related to pop icons. Not to mention my Playboy-bred preference for women of a particular body type. On Wednesday, at home in the rented South Tampa house I shared with a chronically uptight financial planner, I calle d to check up on Jennifer, gauge her mood, and size up the situation. I asked about her sc hool work. Back then, I was still a lowly adjunct, an American Studies Ph.D. with a bad attitude, struggling to make a living teaching courses in popular culture and film studies, and occasionally moonlighting as a newspaper and magazine writer. She said she had lots of reading to do for her English grad classes at the university. She was making her way through Hemingways short stories.
49 I like them much better than his novels, she said. They sort of hit you harder. I dont, I said. Im more of a big-picture guy. Give me The Sun Also Rises any day. You can have your Finca Vigia . Well, they just go faster, she said. Theyre shorter, for sure. Just like short relationships I thought. Just like her memory, conveniently short term. Maybe there was still hope. Maybe Jennifer was in the market for one last fling, or at least open minded about just such a prospect. But no, it isnt just that, she said. I mean, they hurt more. The impact is greater, and it lasts longer. I dont really agree, but give me a for instance. Like in Up in Michigan, when that poor Liz rea lly loves that big guy, Jim, and he gets drunk and violates her. He rapes her. Thats how I read it. Hemingway really brought it to life it was ugly, and it felt true. Youre right. It was a raw scene. Pretty realistic, I guess. A big bubble of silence settled on the line. I considered switching the subject, and then changed my mind. Damn the cons equences. Why not follow through? But it really wasnt rape, I said. She wanted to do it, a nd they finally got together, alone in the dark and they did it. Whos to say that she wasnt toasted, too, and in the mood for lust, and she just changed her mind later? But she didnt want it, not at that mome nt. She just wanted his love. I think later, after she got more comfortable with him, sh e would have been happy doing it. Just not
50 yet. So its a matter of timing? Yeah, you could call it that. No. Nope. I dont see it that way. Ther e was desire, there was opportunity, and they were two adults, fooling around in the middle of the night. She followed him out to that dock. It was pitch black, and cold. They kept stopping to kiss each other. One thing led to another, and you know I know, but it wasnt consensual. Sure it was. No, it wasnt. I mean, they didnt both want it. She told him not to do it. Dont, she told him. Thats the word she used. Whats unclear about that? Yeah, I said. But that was at the very last second. Just before that, Hem writes that she wanted it, she had to have it. Read it again. I think he could have stopped, to respect her wishes. I sighed, rather loudly. You mean you think they should have stopped. No, I think he should have stopped, and he could have stopped. He was bigger and stronger, and at that poi nt he had power over her. I really think they both wa nted it, and they were just doing the bidd ing of their hormones. Youre wrong about this, she said. Well, thats how I see it. Why did you call, anyway?
51 I was wondering, I said, pausing a little too long. Do you wanna go see Pat Metheny this weekend? That jazz guy? Yeah. Didnt he play with David Bowie on that one song? Yeah, but theres a hell of a lot more to him than that. Sure. That sounds good to me. I need an infusion of new music. Wanna get some food first? Okay. Ill pick you up at 6. All Right. On Saturday night, as planned, she accomp anied me to the show at the historic downtown movie palace, a place with gargoyle s on the walls and Chaplin in its soul. Her black dress was short, her heels were high a nd her lithe, sun-bronzed legs, which made a great contrast with her tiny midnight frock, were exposed when she crossed them. So I went for it. As Metheny leaned into his six-string, his frizzy hair bloc king our view of the fretboard action, his right hand pealing out go ssamer tones, his face twisted in some kind of ecstasy of artistic creati on, I reached out and grasped her left knee. I rested my right hand there for the remainder of the tune. She didnt object. But, later, as we sucked down shots of tequila at the Chatterbox, she protested much. Why did you grab my leg at the concert? she asked. I was taken aback, so I fiddled with a book of matches before responding.
52 I touched your leg, thats true. You didnt answer my question. You want the straight answer, or a polite response? No, lie to me, Stuart. Thats what I like most about you. Okay, the real deal. Honestly, I didnt think youd mind. I wanted to feel your skin. I couldnt help myself. You had no right, she said. Because this isnt a date. Were not going out. I thought you understood that. No, I guess I didnt. Well, you cant do that. You cant touch me without asking first. Im engaged, remember? I grinned, and inched closer to her. Really, she said, her breasts pushing agai nst my right arm, her blue-green eyes soaking up my gaze. Just who do you think you are? I dont know. Just a guy, just your regul ar, average horny guy, maybe falling for a woman who says shes enga ged but acts like shes not. Another tactical error, and yet I forged ahead. She blushed, but she stayed put. I have a question for you, I said. Go ahead. If it looks like a dog, runs like a dog, licks your face like a dog and barks like a dog, what is it? Its a dog. Whats your point? I steeled myself for an argument, and continued on.
53 If a guy invites a girl to a concert, wi nes and dines her beforehand, takes her out for drinks afterward, and pays for everything to boot, is that a date? So its about the money, then? Hes buyi ng her? Hes purchasing her goods and services? No, no. Youre missing the point. Under those circumstances, would that be considered a date? By who? By, say, your average, red-blooded twentyso mething American male or female. Yeah, I guess so. So if a guy asks a girl out on a date, and she accepts, then is it crossing the line if he makes a sexual advance? Doesnt she know al ready that hes interested in her, and hasnt she confirmed that knowle dge by agreeing to the date? She sighed, and rolled her eyes. But, agai n, she didnt move an inch in the other direction. I think it all depends on their understanding. But doesnt the act of accepting a date im ply an understanding that she might be receptive to his sexual overtures? Youre making my head hurt, she said. If youre talking about us, well, its a special case. Because I told you that Im engaged. And yet, you agreed to go out with me. Why should I care about Ricky Ricardo? His name is Enrique Ricardo. Dont be a prick. I glimpsed an image of Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo, going ballistic when he
54 discovers that Lucy has fucked up again, de stroying their apartment or embarrassing him in front of his show-biz friends. And here comes Enrique, suddenly finding out that his sweet little Jennifer has been making out with another guy. You got some splainin to do, Jennifer. Enrique, Ricky. Whatever. Why should I care about this ot her guy if it doesnt bother you? Im interested in you, and you seemed to return my interest. Where is Little Ricky anyway? His name is Enrique, dummy. Hes in Chapel Hill, for some more training sessions. And youre right, I shouldnt be here with you if Im engaged to someone else. Is that what youre trying to tell me? No, that wasnt really my point. She swiveled around on the barstool, and stepped down. Im going to the ladies room. Id like you to take me home when I get back. Come on, were just talking. Im all talked out, Stuart. I took her back to her apartment, and it was dj vu the car door slammed, the Tex-Mex smells whooshed inside and she bid a silent adieu with her back to me. That was probably a clear signal for me to sign off and leave Jennifer the hell alone. But I wasnt ready to quit. Maybe th e whole Marilyn Monroe thing was just a weird little construct, a smoke screen. The real reason I was prepared to keep on keeping on: It was a game, one that I wasnt willing to lose. I was ready and willing to wait it out for a shot at a round or two with a girl as gorgeous and sexy as Je nnifer. It would be worth it.
