Tiger wins again!
The black dude turns to me, headset on his neck. ‘What’cha wanna watch, pops? Faggots cookin’ fo’ bitches? Or Tiger?’
‘This ain’t no country club for white bitches. This here a gym!’
By Talmadge Jarrattee
I’ve just paid $10 to work out in a gym in an exclusive area of Marin County after a night of boozing in the city with my pal Rocco, and I want my money’s worth. My gym down in Santa Cruz costs only $25 a month, and that’s because I know the owner and get a deal. This gym is a high-end compound, impersonal, its members head-phoned zombies, eyes averted or preoccupied, as if suffering under a malaise and belonging in some rehab facility for the guilty rich. At my gym, people are familiar with one another, stop to chat or at least nod hellos upon passing, creating an intimate, healthy vibe.
I have a problem. At my gym there is one remaining bike that is simply operated by hitting two buttons and arriving at a level and pace which I ride nonstop for 40 minutes. The other bikes are new high-tech machines with complicated computer systems that I am unable to conquer and which frustrate and enrage me if I try. This gym only has bikes even more intricate, baffling and intimidating than those in my gym.
Still, I find a bike beside a 30ish clean-cut looking black dude in a swank Nike sweat suit. His head is smothered in huge earphones as he bobs to music and keeps his eye on one of three large plasma TVs, where the great golfer Tiger Woods is close to another victory. There is a row of eight bikes in front, and behind us are stair-climbers, cross--country snow-walkers, treadmills, mountain climbers. Before us is a sprawling hive of lifters and heavers and stretchers.
Somehow I get the black dude to lower his earphones.
“Sorry to bother you,” I tell him. “But I can’t get this bike started. I’m computer ignorant and need somebody with skills to push a few buttons. I want to ride at one level only.”
“What level you want, pops? Uphill? Flat? Random? Manual? Stops an’ starts….”
“I’d like one speed, nonstop, no interruptions, no changes, brisk, but not too hard, use about a hundred calories every ten minutes and sweat out some booze.”
“Right on, dude.” He reaches across with his long arm and fingers and hits four or five buttons and tells me to start pedaling, and when I do it’s exactly the way I want it and I thank him and commence to work my crossword puzzle. The black dude replaces his headphones and re-sumes his pedaling, bobbing and eyeing Tiger Woods destroying a bunch of rich white guys at their sport.
Two rather attractive 30ish white women take the two bikes left on the other side of the black dude. Both wear ballcaps with pony tails jutting out from behind. Both are lean and trim and pretty, though they are marred by pinched stress lines at the sides of their mouths and creases at the foreheads. They are gabbing as they arrive, and continue gabbing as they climb onto their bikes. The gal with the pink cap, closest to the black dude, switches the golf channel on the TV to a food channel. The black dude instantly whips off his headset and turns to her. “What y’all doin’, turnin’ off Tiger?” he says.
Pink cap removes her headset. “We hate golf. I am not watchin’ that golf match. That’s why we’re here, my husband’s home watching it.” The other gal nods in accordance.
“Then move. I here first. I watchin’ the golf. Tiger my man.” He uses his channel selector to turn on the golf. Pink cap immediately changes it back to food. “Hey, what you doin’?”
“You can just move to another bike!” she says.
“Bullshit! I here first. YOU move to another bike!”
“There’s only one bike, and it’s on the end, and Judy’s ever there, and she watches FOX News.”
“Fox News? Shee-it!” he says.
The woman beside pink-cap, who wears a beige cap with a yacht club insignia on it, takes off her headset and addresses the black dude in a wheedling voice. “I prefer the cooking channel, too. Nobody here wants to watch golf.”
The black dude turns to me, headset on his neck. “What’cha wanna watch, pops? Faggots cookin’ fo’ bitches? Or Tiger?”
From my end bike, I have a poor view of the TV, never watch it. “Tiger,” I say. “I’m a big Tiger fan.”
“This dude here, he want Tiger, too,” he says, and switches on the golf match.
Pink cap jumps off her bike and marches to the front desk like a military general on the warpath. Nearby, folks on their machines are trying to ignore the dissension. I nod at the black dude as we both await the looming maelstrom. Yacht cap is already on her cellphone, reporting the situation to somebody that sounds like her husband.
Pink cap returns with a girl running the front desk. She is a sweet little thing of around 20 who is basically alone on what should be a slow Sunday, mostly checking people in and playing with her computer. She wears the cap and T-shirt of the establishment and has a fetching little ass and perfect breasts and a snub nose. As she stands here, Pink cap and Yacht cap commence carrying on about the unfairness of the black dude and his golf match, and before they can really get going he rips off his headset.
“I the min-ORRRITY!” he tells desk girl. “I always the minority. I here first, young lady. I got Tiger on and the golf. This woman, she turn it off, don’t ask me can she, just turn it off ‘cuz she don’t like Tiger. Well, I ain’t watchin’ faggots cookin’ fo’ bitches!”
Desk girl shrinks up, eyes rolling to the side. Her smooth, seamless face is thus far untouched by urban disputation and discord. The black dude, he’s fired up. At first, he seemed like an ex-college jock, mellow, loose, well-mannered, but now he’s taken on the ghetto visage and persona. Still, the two shrews beside him are undaunted. They’re bombarding the desk girl with a slew of paranoid bullshit, and she continues to shrink and cower.
“I ain’t liss’nin’ to this jive,” announces black dude. “And I ain’t movin’ off this bike.” He nods toward me. “My man an’ me, we watchin’ Tiger, ain’t we pops?”
I nod toward desk girl, issuing her a sickly smile. “One of the reasons I came in here today was so I could got my workout and watch Tiger on TV, too. It was that or watch Tiger in a bar and get drunk again like I did last night.”
“Right on, brothah,” says black dude and shows me five, and I have no choice but slap hands with him. “Pops want Tiger big time.”
The Fox News woman is now off her bike and joins the fray. Her hair is short, and she wears a ball cap with the logo of this establishment on it. “I’ve never seen you in here before,” she says to the black dude, issuing him a reptilian smile. “Are you a member?”
“I a guest!” he says resoundingly. “I got me a guest card from my bro’. He play fo’ the 49ers.”
“We’re all members here,” maintains Pink cap. “We are all long-time members of this health club, and members come first, I believe, is not that right, Brittany?” she asks desk girl.
“That bullshit!” black dude fumes, before desk girl can answer, “y’all prejudice against me ‘cuz I black, and you prejudice against Tiger ‘cuz he black. Y’all hate niggers.”
Suddenly the three women erupt and converge on the black dude in a ferocious squabble, defending themselves against his accusation, maintaining they are NOT prejudiced. They are furious, frothing, wild--eyed, paranoid, mouths serrated, irrational. Desk girl’s trapped and desperate, continues shrinking and cowering. Meanwhile, black dude has Tiger on again. “This ain’t no country club for white bitches,” black dude tells her. “This here a gym!”