55 A downside: She liked to argue, for sure. But behind those weak arguments was some kind of intense passion maybe with a psychotic edge, but nonetheless real passion. Now if I could only convince her to use those powers for good, not evil, for my good, at least. Thats how I worked it out in my mind, anywa y. So I decided to give it a rest for a few days, and then resume my pursuit. I called her on Tuesday. F our rings, and her answering machine clicked on. Hey, Jennifer, pick up. Its Stuart. I could tell she was screening calls. I waited several long minutes, and announced myself again. Jennifer, its Stuart. Are you in? Nothing. Hey, just wanted to touch base and see how things are going with you. Give me a call when you get a chance. I waited a few second longer, and hung up. I called again the next night, Wednesda y, and then again, on Friday afternoon, experiencing two more interactions with th e chipper female voice hers on Jennifers answering machine. Hey, Jennifer, this is your personal stalker, I said, laughing. J ust trying to catch up with you. Nothing. Are you in?
56 Nothing. Hey, Im checking to see what youre up to this weekend. Silence. Okay, well, I wont keep bugging you. Get in touch when you can. So I switched directions completely, a nd decided to give up on Marilyn, er, Jennifer. Yes, she was foxy and mysterious and really bright. But she was married, or practically married. I didnt have a chance. And really, I knew it from the start. Forget the wench, my friend Steve said that night, over a black and tan at OReillys, our favorite Irish pub in Ybor. Y ou need to put your energies into pouncing on another future former girlfriend. Plenty of em out there. Look, theres one right now. I laughed, and craned my neck to see th e statuesque brunett e tan, long brown hair, Aerosmith t-shirt and tight stone-washed jeans tucked into cowboy boots settling onto a stool at the bar. It was a Friday night, so Steve and I wandered around to a few more clubs, drank to oblivion and crashed at his courtyard ap artment. The next week, I went about my business, teaching freshman classes, spendi ng way too long grading papers and agonizing over just how long I could survive on adjunct pay. No word from Jennifer, and I fantasized about her only two hundred a nd fifty times. Oddly enough, we didnt cross paths around the liberal arts building. But I found myself im agining that I could still smell her skin, which gave off a fragrance like lilac. And I could sti ll taste her lips, all strawberries and cream. And I couldnt get over the warmth of her hub, how good her body felt pressed against mine. The next Saturday afternoon, I was veggi ng out on the couch, perusing through an old Spin the one with Public Enemy on the cover and blasting an even older Talking
57 Heads album when the phone rang. It was Jennifer. Hey, what do you want? Why do you keep calling me? Just seeing how youre doing, I said. So how are you? Im doing great, thanks. Wanna go off somewhere and argue? No. But I would like to see you again. How about we go get drunk at the Hub? Im supposed to talk to Enrique at 7:30 tonight. Hes still in North Carolina. Well, how about after that? Could you make it by 8:30? Okay. A couple of hours into our heavy drinki ng session no arguing this time, just more talk about Hemingway and the Moderns, scuttlebutt about the latest news-making faculty scandals in the English department and several enchanting stories about her smalltown upbringing in Alabama and I sprang the question on her. Wanna chase these with a couple of beers at my place? Okay. But I cant stay long. Were not dating, remember? I get the picture, I sai d. Thats fine by me. Lets go. You know how to get to my place, right? Not really. Ill just follow you. Ten minutes later, I was parked in front of my garage apartment, my radio blasting, Mick Jagger ooh-oohing in falsetto a nd declaring that hes not waiting on a lady. Jennifer was nowhere in sight. I sighed, walked up the stairs opened the door and picked up the ringing telephone. It was Jennifer. I could hear drunks argui ng in the background. Hey, she said. I could barely make out her voice over th e crowd din. Im sorry.
58 Thats okay. Where are you? I came back to the Hub. Im using the bar phone. Why? Im just not sure about all of this. All of what? You know, Im engaged. I probably shouldnt do this. I carefully considered my options. Look, why dont you just come on over for a drink and a movie. My roommate is out of town, so I have the run of the place. I dont know. It can be just a friends th ing. Come on. Well have fun. Okay. But I wanna go home and change first. Ill give you directions from your place. Back at my house, she sett led into the oversized leat her sofa and started poking through my box of laserdiscs. You have some great stuff here, Stuart, she said. She found my much-watched copy of Shes Gotta Have It, loaded it into the machine and pressed play. The mechanical whirring kick ed in and the FBI warning flashed on the screen. As it turned out, Spike Lees debut film ma de for the perfect date movie. I always meant to track down Lees e-mail address la ter and send him a tongue-in-cheek note of thanks, but marriage, kids, a divorce and a nother marriage or two got in the way. Mars Blackman and Nola Darling went at it on the screen, and we responded by kissing, for real. Soon enough, Jennifers halter top was gone, lying wounded on the
59 floor, and I began massaging her breasts. She moaned in appreciation. Minutes later, I started tugging off her faded 501s. We cant, she said. I cant do this. I know, Jennifer, I said. Lets not. She lifted up her butt, helped me pull o ff her painted-on jeans, shimmied out of her white panties and held my hand, tugging me toward the bedroom. Later, as she rolled off me, the sheets falling away to reveal her nakedness, she started talking again. That wasnt sex. I mean, that wasnt r eal sex. We were trashed, so it doesnt count. I know. That wasnt even close to the re al thing. Wed both know it if it were. Because were not dating, she said. I mea n, were not really going out. I cant, because Im engaged. It was just the al cohol making us do the things we did. Right you are. It was the demon rum, th e Dixie beer, that fa tal third shot of Jagermeister. I mean, Id never do that stuff unless we were a real couple. And I already have a guy. Hes practically my husband. I know, I said. Youre exactly correct Were not a couple, so we cant be acting like one. Thats right, she sai d. Lets not date. Fine by me, I said. Consider it undone. Were not dating. Were not together. Thats what I mean. Okay, were not going out. Lets just stay in. Jennifer climbed back on top of me, a nd began grinding her body against mine.
60 She stopped for a moment and pressed her m outh against my ear, sending a shiver down my spine. Her voice was just a whisper: So whats for breakfast? So in the end, it was just sex with Jennifer, garden-variety sex with someone whose passionate, argumentative talk didnt translate into wild bedroom passion, and then sex for breakfast, followed by a greasy meal of sausage biscuits at the McDonalds around the corner. My little obsession, it seems, was mere horniness, and after another lackluster tryst Jennifer returned to Enrique. Six months later, they got married, and six years later I heard through some mutual friends that Enrique had up and returned to his native Cuba, to a wife and family he had abandoned when he came to the United States, and poor Jennifer was discarded like an old box of cassette tapes. By then, I was already on to Wife No. 2, a brainy, willo wy American history graduate student I had met at the university. That didnt wo rk out, I guess, because she was way too obsessed with her research dating rituals in the South during the Reconstruction period. She was way too young, anyway: Once, not long af ter we were married, the subject of Paul McCartney came up, and she said, Oh, you mean that guy from Wings? Last month, out of curiosity, I google d Jennifer, and managed to track down a syllabus for one of the classes she was teaching at UF, a graduate seminar. The title of the course: Eros and its Discontents: Sexual Politics in Popular Culture. Up in Michigan was on the syllabus. Shes Gotta Ha ve It, too. And Bus Stop. Her office number and email address were listed. Just one call. Thats all it would have taken, I thought. Then I remembered what Jennifer had concluded about the couple from Up in Michigan. It was a matter of timing, she agreed. Whos to say that our tim ing, two decades down the road, would be
61 better now than it was all those years ago? Maybe its a sign of some kind of weird transformation, for me: Lifes short and all, but thats not a gamble Im willing to take anymore.
62 Falling The photograph, behind a cracked glass frame sitting on the desk in my home office, is one of my most precious belongings Its a black-and-white shot, backstage at the arena, probably around 1986 or so, taken by a newspaper photographer. Steven Tyler, of Aerosmith, his waist as skinny as a teenage girls, yellow, green a nd red scarves falling all over his black leather jacket and skin-tight leather pants, is smiling broadly. His arms are resting lightly on the shoulders of a pair of over-eager fans, winners of a call-in contest at the local rock station. Im to Tylers left. My hair is cut short for a straight job, and Im dressed in a tacky striped shirt. To the rock ers right, looking like he half expects an invitation to join the band, is my little brother, Robbie, in his most handsome incarnation, his big, welcoming dark eyes and square jaw fram ed by long, flowing sandy brown locks that tumble over a black KISS concert t-shirt. The raised T scar, emblazoned on Robbies muscular chest, is well hidden. Tylers too stoned, or, probabl y, too jealous, to say so, but this is what hes thinking: For the love of reunions and fare well tours, who let th ese guys backstage? Why are they trying to cut in on my act? That, at least, is what Robbie and I, snickering uncontrollably, decided the first time we saw the picture. Tyler knew. The closest wed come to touching rock stardom was as children, when we played Monkees records and strummed tennis rackets, putting on little shows for Jean,
63 Sally, Grandma Edna (not really our grandm other) and various other babysitters. But we didnt need six-string prow ess or crowds of screaming ki ds to prove it: Under the skin, down deep in our bones, we were by-God tr ue rock and rollers. Or maybe that was just Robbies plan, his original mission as he put it, when he fell to earth from the sky just like David Bowie in that movie. He would have been a rock and roller. He could have been, if not for his faulty human heart, the result of contamination resulting from exposure to this impure planet. Thats what we always decided, laughing loudly enough to wake up the whole neighborhood, early on a summer Sunday morning after wed stayed up all night watchi ng the sci-fi movies. ***** Robbie and I are squatting over a sha llow ditch behind the married-housing apartments in Oxford, on the University of Mississippi campus. Hes three, and Im six. Our mom, Paula, is a few feet away, pinni ng wet laundry to a clot hesline behind our familys tiny apartment. Let go of that stinkin thing, I yelp, slapping a shiny black water snake out of my little brothers right hand. We watch, hypnot ized, as the snake slithers across the polluted creek. Robbie, whos barely able to talk but bright enough to understand everything I say, just stands there, pointing, his mouth wide open. The snake, amazingly enough, hadnt even tried to attack Robbie. Get out of that nasty stuff, Mom says. She drops her work in a plastic basket, stares at us, and shades her eyes from the mid-July sun. Youre covered in filth. Come inside and wash up. Now. Move. No w, Billy! Come here, Robbie! Robbie, already taller than most five-year olds and blessed with the kind of
64 cherubic smile that always made the other moth ers coo over him, runs to our mother. I follow behind, in no particular hurry, stopping only to pick up several soda bottle caps on the ground near the picnic tabl es, the better to expand my collection. I carefully scrape out the little rubber linings undernea th the caps. The fifth one reads Free 7-Up. Mommy, I won, I say, skipping into our apar tment, a wood-paneled place defined by the noisy hum of the wall air c onditioner and the smell of cheap Latex wall paint. Robbie, crumpling into the corner, cries. I wanted to win. Thats not fair. Robbie got the soul it was amazing the things that a galactic birth would do for you, he always said, snickering. Guess I was the one with all the dumb human luck. ***** One bright June morning, Robbie and I take in a double featur e downtown at the Polk Theater, a restored 1920s movie palace wh ere Elvis, dressed in a baby blue shirt, maroon jacket, black denim jeans and white sued e shoes, swiveled his hips back in 1956, thrilling the teenyboppers but s hocking the city fathers and mothers. Stars still twinkle and clouds still float by on the ceiling, but the ba lcony is closed, long in need of repair and in danger of collapsing. In another life, it was reserved for blacks; later, it was the province of smooching teenagers and married department-store managers, bold or careless enough to fool around with desperat e single secretaries on lazy Friday afternoons. We grab seats downstairs, on the third row, as near to the screen as possible but not too close to the truancy-sc hool troublemakers, and we settle in for a long morning of movies, with Send Me No Flowers, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson throwaway, preceded by
65 a silly black-and-white racing short. Each car is numbered, and each kid with the corresponding winning number on his or her tick et is entitled to a free jumbo bag of popcorn soaked in yellow oil. I win a bag that day, and share it with Robbie. Afterwards, we wait out front, under the big, diamond-bright marquee, next to the glass-encased posters for That Darn Cat! and other coming attractions, until all of the other kids have been picked up except for Jose, the quiet brown-skinned kid from the Lime Street projects. Our mom ne ver shows up. Robbie, ever impulsive, begs me to leave, and walk on home. Im sure we ll get in trouble for disappearing without telling anyone, but, ignoring a healthy conscience and my f ear of swift and certain punishment, I leave anyway. Robbie and I, holding hands, begin our litt le unplanned adventure. We walk on the sidewalk along busy Florida Avenue, tasti ng the freedom of the open sidewalk and inhaling an intoxicating mix of diesel fumes and orange bl ossoms, acidic and sweet. We pray that Mom wont be too mad when she fi nds out, and that she wont tell our father. We occasionally stop to gawk at the tightly clustered buildings on our right First Episcopal Church, Smithson and Jones Realt y, Phillips Photographers, American Bank, the Christian Science Reading Room, Clark Architects. Look, I say, pointing across the street to a long, lo w building, colorfully painted with animals and Disney characters. Ou t front is a sign Miss Janets Playschool. Thats where Mom used to take us when sh e worked at the hospital. Remember how wed put the blue mats on the floor at nap time, and lie down on them, and pretend we were sleeping? Occasionally, on our silliest days in pr eschool, we had imitated the bloodied
66 vampire victims we saw in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland My little brother, at age four still not inclined to say much, simply nods. I wanna go over there, he says, jumping up and down and tugging on my hand. L ets go see Miss Janet. Please? Please. Not now, I say, tightening my grasp on Robbies hand. We have to get home soon, or Moms gonna switch us for leaving. An d shell tell Daddy, and hell get out his principals paddle. That makes me sting, says Robbie. Robbie quits pleading his case and takes di rect action. I wanna see Miss Janet, he says, yanking his hand out of mine and ma king a run for the highway. In a flash, tires screech. I shriek. At the last moment, the car stops two feet short of Robbie, like some sort of invisible forcefield had somehow been erected to protect him. I shriek and Robbie falls onto the sidewalk, crying and shaking but barely scratched, with only a skinned knee to show for his near collision with a two-ton metal object. An elderly woman, a blue hair with a crucifix and a green deodorizer swingi ng from her rearview mirror, laboriously rolls down her window, stretches her head, like a turtle, out of the weathered blue Chevy, and begins hurling profanities at us. We ignore her, and she puts her car back into gear and drives away. Robbie, quiet for several long seconds, suddenly starts leaping around, yelling, in a state of unnervi ngly intense excitement. Im okay, Billy, Im okay. Im okay. Im okay. I told you nobody could hurt me . I sigh, a loud sigh of fear-drained relief. Lets go, I say. We start walking ag ain. It was a near-miss, one which never would have taken place had I simply ignored Robbies begging, and stayed put at the theater. Still, the kid was fearle ss, and he survived. Nothing can touch Robbie, I think.