When the three-woman squabble intensifies, he shouts them down.
“Y’all hate us niggers! That OK. I seen it all my life. Y’all hate Tiger ‘cuz he a black dude spank them white bloods. I ain’t movin’, I stayin’ an’ watchin’ Tiger. Y’all don’t like it, call the pigs. I call the ACLU.”
The ladies appear stymied by this threat. There might be a crack in their armor. Tough, determined, willful and entitled as they are, turf is turf, and black dudes do not back down and lose face, whether from the ghetto or not.
Meanwhile, my bike suddenly stops. I cannot get it started. Evidently it was only wired to run for 10 minutes, not 40. I don’t want to bother the black dude, though, because he’s got his hands full with the white women. Pink cap is now on her cellphone, getting in touch with her husband, perhaps a lawyer who can advise her on black dude’s threat of calling the ACLU and sticking her with a lawsuit for racial bias. She lowers the phone, and the three women confer, whispering, possibly attempting to come up with some new strategy with which to confront black dude, who has his eye on the TV.
They break apart and inform desk girl they are going to do some stretching in another room, but that tomorrow they will have a talk with the owner of the gym, a personal friend of theirs. Black dude and I watch them advance to another area of the gym, where they continue their confabulation, not stretching at all, occasionally glancing in our direction with baleful eyes.
Tiger sinks a long, crucial putt that more or less seals the deal. He, too, never gives up turf once he gets the upper hand. Bravo!
The black dude raises a fist in triumph as Tiger strides toward the next hole, as a massive, polite crowd gives him a huge ovation. The black dude lowers his open hand for me to slap, and I slap it resoundingly and say, “Hey, bro’, my bike fucked up. It just stopped. I need another 30 minutes on this motherfucker.”
He reaches over and hits a few buttons and I’m set again. §
Talmadge Jarrattee lives in Santa Cruz where he manages a homeless shelter and moonlights as a bartender. He can be reached through the editor at email@example.com.
Life in the cage: Parole granted
‘Fuck that parole board! That is why I don’t even show up when they ducat me. I just want them to leave me alone. I’m content on leaving here in a pine box.’
Will the parole board want to talk about the way he killed his young wife, go over all the gruesome details and relive that nightmare which happened 20 years ago?
What you gonna do when you get out of jail?
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
At 7 a.m., a school bell rang echoing loudly in the quiet cellblock, signaling time for morning chow. Three guards on three tiers racked the cell doors open as hundreds of men stepped out, salivating at the mouth like Pavlov’s dogs, walking down the stairwell to have their bland breakfast. Soon, the dayroom filled with chatter, sound levels blowing off the decibel charts.
Exiting the cellblock, I walked down a long well-lit corridor with about a hundred men, passing guards who were pulling men over randomly to search for contraband, into a large cafeteria-style mess hall. Kitchen workers, unseen behind a stainless steel barrier, serve food on trays shoved out of a rectangular hole. I grabbed my tray and was directed by a guard to sit at the next available seat. Three convicts were already at this table, which sat only four.
“What’s up, Dave?” asked Brad, a white veteran convict locked up for 35 years. His shoulder-length blond hair was tied up in a ponytail; he had a slight bit of oatmeal on his walrus mustache and goatee as he ate another spoonful.
“I’m all right man, just disgusted at all the characters I see around here daily,” I said.
“You talking about the guards or the inmates?” asked Brad.
A black inmate at our table named Tre joined the conversation. He spoke with the voice of a gangster rapper. “Shee-it, lately we ain’t seen no hot female guards. In the past, we gots lots of young luscious rookies coming through here. You know, the sight of a beautiful female cop gives a motha fucka hope.”
A Chicano inmate named Sleepy offered his take. “This shit does get old, but what can you do? Just keep your head up, walk proud, don’t let no one get you down,” he said with a thick barrio accent.
Nearly every day at breakfast inmates exchange the latest gossip or snivel about prison conditions. Today was no different.
“See that motha fucka over there, Pookey, with the DO-RAG on?” asked Tre. Pookey was smiling, speaking to a group of black youngsters at his table, selling gambling tickets for that night’s televised football game.
“He going to the parole board today and he always gets one-year denials. That lazy ass sit in his cell all day and night and watch television. He ain’t participating in no self-help programs. Been down only seventeen years on a fifteen-year to life sentence and he gets love like that, where a white boy I know, named Tanner, he gots everything the board ask for, and gets a three-year denial at each hearing.”
“Hey holmes, my homey Spider is getting five-year denials. They keep bringing up his past, all his write-ups when he first came into the joint, in the seventies. The board doesn’t care, eh, if he is praising the Lord now and trying to be a better person,” said Sleepy.
“Fuck that parole board! That is why I don’t even show up when they ducat me. I just want them to leave me alone. I’m content on leaving here in a pine box,” said Brad, with authority.
“Well, you know, there is a latest ruling in the courts which could potentially help a lot of lifers get parole dates,” I said.
“You know that is a load of horseshit. Look around you; everyone in the joint for the last two decades has been waiting on that one case that’s supposed to open up the floodgates. I ain’t buying into that; it’s a pipe dream,” said Brad.
“But what about the few guys we have seen get out, get a parole date?” I asked.
“The board has to let out a few people once in a while, to make it look like they are doing their job. I know who white boy Tanner is and he happens to be going to the board today too, with Pookey. We will have to see what happens,” said Brad.
Three parole board members sit at a table, drinking freshly brewed coffee obtained from the guards’ lounge.
A lovely woman says, “After going through today’s caseload, I feel that only one guy should be eligible for a parole date.” She points to a file with a black man’s mug shot; he smiles widely despite lacking three front teeth.
A black man, dressed in suit and tie, says, “Are you joking?”
“No. I’m serious. Look at his institutional conduct, his confidential files. Here’s a guy who knows how the game works, an honest man who will tell us what he is truly all about. I’m always skeptical of the guys who come in here showing us certificates, citing any one of the twelve steps, passages from the Bible, like they are trying to impress us.”
A white man speaks, “I agree with her. Out of the twenty files I went through last night, this guy deserves a date.”
The woman said, “All right, let’s get this caseload over with. I want to make it out by 3 p.m., in time for Oprah. Officer Ortiz? Can you please call our first inmate for the day, inmate Gonzales, last two digits: thirty-six.”
Officer Ortiz, a 65-year-old Hispanic man close to retirement, gets up slowly from his seat, walks as if he has a prosthetic leg, and calls out, “Señor Gonzales, last two: thirty-six, come inside.”
A court-appointed white attorney, who speaks with the swishy voice a gay guy says, “Officer, I’m Mr. Evans, assigned to handle the Gonzales case. I’ll be interpreting as well.”
Evans walks in with Gonzales, a Mexican national, they both sit before the board members at the table.