67 Mom, late because of a flat tire, punishes us when we get back home, swatting our legs with a switch, leaving biti ng stings and a permanent le sson. She doesnt tell Daddy about our little detour. ***** Were in our big backyard on Royal Street, with the tire swing and the sky blue above-ground pool, the one that almost killed me once when I tried it swim in it without removing the heavy plastic cover. Its shortly after that trip to the movies, on one of those long early-fall afternoons, just after the dr eaded start of the sc hool year. What will happen, I wonder, if I drag a cardboard box up to the treehouse, put Robbie in it and push him off? If Robbie jumps, like we both did once when we were on the super-fast glass elevator at that sleek Disney hotel in Orlando, will the jump cancel out the impact of the fall? Will Robbie bounce? So I decide to conduct a little experime nt. Robbie, always up for adventure and, foolishly enough, never unwilling to follow his big brothers lead, agrees to serve as my projects guinea pig. He climbs up the tree, sits in the box, and braces for adventure. I push the box off, and Robbie slams te n feet to the ground, failing to leap at the opportune moment, as he had been instru cted. He pretends to lose his breath, and runs around the oak tree like a madman, trying to suck up as much oxygen as quickly as possible. Up in the treehouse, I laugh like a mad hyena, doubling over and nearly falling off my perch. He wasnt in trouble, I thought he was just faking it. Mom, having watched the action from the kitchen window, races into the backyard, yelling Whats wrong Robbie? Stop, Robbie. Relax. Breathe. And to me: What have you done? What have you done? Youre doing that to a boy with a heart like
68 his? Whats wrong with you? Dont you have any sense at all? If only shed known that Robbie was protected by the sky gods, he j oked later, she wouldnt have worried as much. An hour later, Robbie and Mom return from the Dairy Queen, back from a special-treat trip taken to help him feel better. Hes embarrass ed but hardly chastened, his spirits lifted. Look what I got, he says, shoving an ice cream coupon book in my face. Im sorry, bud, I say, winking at him. Next time, you push me off. ***** Nearly two decades later, not long after the funeral, while Im desperately trying to make sense of things, I have a dream. Im still living with my old UF buddies at the two-story house in Hogt own, the one on Northeast Sevent h Street, in the historic section near the duck pond, and Robbie has just arrived from our little hometown, two hours south in Central Florida, to visit for the weekend. Hey, everybody, my brothers here, I say, pounding on all the bedroom doors. Come on and see him. He wants to meet you guys. My roommates assemble in the middle room, overlooking the driveway where th e five kittens had been accidentally run over by the mailman. Here he is, I say, grinning and pointing to my brother, reclining on the bed. Robbie doesnt respond. Come on, Robbie, quit joking. Wake up. Quit goofing around. Say hello. Tell them about the mission. Robbi e stays silent, his eyes closed, faking it again. Wake up, Robbie, I say, impatient now. Wake up, dammit. Come on, man. In
69 retrospect, maybe that dream took place at the hospital. All of it blends together now. ***** A couple of years after I pushed Robbie out of the treehouse, were down in West Palm Beach, on the porch of a ramshackle two-story house on Fern Street, in the old downtown neighborhood. My dad sweats, huffi ng and puffing as he unloads the car for a weekend visit. We always go south fo r Thanksgiving, for a huge meal of turkey, dressing, salty gravy, cranberry sauce, squash casserole, and pecan, mincemeat and apple pies. Afterwards, Grandma and Mom clean up in a kitchen as small as a little ships galley, and the rest of us watch football and Championship Wrestling on the television console. When Grandpa isnt watching, Robbi e sneaks behind our grandfathers Lazy Boy chair, and fiddles with the old Scout knife stashed away in the back, behind his stack of magazines with pictur es of bikini girls. Why the devil arent you helping out, son? Grandpa asks me. Im playing with toy trucks on the front porch after di nner, instead of helping Daddy take the suitcases upstairs. Dont be a bum, Billy Boy. Dont thi nk I wont put you on a train right back to Lakeland. Ill help, Grandpa, says Robbie, runni ng onto the front porch. Let me. He reaches over the railing, grabs a bag thats much too heavy and falls, knocking his head against the front edge of the porch. Ten stitch es later, hes back in action. Not even Grandma and Grandpa knew about Robbies orig ins. If they had, they wouldnt have freaked out getting him to the hospital he would have healed right up without human help. But I guess it made everybody feel be tter to pretend like he was normal, just like one of us.
70 ***** Later, when Im ten and Robbies seve n, were walking along the overlook at Clingmans Dome, in the Great Smoky Mountai ns, where Florida families go for a little relief from the tail end of the stifling Sunshi ne State summer, and the ever-present threat of hurricanes. Its early fall, not even Oc tober yet, but brilliant reds, yellows and oranges are already starting to make a mockery of the dark greens of summer. I smell leaves burning, somewhere down in the valley. Robbie says he can smell them, too. We hear our parents, seated on a bench, talking sof tly, speculating about the next waterfall on the itinerary, sorting out the best places to stop for hot ci der and pancake breakfasts, and complaining about how two weeks vacation is too short to see it all. We keep on walking, moving ever closer to the edge. Robbie, against my advice, squeezes between the bars of the protective railing. I follow, and we walk on to the outside promenade, just six inches from the edge, a short leap from a long fall. We look at each other, exchanging a silent dare. Billy, it would be just like when I was born. I wanna try. No, I said. Dont be silly. Get back. Come on. Lets both try. Nothing will happen to us. I consider the possibility for a moment, and then I suddenly grab my brothers hand. I squeeze back between the bars, and pull him through to the safe side of the railing. In the distance, we hear Mom screaming bloody murder, and the sound of feet pounding on the pavement. It would have worked. It just wasnt the time.
71 ***** In Panama City, were visiting relative s during spring break, when we take a family trip to the Food Lion. Robbie and I, tr ailing Daddy and Mom out of the store, are getting rowdy, and I challenge my little brothe r to a race. He runs up to Moms shopping cart, tags it with his hand, and, turning around, stumbles to the ground, apparently losing consciousness. Mom screams. People gather around Robbie, a too-young victim of a cardiac arrest, the result of a congenital heart defect. And then come the sirens and the white coats and the waiting room and the gloomy pronouncements. Im afraid the situation is bad, the doctor te lls Daddy and Mom. If he lives, hell be a vegetable. Thats about the best you can hope for. Its the only time Ive seen my father cry. Pray hard, Mom says. At first, I think that Robbie is just faking it again. But then I realize the planets poison is finally taking effect. Its entirely pos sible that he isnt immune. ***** Mom, Daddy, and Robbie and I are at Di sney World. Its Robbies first big outing after waking up from what the doctors called a coma I knew that he was pretending again. He has had to learn how to do everything all over again. He walked again, finally, on one memorable Palm Sunday, a nd our pastor led the congregation in a long prayer of thanks. Afterward, ever ybody came up and hugged Mom and Daddy. But Robbie still communicates like a toddler. Walking in the lot called Goofy, he grabs my hand, but Im embarrassed by the gesture, so I push him away, and run ahead. Later that summer, at Coquina Beach on th e Gulf of Mexico, where we always go to play in the sun, do a li ttle body surfing and share charco al-smoke signals with the entire west coast of Florida, Robbie is sti ll unstable, forever cli nging to Mom. Hes
72 singing sweetly, and smiling a litt le too broadly. After visitin g the bathroom, he skips back toward Mom, Daddy, Sally, just a toddl er, and me. I stick out my leg, and trip Robbie. Im mad at him: I know this environm ent is poisonous, but why in the name of Saturn wont he ask for help from his people, I mean, from his origin al people, from his home in the stars? He falls to the ground, face first, his feelings hurt more than anything else. Hes quick to forgive his big brother. ***** Robbie sobs as he removes the final pieces of his furniture from his girlfriends place, one of those 800-square-foot starter houses behind the Dixieland mini-mall. Im there to help Robbie pack up and move back to our parents house on Royal Street. I put my arm around my little brother s shoulder. Lindas gone for the night, back at the club, probably flirting with one of her former b eaus. Shes a one-man woman, but shes restless few of her men or boys ever last more than two or three months at a time. And then she declares her boredom, and moves on, only to circle back around to former lovers. She cant stay with anyone, and neither can she ever really call it quits. She likes the idea of always being wanted, of constantly surrounding herself with conquests from the past and present, along with a fe w options for future mating (and breakups). They were a substitute for the family she refused to see, I always thought. Itll be all right, I say, dragging a mattress into the back of Robbies van. Itll take time, thats all. Youre gonna feel bett er in, like, a weekend. And besides, Linda isnt the only girl in the world. She s not the only fish in the sea, buddy. But why doesnt she want me anymore?
73 Come on, bud. You cant ask that question. Besides, she wasnt exactly your celestial soulmate. Billy, cut that out. You know we were just joking around about that stuff. I know. I just mean that she didnt understand how special you are. Billy, come on, just tell me something. What did I do wrong? Nothing, Robbie. Nothing at all. ***** Robbie leaves our planet after dancing all night at an oceanfront rock club in Daytona Beach. His drinking friends, with th e exception of Linda, s catter, unwilling to chance feeling guilt over his death they had never discouraged his partying. The crowd at Central Baptist, back in our hometown, swells to 325 for his funeral, one of the churchs biggest ever. The service amounts to an alternate reality for Mom and Daddy, a scene from other parents lives; its a feeling they share later with family and friends. I survive by avoiding direct eye contact with anyone, and clinging tightly to my little sisters hand as we walk down the aisle afte r the service, headed toward the exit. The burial is a blur, not even worth remembering. I vaguely recall the s ound of the preacher, an overly dynamic wah-wah trumpet droning on and on and on, and at one point, the sensation of my knees giving way, and an endless tumble into the springy green grass at the cemetery. Somebody helps me up. I curse th e gods who let Robbie down. They lied to him. They lied to me. ***** Later, I have another dream, a lot like the same one Ive experienced over and over. I run as fast as I can, take a flying l eap, catch the most opportune wind current, and
74 then, miraculously, Im airborne, alternately rocketing into the stra tosphere and swooping down so low that Im able to grab fruit off th e orange and tangelo tr ees. This is what it must have been like for him that first time, the day of his birth. Grab my feet, I say, and Robbie, as usual, obeys. Hold on, brother. Together, we fly out of the yard, down the street, and over the rooftops of the junior high, following the running track at the school. Still in the ai r, we move down to th e park, across to the big white two-story house, over to the McDonalds down at the corner and back again to the backyard, where we hover above the ground. Robbie, without any warning, suddenly loosen s his grip, and rele ases his fingers, one by one, from my ankles. Dont worry, big brother, Robbie says. Im doing fine. He flashes one of his sheepish grins, accompan ied by a snicker. I just wanted to see what this would feel like. So I could remember how I was born, you know, like we always said. I always wanted to know. Now I do. As he falls to earth, his path probably re sembling the one he took when he first came to our planet, his movement is all her ky-jerky. His image is scratchy and suddenly black-and white. Its as if he were being photographed in slow motion, with a vintage Brownie, its rusty innards clicking and clat tering, sprung back to life for one final sequence before giving up the ghost. The gods mu st have their regret s. Theyd better.
75 The Night Fr ank Sinatra Saved Pops Life Pop didnt give a rats ass about any mu sic except for the moldy tunes by the old crooners, like Frank Sinatra a nd Tony Bennett and Dino, and a few of the big bands. He even took Ma to see Ol Blue Eyes in New York on New Years Eve 1943, when the Bobbysoxers went absolutely fuckin nuts for the guy. Benny Goodman was the headliner, but Frank ruled the Paramount st age that night; he left the schoolgirls swooning in the aisles, sighing a nd screaming so arduously and so relentlessly that they woke up the next morning with parched throat s, souvenirs of a night of platonic teenage ecstasy. There wasnt a dry seat in the house, Pop whispered at the dinner table, raising his eyebrows, telling us the story once if he told us one hundred times. This always happened just after he and Ma got to remini scing about their socalled courting days ancient history, as far as anyone was concerned. It was thei r favorite topic of conversation. I swear to you, Pop said. Not a singl e dry seat in the place. He guffawed loudly, and capped it with a snort, leaning his chair back and nearly crashing to the ground. Thats my Pop. Classy guy, I always said. Every time Pop brought up that old story, with a blue punch line dating all the way back to vaudeville, hed smirk, and lean to his left and te ll Johnny Boy, but only if and when Ma had left the room to check on the stove. After he told my brother, hed lean
76 to his right, and repeat the same thing to me, a little more loudly for emphasis. Our little sister, Rosie, seated to my right between Ma and me, usually overheard Pops jokes but she didnt understand them until much later. When Ma came back to the table, wed all have our heads down, looking straight into our plates, desperately attempting not to giggle, hoping not to snort anything out of our noses. Milk was funny out the nose, all co ol, sweet and tingly. Marinara sauce out the nose was even funnier, but kind of nasty warm, spicy, harsh, and likely to stain everything within spraying distance. What are you morons laughing about? Ma would ask. Whats so funny? Whats so damn funny? I always figured that she knew exactly what Pop had said, like hed been telling the same joke at every sing le party theyd attend ed since the night of that show. During my long-haired, guitar-rocking phase in high school, before I got serious about playing the tenor saxophone I blabbed to everyone abou t how great Jimi Hendrix sounded on the Axis: Bold as Love album. And every time I did, Pop would punch me hard, on my shoulder. I thought Jimi was a ge nius, ripping out shards of electric-guitar noise like he was Zeus, tossi ng out thunderbolts to the mere mortals in the crowd. At least, thats what it looked like and sounded like in the movie Woodstock. I was crushed that I hadnt been old enough to see him play in person. I was all of nine when he died, and Ill regret it to my own grave. Damn Jimi. Damn Jim Morrison, too, and Janis Joplin. They all had to go destroy themselves, in a single 10-month period, beginning in September 1970, before I even had half a chan ce to figure out what rock and roll was all about.