Whispering to his colleagues, the black board member says, “Another year denial. He doesn’t even know how to speak English.”
Tanner, a 37-year-old lanky white guy wearing prescription glasses who has never been to prison before, waits patiently to be called for his parole hearing in the Board of Prison Terms lobby. It’s been three years since his last hearing. He’s nervous, anxious, feels like taking a dump—his asshole puckering like a guy who just slammed crystal meth. The last inmate who went in there talked for three hours to the board. Tanner’s mind is racing, thinking about what the board will ask him. Will they ask him about what Step 3 is from Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step traditions? Will they want to talk about the way he killed his young wife, go over all the gruesome details and relive that nightmare which happened 20 years ago? Will they ask if he has any remorse?
He paces the room back and forth. An hour later, the door opens as a 40-year-old Mexican National inmate nicknamed Huero comes out, angry, while his appointed attorney named Evans, speaks to him in Spanish like a gringo still learning the language.
“Amigo, Gonzales, todo esta bien. El ano que viene, tu pueden salir [Everything is OK, next year, you will go home].”
“Why you not say I go to Mexico?” asked Huero, who was born and raised on a ranch in Sonora, Mexico.
“You have to establish parole plans in the United States, in Los Angeles, California. Comprende?” said Evans.
“Yeah, I understand. But I get deported. Go back to Mexico. No stay in U.S. No family here.”
“Ah, don’t worry; we will have a better chance next year. Stay in your prison education class. Your English is getting better.”
Officer Ortiz, the doorman, calls out, “Mr. Tanner…Tanner…last two digits, nine-zero, please step in.”
Tanner gets up from his seat, feeling nauseous, lightheaded, dizzy. He walks into the room, his counsel already seated next to the empty chair he will occupy. He sees three people sitting behind the table; he knows they have the power of God (just like the 12 jurors who found him guilty). They would ultimately decide his fate. Would he spend another three years with his stinky and nasty worthless biker cellmate? Or would he be going home, sleeping on a real mattress and getting laid?
At afternoon yard, I ran into Brad while he was doing his workout—dips and pull-ups on the bars. He was buff for his age, looked healthier than many youngsters.
“Hey Dave, what did I tell you?”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Tanner got another three-year denial. This is why I gave up hope a long time ago.”
“There has to be a good reason.”
“The reason is that they know he will succeed and stay out if they give him a release date.”
“Really, you think they only let out the fuck-ups, knowing they will come back?”
“Not always. They have let out some guys who didn’t pull the trigger, who were accessories or who had kidnapping charges. But look at the big picture, holmes. Tanner has a master’s degree in communications, which he earned in the joint. He has three vocational trades, a positive psych report, a lovely new wife and two stepchildren. His parents are still alive. He has a job already lined up working for a television station selling advertising. He doesn’t even have one write-up in twenty years!”
“Wow, that’s hard to do in here.”
“Check it out, he’s coming around the track right now. Tanner…hey, Tanner!”
Slowing down from his jog around the track, Tanner approached us with the look of a beaten animal—defeated, sluggish—his eyes filled with raging despair. I sensed he had been crying; his eyes bloodshot red.
“Yeah, what’s up, Brad?”
“Hey man, tell Dave what happened.”
“Another three-year denial,” Tanner confided. “I don’t get it. They keep bringing up the crime as the sole reason. Yes, I killed my wife, but it was out of rage. I caught her in bed with another man when I came home. I was remorseful. I explained how I was wrong and how I want to be a contributing member of society again. Showed them my certificates, proof of my accomplishments. All they said was that I must be a good manipulator of staff to have not been issued any disciplinary write-ups in twenty years. Ain’t that a bitch?”
“I heard they do that a lot, holmes. Even use a petty CDC-128-A Counseling Chrono’ to deny parole. What else happened?” asked Brad.
“My family hired a good Jewish lawyer, Horowitz, to represent me and he even got the victim’s mother to come to testify that the family forgives me for what happened.”
“Any chance of appeal?” I asked.
“The attorney will be appealing the decision. But he says it will take about two years to run its course through the courts. I’m fucked, man! What am I going to tell my wife when I call her at 4 p.m.?”
“Hey holmes, tell her to start looking for Sancho again. He will have to fill your boots for now,” said Brad.
Pookey, a dark-skinned 42-year-old African American inmate, waited in the lobby for his name to be called. He rolled up a contraband cigarette using pages from a Gideons Bible as rolling paper, while talking to another black inmate names Reese, who was also waiting to see the board.
“Yeah homey, tobacco is getting expensive now. Three dollars for a rollie. I gots to get me a can of Bugler somehow.”
“Damn, Pookey. You ain’t afraid of getting a write-up for contraband? Any write-up in your file, no matter how minor, can cost you three years by the board.”
“Shee-it, I ain’t worried about no write-up. I live for today, homey. Tomorrow ain’t promised to no one! Thug for life!”
Inmate Reese, a 55-year-old man who looked 65 from excessive worry, was organizing all his paperwork, which consisted of certificates, family support letters and some of his poetry that won awards in national writing contests. He intended to show this to the board.
“Yo, Reese, my man, they don’t give a shit about all that stuff. They already got their mind made up before you go in, haven’t you figured that out already?”
“Why you say that, homey?”
“The three-member panel is like the television show American Idol. They already know who the winner is going to be but they go through the motions each week just to look good, to make it looks like they are earning that money.”
Pookey lights up the rollie with a contraband Bic lighter, which he pulls from his sock. “Shee-it, hundred-grand a year, just to pick and choose which loser gets released…that’s love. Where can I apply?”
“I don’t believe that man. You are always blaming the white man for all your problems. Look at you, can’t even follow the rules in prison. How do you expect to ever be released?”
“I don’t care if they release me or not. I’m happy just being me. Alive.”
“Mr. Brown…Mr. Brown…last two…zero-zero, please step inside,” said Officer Ortiz.
“That’s me!” said Pookey, smashing his rollie lightly on the bench, leaving ashes and placing it in his pants pocket. “I wasn’t going to come today but I heard they got a hottie in there deciding cases. They say she looks like Paula Abdul.”
“Mr. Brown, your prison file here says they call you Pookey. That happens to be the name of my dog. Tell us, why should we release you into society?” asked Ms. Smith, a middle-aged white woman with shoulder-length brown hair and eyes, a former homicide cop. She smelled of expensive perfume and hairspray.
“I should be released because I don’t plan on ever coming back here, fo sho!”
“But inmate Brown, you have several disciplinary write-ups in the last ten years: possession of a cellphone, manufacturing pruno, possession of narcotics, masturbation in front of female staff—” listed Mr. Fuller, who spoke with a British accent.
“Nah, I beat that one, supposed to be dropped down to a counseling chrono. I was putting Vaseline on my hemorrhoid. She thought I was flashing her during count.”
“Looks like you can’t even follow the rules in here. Look at your thumb—nicotine all over it. Tobacco is contraband and you are still smoking,” said Mr. Hanson, an African American man who was a former chief of police. Pookey’s eyes remained fixed on the pack of Camels exposed in this man’s jacket pocket.
“Yeah, but I smoke because my homeys kick me down. It ain’t cool to turn down someone who offers you something for free, dig?” He smiles, exposing his missing three front teeth on his upper grill.
“We see here in your confidential file that you have cooperated with staff on several occasions. We commend you for this,” said Ms. Smith.
“Had to do what is necessary to survive. Ifs you all release me, I wouldn’t hesitate to call in to John Walsh, the fugitive hotline, if I saw someone on America’s Most Wanted. I just trying to be an outstanding citizen and do the right thing. I’ve learned a lot from watching the television show COPS.”
“OK, tell us, if we were to let you out today, what would you be doing? Do you have any job offers, support letters to show us?” asked Mr. Fuller.
“Nah, I didn’t have time to get any of that. But I can tell you this: I’m going to parole to my mom’s house and just chill, watch Jerry Springer, soap operas, and Oprah. Just like I’m doing now. I’ll collect a monthly SSI check since I’m taking psych meds. I ain’t going to hang with homies any more. I am going to look out for my moms; she is all I have.”
“Very commendable. One last question, do you have any remorse for the crime you committed?” asked Mr. Hanson.
“Board members, I killed a guy who beat up my sister. He pulled a knife on me. Shit happened. Any man who hits a woman deserves to be punished. Can I get a witness?”
“Yeah, that’s true. My step-dad wasn’t a nice guy,” said Mr. Hanson.
“I’d probably defend a family member as well,” said Ms. Smith.
“All right, we have heard enough today. We are glad you chose to not have counsel because these lawyers go on and on about nothing for hours. Mr. Brown, please step into the small room for a couple minutes, we will have a decision,” said Mr. Fuller.
Lined up, waiting to go back into the cellblock, I asked Brad more about the parole process. I am a lifer and one day I will be in front of the board to make my plea for release so I wanted to know more, what to expect.
“Brad, so what can I do to better improve my chances for release someday?”
“There is nothing you can do, holmes. You got three board members who are always former law enforcement. They all have built-in prejudices from dealing with criminals every day. It’s always a toss-up who they are going to let out and who they are going to keep. But I can tell you one thing, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let out Pookey today. He is one of the luckiest mayates I’ve ever seen. Back in the ‘80s at Quentin, I saw a guy stab him with a bone-crusher in the chest and he survived.”
“What happened, why did he get hit?”
“Rumors were that he was a rat.”
“Really? No way, not Pookey.”
“All right, holmes. Catch you later. They’re calling my cellblock.”
“Mr. Brown, will you please step back in,” said Officer Ortiz.
Pookey—sporting his DO-RAG, wrinkled prison blues, and represented by no attorney—put his feet up on the desk and leaned back comfortably in the chair.
“Mr. Brown, don’t make yourself too comfortable,” said Mr. Fuller.
“I already know. One year denial, right?”
“It is the decision of this panel, based upon the preponderance of the evidence, that we find you suitable for parole. Parole is GRANTED. Our decision will be reviewed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but we can assure you that, due to your cooperation with staff over the years, he will affirm our decision. In about ninety days you should be a free man,” said Ms. Smith, smiling.
“Do you have anything to say before we call in the next inmate?” asked Mr. Hanson.
Pookey got up from his seat and went behind the table to hug every board member. Pulling out his contraband Bic lighter from his sock, he spoke to Mr. Hanson, pointing to his jacket pocket.
“Dog, can I get a smoke, a real smoke? I’m a citizen now, like you!”
“I guess technically you are. For sure, dog. Here’s a Camel, on me.”
Pookey lights up his Camel cig and walks out of the room with the swagger of a pimp, his pants sagging.
“I just love this guy’s honesty,” said Mr. Fuller.
“Five dollars says he’ll be back in ten days,” said Ms. Smith.
“Ten dollars says he’ll be back in seven days,” said Mr. Hanson.
“Twenty dollars…in twenty-four hours,” says Mr. Fuller.
“Fifty dollars says he won’t ever make it out. He’ll get a write up before then,” says Officer Ortiz to himself, not saying it aloud, smiling, while he looks at Pookey’s mug shot, taking the case file back to case records.§
Tito David Valdez Jr. writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” Visit www.adamcarolla.com. David can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Visit www.inmate.com for information on David’s case.
Read more of his "Life in the Cage" series here:
Mischief in the prison chapelJailhouse prunoA momentary breath of freedomBreakfast ClubTrappedInstitutialized Evening dayroom Destination ASHSleepless in SoledadJailhouse lawyersIn the hole (part 1)In the hole (part 2)The idiot boxShower timeSweet escapeSuicidal Tendencies
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Washing windows across America: Blue Norther
He opens a book of short stories by Anton Chekhov. But then, remembering he will need strength for the night ahead, he tucks Chekhov under his arm and goes looking for food.
Ci-Ci’s is crawling with soccer families, bawling babies, and stoned teenagers.Photo illustration by Stacey WardeBlue Norther
By Ben Leroux
In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.
Two pretty young black women in the computer lab at the public library in Bay City, Texas, are having a nice laugh over the person at the next computer. He is a large white man, 40 or so, and he itches a lot. The back of the hand he uses to operate his computer mouse is dotted with tiny red bumps. He is on the Internet, and scribbling things on scratch paper while reaching for his shins to rake. Underneath the table he wears sandals. The same red bumps make regular shoes and socks uncomfortable for him. The two girls don’t know his desperation. He wants to ask them if they know things about the noseeums, the bugs responsible for the bites on his shins, feet, ankles, forearms and hands, the bugs that have been traveling with him for the past several weeks, but he doesn’t wish to frighten anyone. Besides, he no longer trusts the information on the street.
The man logs off the Internet, goes itching over to a printer and feeds it coins. Out come several sheets of paper. Using the library’s stapler, he attaches these papers to his scribbled notes, and leaves. Outside, walking past the computer lab window, he looks in on the young women. They are still laughing. It would have been nice to joke with them, he thinks, but as with everything lately, the noseeums have ruined it, and it is no longer cute, no longer a laughing matter to him that he can’t go anywhere or do anything without having to hide his blemishes or stop to scratch at them. He gets in his old Plymouth and drives to the Lake Jackson Wal-Mart, and with the noseeum dossier under his arm, marches gravely into the store. He has the cold, mournful eyes of a soldier.
He pays no attention to his Wal-Mart greeter–does not even look to see if there is one. Whether he gets his greeting or not has become immaterial. He has, to put it kindly, found the Wal-Mart greeter to be a most useless creature, consistently negligent in his or her duties. He passes through the entryway and heads straight for Sporting Goods. There, he locates the camping section, opens his dossier, and peruses.