77 I know Frank is great, but Jimi was a real rock star, the best, I told Pop once, after he told the Sinatra joke yet again one December night when we were staying at our beach house in Boca for the holidays. Theres never been anyone like that guy, and there never will be another Jimi. And he could play a mean Star-Spangl ed Banner, too, I added, triumphantly. This was in 1976, the Bicentennial Year, when everyone went ape shit and all patriotic for the glories of America and the Revolution and our founding fathers, and Benjamin Franklin costumes were suddenly in vogue for the trick-or-treaters around our block back home in Carroll Gardens. My jab at Sinatra was more of a ta unt than an attempt at actual dinner conversation, but Pop was half-crocked, and Ma was in the kitchen, so I knew hed go for it. Pop grimaced. I could tell he was abou t to yell at me. My brother Johnny Boy smirked. So what are you saying, son? Jimi played the national anthem that way because he loved America, I said, pressing my point, and my luck. That was a tr ibute to the good old USA. He was a trueblue patriot, Pop. Johnny Boy stuck his tongue out at me. T hat freak didnt have anything on the Beatles or the Stones, you moron. Besides, dont you even listen to the Who or Zeppelin or Black Sabbath? Get with the pr ogram, jerk. Hendrix is dead. You listen to your big brother. He k nows his music, said Pop, suddenly a supportive expert on the history of the rock and roll he always said he hated. He glared at
78 me. Youre giving me indigestion, son. I suggest that you shut your piehole before I shut it for you. But, Pop Paulie, dont you be starting something, Ma shouted from the next room. Quit while you still can. Pop stared at me, his alcohol-pinked face tu rning another shade of red I liked to call it mottled chartreuse. On vacation, he al ways guzzled bourbon and Coke like he was drinking water. Son, that was plain un-American. What he did with our national anthem was downright sacrilegious. Everybody said so. In fact, I say that Negro fellow was a communist. He shoved away from the table, and stood up, preparing to make a dramatic exit, all set to grab his cigar and barge out the door for a stroll on the beach. And besides all that, I owe Frank my life, he said. If it wasnt for Sinatra, you kids would be orphans. He looked around, like he was gauging our intere st in his little story. Did we want him to go on? Yeah, sure, Pop. Frank Sinatra saved your life, I said, thinking he was waiting for an excuse to sit down and resume the conversation.. He glared at me. Jimmy, tell em that story, why dont you, Ma said, still shouting, from the other room. They need to hear it. Cmon, Pop, sit back down, Johnny Boy said. Paulies gonna shut up. Ill make him. Just tell us the story. You try and make me, I said, kicking Johnnys shins under the table. He yelped,
79 and covered his mouth with his hand. Johnny Boy was quick to chime in, hoping to stir up a little ba d blood. It always miffed him that he was the oldest, by five years, but he was the dumb one. Wed both have jobs in the family business when we grew up, Pop would always tell us. We both had good shots at being made men. But Id be the one most likely to go to the top of the organization. I was the one poised to climb th e ladder. Pop would ofte n say this right in front of Johnny Boy, whod usually respond by going outside and kicking one of the neighborhoods stray cats, and then sulking for a week. The cats, of course, would take out their collective angst on the neighborhood mice. And on down the chain it went. Sometimes, for good measure, Johnny would take out his anger on Rosie, pushing her around, and then shed respond in kind to her Barbies, creating a mini-colony of headless, armless, naked plastic hot ties with big busts and tiny waists. You just dont get it, Pop. Jimi was a god. Yeah, and now hes a buried god, as deep in the ground as the god your Ma went to visit last summer, Pop said, prompti ng Johnny Boy to snicker. That was pretty disrespectful, I thought, on the pa rt of both of them. After all, Ma had just been diagnosed with cancer when she made the pilgrimage to France with Father Mike and some of the other priests, nuns, and sick ladies, men and ch ildren from St. Mary Star of the Sea. You watch your tongue, Ma shouted, from the kitchen. Jesus hears everything. She burst back into the dining r oom, and sat down at the table. She looked as if she were on the verge of crying; she wa s tough as a Marine, but deeply sentimental when it came to all things Catholic. Pop sat down, and looked around again, like he was still trying to decide whether
80 he ought to waste his breath on such an unworthy audience. Shut up, Pop said. All of you, just pi pe down. Let me tell you about Frank. Okay, okay, Pop, I said. Were listening. Tell us, Pop, Johnny Boy. Rosie, you get on out of here. I dont want you hearing this, Pop said. But, Pop. Rosie, pouting, left the room. This is a true story, boys, every word of it is true. It really happened. Just ask your uncle Leo if you want. We believe you Pop, Johnny Boy said. Just tell it. Pop wiped his shiny forehead with his napkin. He slurped his drink loudly before slamming his glass down on the table and sighing. Okay, this is what happened. Your uncle Leo and I were out late, drinking at the Holiday lounge on State Street. It was getting near closing time. Where was Ma? Johnny Boy asked. She was at home with you kids. Now just shut up. Pop, I just wanted to know. Now your uncle Leo and myself were sitting there at the bar, minding our business, drinking and talking shop, when Leo got up to go to the toilet. What were you drinki ng? Johnny Boy asked. Let me talk. Okay. Like I was saying, Leo goes to the bathroom and as soon as he leaves his seat,
81 these two tough guys come up next to me, one on each side of me, and say they want to talk to me in the alley. Pop, why didnt you just ask for help? Because Im feeling the tip of a pistol pushing up against my back, you moron. Thats why. And theyre telling me that if dont do what they say, theyre liable to pull the trigger right then and there, and then go after you guys. Youre shitting me. So we go out to the alley, and the one guy, a fat fellow with a head the size of a watermelon and fists like mitts, he lets go of my arm and punches the side of my head hard enough to knock me into the street. Damn, said Ma, from the kitchen. That had to hurt. Are you hearing all this? Pop shouted. Yeah, youre telling it nice, Ma said. So, anyway, I drag myself off the asphalt, and I notice that there are four tough guys now, all looking like theyre out for my bl ood. Its a fuckin piss er of a night in December, colder than a witch s tits, and these guys all have on their leather jackets. Were you scared? Johnny Boy asked. No, Pop said. All I did was piss my pants. Oh. You didnt have to tell that part , Ma shouted from the kitchen. Yeah, of course, I was scared shitless. Get the picture? Yeah, Pop, I said. Keep on going. So the fat guy comes over and says, Thi s is a message from our boss to yours
82 stay in your territory or tell your balls goodbye. Gross, Johnny Boy said. Shut up, I said. Who were those guys, Pop? Im not sure. To this day, I dont know what they were talking about. We, I mean my crew, we always kept our noses clean. What happened next? Johnny Boy asked. Okay, so I figure its all over. I say, Alright, you go ahead and tell your boss that his message is understood. And then the guy says, Oh, y eah? I havent even delivered it yet. And he knocks me to the ground again. At that point, the other three goons come over and started kicking me hard. Were you bleeding? What the hell you think? Yes, I was bleed ing from places I couldnt even see. Sick, Pop, Johnny Boy said. Howd you survive? Hold on. Im getting there. It was like a dream or something. Just about the time I feel somebodys shoe buried in my stomach fo r the fourth or fifth time, I hear the back door open, and the sound of the jukebox. Its playing Sinatras Sat urday Night (is the Loneliest Night of the Week). And then the kicking stops, and I see him walk out into the alley. Who, Pop? I said. I couldnt believe it was him. Him who? Its like a dream. Hes moving in slow motion, and these clouds of blue smoke