The Noseeum. AKA the Sand Fly. The Punky. The Chigger. The Thrip. The Itchmite. The Drain Fly. The Black Gnat. An invisible blood-sucking parasite that thrives in dampness, or off the blood of living animals. A relentless, resourceful, if not prolific enemy, the noseeum crassly marks its victims with tiny red bumps. Existing only to feed and breed, it is as content living by a swamp as it is at the sweaty foot of a man’s bed. Anywhere there is blood and dankness.
But now the man in the camping section at Wal-Mart (who believes he picked the noseeums up somewhere around Sweetwater) knows things about his enemy he didn’t until today. First, and not surprisingly to him, it is only the female that does the biting. All she cares about is eating so she can lay more eggs. Secondly is something he’d never guessed by the ferocity of their bites—they are quite easy to kill. One simply needs to be properly armed.
The man selects a fine citronella candle in a terracotta container, and a spray-repellant containing the chemical DEET. The over-diversification of simple products such as insect repellant aggravates the man. Unable to find just plain insect repellant, he settles on a wild berry-scented one. If his information is accurate, the repellant, together with the citronella fumes and dryness, will do in the noseeums. The man goes to the checkout lane, where due to an overdiversification of disposable lighters, he is forced to buy a Dale Earnhart Jr. lighter. The man does not care for motor sports. He purchases his ammo and takes it out to the Plymouth.
Deliberately, but without haste, the man goes into the early phases of his offensive. He drives to a carwash and parks by a vacuum. There, he begins extracting pieces of bedding and throwing them into a pile beside the car. Young Mexicans, buffing their lowriders stop to watch him. Once he has a nice mountain of blankets, clothes, pillows, and window-cleaning rags, he pulls out what looks like a piece of plywood roughly the size of his own body and rests it against the Plymouth. He then, from the driver’s side removes a ragged old sofa chair with the legs cut off. He feeds the vacuum coins, and sticks the hose into the Plymouth. Periodically, he stops to scratch bites.
Once the man has thoroughly vacuumed, he reinserts his plywood, crams his bedding into the trunk, and drives to a Laundromat he’d seen earlier. Feeding yet more coins into machines, his finances dwindling, he puts all his bedding, clothes, rags–anything that might be housing a noseeum—into washing machines, then dryers. While he waits he opens a book of short stories by Anton Chekhov. But then, remembering he will need strength for the night ahead, he tucks Chekhov under his arm and goes looking for food. He walks to a restaurant called Ci-Ci’s. He has never been to a Ci-Ci’s and does not care what it is. He knows there is a chain of them. He goes up to a man behind the register.
“I’ve never been to a Ci-Ci’s. How does it work?”
“Fav-nanny-nan,” the Texan says. “Fav-nanny-nan, and yew c’neat till y’hurt.”
It was true. The man pays his $5.99 and eats buffet style, going back repeatedly for Italian fast food: lasagna, pasta, salad, cheese bread, and about six different kinds of pizza. Ci-Ci’s is crawling with soccer families, bawling babies, and stoned teenagers. Over it all, the man tries to read Chekhov. He hopes it will take his mind off his bites, but Chekhov’s stories are about disease, leprosy, plague, sanitariums, and madmen, and soon all the man can see around him is the sadness of families working very hard at fun. How hard they all work. He looks ahead to the night, wondering if the biting and itching goes away immediately or subsides over a period of days.
Back at the Laundromat, the man returns his clean, warm blankets, clothes, and rags into his car. He uses two folded blankets to make box-springs and uses four more to wrap around the plywood. The man owns a lot of blankets. He then places his cot into the vehicle and starts the Plymouth and drives north in the direction of Wal-Mart. As he does, a dark blue cloud follows him, along with a chill.
At Wal-Mart, the man chooses a discreet parking space that faces a fence and a row of palm trees. He then stands outside his Plymouth and surveys the lot, looking for the rotating yellow light of Wal-Mart security. He spots the security cart and the obese Texan man operating it. Putting it kindly, he has found Wal-Mart security to be one step above the Wal-Mart greeter.
As the man sets out for the security cart, he sees what the driver does to keep himself busy. He has found a game–a form of exercise without leaving his cart. He runs down stray shopping baskets, and with one hand on the wheel, grabs one by the handle, punches the accelerator, flips the steering wheel, then gives the basket a fling toward the basket bin. He is a good shot. His name is Artie. Artie stops his rodeo game when he sees the man approaching.
“Hi Artie,” says the man. “I’m going be sleeping here, alright? I always let security know.”
Artie goes into a state. It is a state the itching man has, for lack of a better term, come to deem the “Texas Gaze.” During the Texas Gaze, the Texan, stunned by the slightest of peculiarities, collapses into a state of sensory overload resulting in abrupt cessation of motor-neural activity. In Artie’s case, the cart-flinging stops, the arms fall to the side, and the eyes droop. The head appears to bobble slightly upon the neck as the body goes flaccid and the jaw falls just enough to expose the surface of a fat, bubbling tongue. The Texas Gaze is known to last anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds, during which time, if a person desired, he could walk up to the Texan, prod him, poke him, rub his belly, paint him, clean out his pockets.
“Hey?” the man says to Artie. “Gonna be any problem with me staying in my car over there?”
“Uh? Oh,” says Artie. “Wahl, ah don’t care.” He jiggles and chuckles a little. “But whay you wanna stay in yer caw-er?”
“It’s my business. I’m just checking first.”
“But I don’t see your van nor your motor home.”
“No, I told you I’m staying in that car over there.”
“What’d yew dew, hitch it to the back’yer motor home?”
“No, no. That’s it. That car is my motor home.”
Artie starts to relapse into the Texas Gaze, and the man wonders if this had something to do with the South losing the Civil War. Then Artie comes to.
“I’ll tell the night shift about ‘ya. But it’s fixin’t’storm you know?”
“A little water won’t hurt me.”
“Guess you kin roll up yer windas. Posta be a real turd-floater.”
“Yeah, yeah. Goodbye Artie.”
The man goes back to his Plymouth, and dismissing the few sprinkles that have started, leaves the windows down a crack for air. He sits straight upon his makeshift bed, resting his back against what was once the backrest to the backseat. With his Dale Earnhardt lighter, he lights the citronella candle. It doesn’t smell great–like orange peels soaked in kerosene. He opens Chekhov and waits for dark, and the first wave of noseeums to come out munching.
They make their first nips around the same time a formidable wind picks up outside. They’ve gotten used to depending on a meal every night around this time. But this night the man has something for the biting bitches. He has the bottle of wild berry flavored DEET. He aims the nozzle at the invisible pain, and twice depresses the pump-action spray button. It makes a “znk-znk” sound and he feels the cold chemicals on his shin and smells what would remind him of camping as a child were it not for the obscene perfume. “Znk-znk.” He fires again.
The pinching pain stops. “Yes!” the man says, getting very excited. He can barely wait for the next bite. It comes and he douses it. “Znk! Znk!” The wind howls now, and the sprinkles have become rain. But the man keeps his focus. He is focused on the bites and the “Znk-znk.” He snuffs out one noseeum after another. “Znk-znk.” They’re not very bright, he thinks. He gives them hell.
It is the bitter cold that interrupts the man’s resolve, and the realization that he is getting wet. Remembering the importance of dryness in this battle, he reaches for the Plymouth’s ancient passenger-side handle and cranks it and when he does, hears a sound that doesn’t sound good. He has a keen ear for such sounds and as he feels the handle go limp, he knows something bad is about to happen to his car and it does. The window collapses into the door and disappears. The man forces his fingers down into the door, trying to pinch a sliver of the glass, but his fingers are too big and the Blue Norther–the turd-floater Artie had spoken of—is coming through the man’s gaping window with the force of a fire hose.
Many things go through the man’s mind as he sloshes around inside the Plymouth on his knees. Does he save his blankets? He had invested many of his last coins into getting them dry. Does he make a run for Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart is gone. It, and any sign of civilization have vanished behind the gray violent wetness whipping about. The wind lifts the right side of the Plymouth, and the palm trees bend over so far their fronds touch the ground.
As the Blue Norther fills the Plymouth, the dripping man knee-sloshes with and begins brainstorming. He finds himself overturning the laundry basket in which he stores many of his belongings. Then he pushes the empty basket bottom-out, through the open cavity and holds it against the Blue Norther. It is a perfect fit.
“Ha ha!” the man laughs, holding the laundry basket against the slamming elements. It has stopped the flooding. He grabs a broomstick that he uses as window-washing pole, and props one end against the laundry basket and the other against the driver’s side door. It holds. “Yes!” he shouts again. His victories are simple.
The man sits back on his damp bedding. The candle has gone out. He grabs his DEET. His Plymouth smells like a toxic whorehouse. As the Blue Norther takes its course, the last of the noseeums, empowered by the newfound wetness of the Plymouth, come out to feast. The man in the swaying, waterlogged car stays awake holding his DEET bottle. “Znk, znk, znk.”
“Wrenchin’ out your blankets?” It is the next morning and Artie has pulled up in his cart beside the man who wrings out his wet bedding.
“Yeah,” says the man, throwing sopped linen into the parking slot next to him. “I’m trying to get rid of some bugs, and the Blue Norther didn’t help.”
Artie starts to go into the Texas Gaze. “What kinda bugs?” he asks when he comes to.“
“Noseeums, I guess you call them.”
Artie’s response is to relapse for five minutes before announcing: “Ahm’o get back to work now.”
Artie leaves the strange man as he lays his blankets out in the car to dry as best they can. He is out of money save for the few coins he has not put into the printer, the vacuum, and the laundry machines. It’s a Sunday and he has hours to waste.
He walks across what seems like miles of parking lots to a mall where he has seen a Hastings Bookstore. He hasn’t had many good experiences with Hastings Bookstores. They are loud and uncomfortable, and tend to be to Barnes and Noble what the romance novel is to Russian literature. Along with books, Hastings sells electric guitars, skateboards, DVDs and other crap.
In this Hastings, deafening death metal is playing, and the place is very crowded. But there is reading in here, and chairs, and dryness and free coffee. The man has nowhere else to go.
The man finds what he thinks is a relatively private place to sit, until a pack of out-of-control adolescent males move in on him and his chair and books and coffee. Hormone-crazed, they begin gathering up sex magazines and Sex For Dummies books and the Kama Sutra from the shelves, ripping the pages out, reading out loud, and tearing them to bits. They laugh and throw the books at each other, calling each other punks, fags, gays, fuckheads, vaginas. They punch each other. They fight. Employees walk by. No one cares. The man gets up to get a coffee refill, hoping they will be gone when he returns.
At a coffee bar with no condiments or stirrers, the man stops a young employee by tapping her on the shoulder. Inaudible over the death metal, he tries to communicate to her that Hastings is out of condiments and stirrers. He shows her the empty creamer container. She responds by opening a little cabinet door and pointing to stacks of creamer packets, sugar packets, and plastic stirrers. Disgusted by his inability to comprehend, she begins handing him stacks of condiments and stirrers. As the man watches her walk away, he stocks the coffee bar for Hastings.
Back at the chairs, the teens are gone but have left in their wake, piles of mutilated sex books. Employees and customers step over them. No one cares. But at least now the man, whose bites still itch but not as bad as they did yesterday, can read.
But no–the animals are back, ripping pages out of the Kama Sutra, calling each other cocks, cocksucker, cocklovers. Two hold one boy down and try to make him have sex with a gay sex book. It is horrible. People just watch, afraid to intercede. The man leaves. He’s had all he can take.
It is dusk when he returns to his car facing the fence at the Wal-Mart. Broken trees are all around. The man lights his Citronella candle, and sits guard with his spray bottle. He opens Chekhov. There is a knock at the back window.
“Kill yer bugs yet?”
“I’m workin’ on it, Artie.”
“What’s that burnin’?”
“Cain’t have no fires in a Wal-Mart parking lot. It’s regulations.”
“OK.” The man blows it out. The smell was driving him insane anyway.
“I’m gittin’ off duty now. I told the night shift about ‘ya. Posta be another gully-washer tonight—a frog-strangler, I hear. Good luck with yer bugs.”
Artie goes away, and the man plugs up the window-hole with his laundry basket and broom handle and sits back and waits for bites. He doesn’t sleep. §
Ben Leroux continues to ply his trade as a window washer and writes from his home in Morro Bay. He can be reached at email@example.com.Read more of his Washing windows across America series here:
Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)Directions from Texas (episode 17)A bug you can't see (episode 18)The bigger they are (episode19)Life in Lockhart (episode 20)Slow grinding war in Lockhart (episode 21)On the Riverwalk (episode 22)Peripherals (episode 23)God, giving and the Gulf
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Getting out (Part III)
Carlos didn’t have to tell anyone in prison that he was a gang member. But he told every one; it was one of the things he was proud of in life, that and the fact that he sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs.
Only the most heartless could go out and have a laugh with their victims before they killed them.
(Part III) Carlos hooks up with his old homies for a night at the club
By Antonio C. de Baca
The work site was close to the cruise in downtown Stockton. Carlos knew that many former friends of his would be there. After work he waited for his uncle in front of the work site in the shade of a bus stop. He hoped that it wouldn’t be a long wait, not wanting to see anyone he knew, as filthy as he was in his work clothes. But after half an hour he began to doubt whether his uncle was going to pick him up.