83 are circling around his head, and trailing up to his lit cigarette. Hes like a king, coming down from his throne to visit. Who was it, Pop? The man himself. The guy on the juke. Fr ank. Sinatra. Hes decked out in some Italian number like hed just had it tailored at Brooks Brothers. And then he goes and saves my life. Howd he do that, Pop? Johnny Boy asked. Easy. He says, Okay, boys, hes had enough. Let him go. And then they scram, without a word. One of the guys even trip s over a trash can, knoc ks it sideways and smashes his head against a gutter. Frank says, Serves him right. So whats the moral to the story, Sinatra has friends in low places? I asked, risking certain death. Why dont you be quiet, Johnny said. Shut up, doofus, I said, kicking Johnny in the shins again. He helped. Pop shot me a look that could kill. Im not done yet. Were listening, I sa id. Tell us the end. Here it is, Pop said. Frank is a true American hero. Your long-haired hippie freak guitar players cant hold a candle to th e Chairman of the Board -or Tony or Mel Torme or the Duke or the Count for that matter. He paused, looked around, and made su re that we were all listening. Ma, you come in too hear this, Pop said. He waited until she sat down. I dont care what you boys say, and what a nyone else says. You wanna see a real rock star go see Frank. You wanna hear real music play Torme. You wanna see a real
84 band catch Benny Goodman. You little peckerheads dont know a damn thing. I dont want to hear another word. Then the kitchen phone rang. The only pe ople who knew our number at the beach house and called us there were the wiseguys, looking to put Pop on to a job, and, once, the little girlfriend that he kept as we la ter found out in an apartment in the Village. Pop stood up, but Ma got there first, and we waited in silence in the dining room. No, hes not here, and dont you ever cal l here again, you bitch, she said, loud enough for the whole street to hear. We h eard the phone being jammed back into its cradle, and then the sound of something being ripped from the wall. We looked over at Pop. He smiled a guilty grin, shrugged and then averted his eyes. He sighed and sat back down. Ma came back from the kitchen, wiping tears from her eyes. You son of a bitch, she said, before running upstairs to their bedroom and slamming the door. We sat at the table in silence for twenty long minutes, picking at our leftovers, and then Pop got up, walked upstairs and knocked on his bedroom door. Let me in, sweetie, he said, gently, but loudly enough for three kids to hear. Come on, now. You know thats all over. I dont know why shes bothering us again. We heard the door open and close, and then open again. We watched Pop, followed by Ma, make their way down the stairs and into the living room. He pulled their autographed copy of In the Wee Small Hours from the top shelf of a bookcase next to the cherry-oak entertainment console. He gently placed the LP on the turntabl e, and then dropped the needle, rather violently, on the record, right near the star t of side one. A loud scratch was followed by
85 the sound of Franks golden pipes, on Last Night When We Were Young: Last night when we were young Love was a star A song unsung Life was so new So real so right Last night when we were young That got to Ma, every time. Pop, too. Sh e forgave him before, and she forgave him again. The two embraced, and, maybe imagining th ey were high-school sweethearts all over again, danced like they thought they were on stage at the Garden. From war to a cease fire, in three minutes flat. I dont know if that would qualify as a mir acle, at least as Father Mike used to define it. After all, it wasnt a vision of Christs suffering, or a personal message from the Blessed Mother, like the little kids were always receiving. Blood didnt come pouring from anyones wrists, like with those Sici lian nuns. Nobody was seeing Christs face in the yogurt. And it wasnt like what happened when Ma came back from Lourdes, when her doctor said that she was in remission. Th e cancer was completely gone from her body. Father Mike and the priests called it a mi racle. Pop called it a real lucky break. But when Frank sang, or some of the big bands played, and Ma and Pop danced in front of the plastic-wrapped settee under the pictures of Jesus and JFK those were about the only times the Testone family experienced so me kind of real peace. I gotta tell you, it was a beautiful thing, a real beautiful thing.
86 What the Neighbor Saw The last time I saw her she was awful small, when she had once been ten feet tall. And horizontal. Dont know w hy. That day was pretty much like all the other days. I woke up. I drank my coffee. I ate breakfast. I read the news. I brushed my teeth. I started the car. I drove away. And, yes, I did what I had to do. I had been getting taller every day. So tall in fact, that I could see over the neighbors fence. Over there, to my surprise, were the really tiny pe ople, the folks with heads too big for their bodies. You know the type. Demanding. Annoying. Squeaky voices. Odd choices. Pez eaters. People pleasers. Peculiar, but oddly persuasive. Cheap, but flaunting their money. And always creati ng hassles. Always hassling me. Maybe they would have to go. Maybe I could take care of that. So when I saw her that afternoon, a Sunday, late September, I told her about my neighbors backyard, and what I had seen over there. She sympathized with their plight, saying she had once been just like them. What happened, I asked. I grew, she said. The next Tuesday, she was 10 feet tall, n early as tall as me, and there were explanations. The details didnt account fo r everything, mind you, but there they were, anyway: It was the platforms. Big, Elt on John big. Wooden, Dutch Boy wooden. And, now that I think of it, ugly as death. She had stripes, too, stripes on her pants, stripes on
87 her garters, stripes on her rugby shirt, stri pes on her handbag, stripes on her top hat, stripes on her handbag, stripes on her contacts. Whats that, I asked. Seuss, she said, the Seuss collection. New York. London. Paris. St. Pa ul. Auschwitz. Im dressed for success, she said. I can see your nei ghbors, too. And I know what th eyre doing. Lets watch. Youre my kind of gal, I told her. And she was. Until she wasnt. I was getting taller, too, despite my best e fforts to conceal my growth. So tall that I could see clear into the nei ghbors back rooms, all of them And, clearly, he was up to something. He was up to no good. On Thursday, she came back, binoculars in hand, still a full head taller than the aver age bear. And it was he r job to watch, and report. Each of us has a story to tell, and this was hers: The neighbor is laughing, in the dining room, touching and touching the green in his silver briefcase. A li ttle boy is on the floor, crying. A woman is on the couch, sleeping. The TV is on, playing. Its all good. Except for the bad parts. That Sunday, I was feeling stronger, and I could see everything, even more of everything, all the way to the front porch, dust y, littered with leaves and stinking of cat pee. Even from the fence, that long godfor saken red-brown barrier between good friends and good neighbors on a smoky Southern autumn afternoon, the smell offended me, filled my lungs and made me nauseous. That house offended me, and his cash made me sick. He was up to no good, so I fixed it for him and hi s. I crept across the way, and held it together, as best as I could. I had to, didnt I? I left the scen e of the imperfect crime, and returned home, briefcase in hand and dots of red ink on my trousers. It was a quiet place,
88 oh so quiet. But not for long. Sunday night, she came over to the house ag ain. By then, we were nearly the same height, and our parity was apparent. Her st ripes, all of them, were horizontal, as was her smile, and later, her body. She was tall, but beautiful, model tall, basketball tall, Amazon tall but somehow still like the rest of us. Regarding the criminal matter at hand: The neighbor was still there, but no longe r laughing maniacally. Little boy, crying uncontrollably? No more. Woman, her head oddly misshapen, sleeping? Check. TV, playing? Check. Everything had changed, and yet everything remained the same. The mystery deepened for the tall girl. Her i nvestigation continued. She asked: Why in tarnation is the neighbor so quiet? Oh, yes, the alarm clock was ringing, as was the phone. Seuss girl was tall, but not tall enough to see, not smart enough to know. So she went home. And then (this was Monday), I heard a knoc k. Come in, I said, for Petes sake come on in. This time, we were exactly the same, neither one of us disadvantaged in physical stature. We could see eye to eye, br ow to brow, shoulder to shoulder, although we didnt, or couldnt, or w ouldnt. Not after she found out about the neighbor. And what I had seen, and what I did, and what I took. Whyd this happen, she asked. Whyd you go and do such a thing? You knew about them, t oo, I said. We both knew, I said. I thought you understood. Whyd you go and ruin our game, she asked. And so it went, on and on, our world without end. Amen.