The shade from one of the tall old buildings surrounding the work site crept over the street, turning the hot day cool. The shade felt refreshing after the day’s boiling heat. Carlos, enjoying the invigorating breeze, didn’t even notice the new Infinity sedan pull up next to the bus stop with the windows down. Two young Chicanos looked at him with smiles on their faces. They were dressed in sports gear, the type that professional basketball players wear, red ‘Sixer shirts. They were the classic Chicanos one might think of when talking about gang members, bad heads and all, but they were dressed better and drove nicer cars, dealer cars.
“Hey, Puto,” the one in the passenger seat called.
Carlos was not only surprised that someone called him but what they called him, “Bitch.” Carlos jumped up from his seat, a blind fury burning on his face, looking in the direction of the car only to see faces he knew from 10 years ago, before going to prison. It was some of his old friends. His anger turned into a smile.
“Hey Putos, what the fuck you fools doing?” Carlos went to the car window and bent down next to it. Forgetting the 10 years he just done in prison.
“What happened, fool?” the driver said, his face chubbier than Carlos remembered. His name was Boxer, and even with his tattoo teardrop beneath his right eye he still had a baby face for his 30 years. The slim one in the passenger seat was Soldier Boy, a killer he knew mostly by reputation. Carlos had heard that he was one of few words. “I heard you got locked away forever or something like that?”
“No, just ten years,” Carlos said, trying to make it sound as if it was nothing and he could do another stretch like it if he had to, “What are you two doing?” Carlos knew Boxer well, in fact the last time he saw him was weeks before going to Idaho to collect money from a drug deal. Boxer was delivering him a kilo of cocaine to sell. And remembering the last time he saw him he also remembered all the money that went along with that deal. Four thousand dollars profit from just driving that kilo from one place to the next. He then remembered that he had almost $50,000 at his girlfriend’s house the same day he made that deal.
“We’re just riding around. Why? You need a ride somewhere?”
Boxer looked him up and down, mostly at his soiled clothes and face, like he didn’t know if he wanted to be seen with him.
“What the fuck’s up with the way you’re dressed? You turned dope fiend?”
Carlos expected them to question his work clothes. Never before had he dressed so ragged.
“Work clothes, fool.” He looked at the work site behind him. People were coming out dressed similarly. Both of them nodded their heads, knowing that that was where he was working.
“Get in, Puto,” Boxer said. Soldier Boy opened the back door by reaching his hand to the handle from the front seat. Carlos got in.
The car was nicer than any of the cars that Carlos had owned when he was out a decade ago, even Boxer long ago never had had a car like the one he drove now. Boxer must be balling, Carlos thought. The seats were all in different colored leather, custom, like a rainbow. The car’s interior looked like no Infinity commercial he had seen. It was the kind of car Carlos had craved to pick him up the day he got out. Boxer had money to roll.
“Where you going, fool?”
“Just drop me off at my abuelita’s.”
“You’re staying with your grandma?” Boxer asked. “Fool, I got a place for you to stay.” He looked at Soldier Boy then back at Carlos. “We’re going to the club tonight. Come with us.”
Carlos wanted to go and hang out, but he also promised himself that he wouldn’t go with his old friends. His friends were a bad influence on him. Their persuasion was one of the reasons why he had shot a man. That and the fact that the man owed 60,000 dollars. Then again, he couldn’t blame them fully for his own actions. He wasn’t going with them to cause trouble, only to relax and listen to music. And the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he went to prison because of his own choices. Nobody else’s. There’d be no problems that he could get into in one night. Even his crime of shooting someone had built up over months. He kept on telling the guy over and over that he needed to pay his debt and he wasn’t going to like him going to Idaho to collect. “I just got out the pen yesterday. Plus, I ain’t got nothing to wear.”
“Even more reason to ride with us. I got chingos of clothes you can wear.” Boxer pulled the car around the corner to Carlos’s grandma’s house. “I’ll pick you up at eight.” Boxer wrote down a number and handed it to him. “Call me.” Carlos got out of the car. He felt committed to him now even though he knew that he didn’t have to call.
Boxer peeled out the tires of the new car, causing them to smoke. Carlos was surprised that Boxer had remembered to park around the corner from his grandma’s house. But he had been there dozens of times, how could he forget? They had fought together, sold drugs together, were questioned by the police together, and gang-banged together. He’d even witness Boxer kill someone, and in the gangster world that was close. But if they were tight why didn’t Boxer send him money when he was locked away and needed it most?
Carlos walked up to his grandma’s door. She opened it, her hair more gray than he remembered the night before. “Where’s your tio?” she asked. Carlos shrugged his shoulders and walked into the kitchen. The food was still on the stove, ready to be eaten. The aroma hit him like a force field as he walked in. Beans and rice, but it always had some type of meat and New Mexico chili toga with it. Grandma was always proud of her home state of New Mexico’s chili. He knew that after eating food made by the Idaho state prison system for so long he could never get tired of his grandma’s meals.
Carlos didn’t wait for her to serve him; his stomach was too empty for waiting. He ate like it was his first meal as his grandma watched from the other side of the table with a smile on her face. It was the first meal that he fed himself as a free man.
Carlos jumped into the shower after he was done with his food. He wanted to be ready to leave with Boxer when the time came to call him. He went looking through his old clothes but couldn’t find anything that looked right. He knew that his best bet would be the prison blues he got out with. At least with those clothes the people who knew him would know where he had been and not question why he dressed so shabbily. No questions about whether he was a crack head or if he was broke, everything would be answered with one look at his blues. His blues would say, “I was in prison, that’s why you haven’t seen me, fool!”
He combed his hair back and put on some cheap aftershave he found in one of the drawers. He was ready to call Boxer, who had been gone from his life for so long. His friend who didn’t write him one letter while he was inside that living beast of a dungeon. But Carlos knew it was no big deal, nobody forced him to commit the crime he did to get there. Nobody told him he had to show off his gang colors in prison, which is how the majority of his problems in prison evolved. Carlos didn’t have to tell anyone in prison that he was a gang member. But he told every one, it was one of the things he was proud of in life, that and the fact that he sold hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs. Carlos wore his gang colors proudly the whole time he was in prison even though sometimes his enemies out-numbered him and were just as dangerous as he was. Nobody told him to do any of the things he did, it was all his choice. He could have done every day of prison pretending that he didn’t belong to a gang; it would have saved him so much drama, but that wasn’t Carlos.
He could forget about all that was in the past. He could forget about the letters he so badly wanted, because now he just wanted the one thing that all humans need—companions, friends. He dialed the number without having to convince himself more.
Boxer answered at the first ring. “Who be this?”
“It’s me, Carlos,” he said almost wishing he hadn’t called, knowing his family, especially his abuelita, wouldn’t approve of him going with Boxer.
“I’ll be right over.”
“Hey, meet me at the store,” Carlos said. Boxer said yes and hung up. Carlos didn’t want his grandmother to see him leaving with anyone. He knew what she’d think, she’d think that he was up to the same things that got him to prison the first time. She’d think that the devil had gotten hold of him. All of this causing her to pray to the midnight hours. No, she didn’t need to see him leave with a bunch of his old friends. He’d tell her that he was going to the store and just not come back. That would probably be his best bet.