89 She wanted to see. So, together, no t hand in hand, we walked to the neighbors house. His eyes were shut, his ears tilted in the direction of the TV, still playing, something black and white, although it was growing more vivid by the moment. Something, somewhere, was seeping away. Like our conversation. Like our life together. Nice hat, I said, but now Im much taller th an you. She winced, and she started to cry. But I was neither alarmed nor ashamed. She wa nted to leave. I told her she could not. She said that what she said was not what she had meant. Whyd you do it, she asked again. I must confess: I was a tad annoyed. Sh e noticed. She said were not the same. Thats not my game. Were not the same, you and I. Thats what you say, I replied. My view is that we were just the same, until you changed. There could be no doubt. I shot a grin loving? menacing? en trancing? in her direction. Little did she know. She wept, again, and climbed into my bed. Short-sighted, you are, I said. Youll see. The next morning, not like all the other mo rnings, she woke up and stared into my eyes. Lovely, large brown eyes, they were. Perfect, gently sloping nose, I have to say. And perfect for snooping, I t hought, and a little round mouth perfect for talking and telling and hurting, for taking me away. What did she know? And when did she know it? I was growing ever more perplexed by her s eemingly innocent behavior. There was guilt, and she owned it, too. Did she not know? Others would see. An unc omfortable silence followed. How are the neighbors, she asked. A te st. Theyre doing fine, I said, trying not to lie. Any change? A quick check of la ughing, tormented neighbor; crying, tortured boy, his clothes ripped to shreds; sl eeping, still woman; blaring TV Alarms were ringing. The
90 same, I reported back, being careful to stick to the facts. Heres what I left out: The woman, oddly enough, had changed colors, perhaps in a salute to our American flag, the one she so little appreciated. I know, the girl said, moments before nodding off to sleep, or, rather, closing her eyes. It was an odd time for her to check out. Bu t just like her, I might add. That afternoon, the game was on again, the players engaged. We watched, and waited. there was an air of expectancy. Meanwhile, Key Largo was on the television, a trusty 27-inch Sony Trinitron, bought in 1985. The movie: 1948. A hurricane. A motley crew of folks left stranded by a sudden turn of bad weather. Big-city gangsters take over. Screaming. Cataclysm. It was a drama, not te rribly unlike our own. The actors were all now old, or dead, or a little of both, Bogie just a mist, Bacall, too, and Edward G. Robinson. Nobody remembers anything any more, least of all her. That evening, at the dinner table, a Wal-Mart particle board special, I ate my Porterhouse, chewed my curly fries, drank my Bud, cranked up the tunes, smiled, smiled some more, and laughed at the memory of my tall girls smalle st idiosyncrasies and oversights. Annoying little tick s and habits, to tell the truth. Still, they added up. And she knew it. She was tall, when she meant to be merely large in her affections. She was just my size, when she meant for her body to complement mine. She was inquisitive, so curious, when she meant to possess the world, my world. She slept when she should have been around to catch all the ac tion. Her eyes were brown, when they ought to have been
91 green. She liked soft rock, for the love of Pete. Frankly, I was taller, larger, more powerful. And I could see more clearly than he r. She could see over th ere, once, but she couldnt see all. She didnt know. Anybody coul d tell. And the metal felt so good in my hand. And, oh, about the neighbor: Over there, he was still sleeping, the boy strangely silent, the womans body spread out on the floor, the TV in flames, the clock and the phone ringing. Loud as hell, shrieking, burrowing into my head and setting up camp there. Business as usual. Front porch, dusty? Sure. Littered with leaves? Right. Stinking of cat pee? Always. Fence intact? Of course. Same as it ever was? Check. Check. Check. One thing, the last (almost): Th e briefcase in my hand, silver and black, was bulging, green around the edges. Over here (the next morning), Im pleased to report, the situation was improving. The tall girls eyes were closed, Key Largo on TV was turning into Hell Harbor, with an overacting Lupe Velez fresh from silent movies, and the ringing, the godawful ringing of clocks and phones and mi crowaves and unattended cars down the block, continued as before. And soon, the blue li ghts, steam heat, wet air blowing in from the Gulf, palm fronds fluttering in the wind, screaming neon, beach strummers, teens crashing their jeeps into the daiquiri deck, late-summer bunnies scrambling. So I did what I could, the best that I coul d, drinking my coffee, reading the paper, brushing my teeth, starting my car driving to that place, just north of the big store and
92 south of the blinking red light, where I go to get the money to pay the rent to buy the stuff, all the stuff I wont need anymore. Or, at least I started to drive there. Instead, I gripped the suitcase, chained to my wrist, sw erving left when I should have gone right, going straight when I might have stopped, tossing the other metal into the trees. I drove and drove, and drove some more, heading north, passing five Stuckeys stores, closing in on peanut country by midnight. It was a Sunday drive, an interminable Sunday drive, the longest Sunday drive ever. The last time I saw her, the tall girl, she was growing smaller by the moment, practically shrinking, her head ballooning, changing co lors once more, soon purple, like the prettiest sunset colors in nature. My vi ew of the neighbor, the boy, the woman, just up and turned to fog. Before leaving the tall gi rl, I took a bat to the phone, a brick to the clock. It was 3 p.m., the detective told the paper later, a breezy afternoon, sunlight streaming through the blinds into the Fl orida room, illuminating the little house. According to his report: The ne ighbor was nearly ten feet wide, big where he should have been tall. The little boy and the woman, too. The tall girl was sm all. And I was taller, and stronger, too. Stronger than love.