“Grandma, I’m going to the store.” She looked at him with sad eyes, as if she already saw demons flying around Carlos’s soul like vultures.
“Ten cuidad” be careful, she said, with a worried frown coming to her face, like she expected the worst.
Carlos smiled and left. He walked the two blocks to the store. It was always better at night in the valley. The temperature was at least livable. Not like the days when the heat would radiate from the ground, as if hell was just a few feet underneath you. §
Antonio C. de Baca is the recipient of an honorable mention for fiction from the PEN American Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read "Getting out (Part I and II) here:
Getting out (Part I)Getting out (Part II)
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Baseball memories: One who didn't go
It wasn’t the time to think about yourself, or your career. Joining up was the decent and honorable thing to do.
Murry Franklin, gave up his Major League career, as did others, for a stint with America’s wartime Navy.
Photo courtesy of Dell FranklinOne who didn't go
Baseball stories by Murray Franklin as told to his son, Dell Franklin
Almost everybody in baseball who was young enough and able-bodied (hell we were professional athletes, cream of the crop) went off to war, or at least joined some branch of the military. It wasn’t the time to think about yourself, or your career. Joining up was the decent and honorable thing to do. You didn’t want anybody patting you on the back for it, even though you were giving up everything you’d worked for all your life. A pro ball player, he only has so many years, and here I was, 28, just finding my niche, a regular, in my prime, and I had to go, knowing I was going to lose my best years, the years I could finally make some money and establish myself, knowing the guys taking my place were either too old to go, or these guys who found a way to get out of it for their own good.
We had this young kid, about 21, 22, a big left-handed pitcher, Hal Newhauser, a real horse, with just about the best stuff in the league next to Feller, and he kept saying he wasn’t going, because he was of German ancestry and wasn’t going to kill his own people. Can you imagine that? And his mother supported him. He was a momma’s boy, spoiled, very arrogant and babyish, couldn’t stand to lose, or not get his way…I remember him tossing over the card table when he lost in cards…and then the big dummy went on radio in Detroit and popped off about how he wasn’t going, and ended up getting a medical deferment on some kind of phony heart condition.
A couple of our players were cleaning out their lockers and getting ready to check out and go into the service, and they bounced him around, “Birdie” Tebbetts really went after him, boxed him around, called him yellow, and believe me, there were a lot of us who wanted a piece of him.
I thought about him when I was overseas in the South Pacific, living the dog’s life, the heat so bad the ground cracked and you went a little crazy, and the malaria, the crotch-rot, and wondering if you were ever going to get out of this hell-hole; and you wonder about some of these poor slobs storming those beach heads, little guys from the end of the line, taking it on the nose for the rest of us doing the right thing, and you think about this big strapping kid back in the states, with his bad heart, having his biggest, best years, winning over 20 games, throwing more innings than anybody in the big leagues, making a reputation for himself, getting famous, a hero to kids an all star, making good money, even getting endorsements….
The fans, they forget, because they’re fickle, and later on all you hear about is Newhauser’s great years and his great stats, and he WAS a helluva pitcher, I admit, but as a man everybody in the game knew he was a horse’s ass, selfish, no guts, a guy who let the rest of us do the dirty work while he took the easy way out.
Sometimes in life it’s the things you don’t do that haunt you, but then sometimes you have guys like Newhauser who don’t know any better, and guys like that, well, you wouldn’t to change places with them for anything in the world, because at least you can get up in the morning and look at yourself in the mirror. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. Baseball Memories are drawn from a collection of stories about his father’s Major League baseball career. Dell can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Dell's "Baseball memories" here:
Bear Tracks GreerMeeting royalty>The bench jockey
Burning end of days
She rides slouched, languid, perspiring into the sheepskin seat cover. Thin ropes of wet hair cling to her temples. She is wilted, sodden.
Burning end of days
By Steven Bird
Their gray tabby is a smart little guy, usually cool, and a remarkably good traveler. He knew they were leaving, as soon as they started breaking camp and loading stuff into the SUV. Most cats would disappear at that point, necessitating a frenetic, cursing, last-minute search–but this one jumped into the rig two hours before they left, made himself comfortable.
The glaring blacktop approaches a molten state. The northern forest far behind them, the travelers speed on hot rubber toward the edge of a vast sensuous roll of wheat fields and sagebrush. The sun, turned from white to red, hangs low over the mountains far to the edge of a long, long sky. The temperature still hovers around 100 degrees. There isn’t much to cast a shadow of shade on the hot dreaming, brown plateau. A thought crosses his mind, he’s trying to remember, something about the burning end of days…. The ribbon of highway floats over skeletal land, glides imperceptibly down the long, gradual decline toward the mercury expanse of Columbia River. There is a promise of relief on the horizon, about 30 miles away on the Oregon side of the river, where a bank of gray clouds assemble, advancing like dust under distant war chariots. Dark cloud formations torn from the bank gallop ahead like angry black horses–thin curtains of rain fall from their hooves, evaporate in the furnace air, never make it to the ground. He can’t remember where the thought came from.
She rides slouched, languid, perspiring into the sheepskin seat cover. Thin ropes of wet hair cling to her temples. She is wilted, sodden. She suffers quietly. She’d removed the oppressive underwear miles ago, her light cotton summer dress clings to her, she’s rolled the bottom of it up to her waist and sits with her legs slightly parted, the lush triangle glistens with humidity. He resists the impulse to reach over and caress the spot. Slide his hand to it. Claim the heat. But his hand is strange these days–the tender secret held from him. A silent storm has been building all summer. Longer, maybe. Separated by only a tiny expanse of car seat, only a touch away, the distance is too great to breech, the gulf too perilous. Horse-cloud hoofs strike flint and lightning streaks to the ground in the distance. The cat emits a yowl from the back seat.
“Subtropical front out of the South…maybe we’ll run into some rain down the road…cool us off,” he says.
She doesn’t reply, makes a kissing sound to the cat while patting her bare lap–the cat hops from the back seat, accepts the privileged spot, circles politely before curling himself between the soft raising of her thighs. The far ridges slowly consume the burning cherry sun.
Ripped towers of lightning begin to appear with regularity out of the approaching weather front. The atmosphere smells of metal and hot water. The relentless SUV tracks the yellow line, a hot grease and steel hound to the hunt, no matter what, straight toward the bruised and bleeding storm.
The Columbia in the rearview mirror, they face an inconceivable horizon as they wind up the bluffs at Umatilla, on the Oregon side of the Columbia Plateau. Wide open basin country stretches lasciviously between the great mountain ranges—closest, to the west, the volcanic spine of the Cascades, and far to the east, mountain ranges that belong to the Rockies–the burgeoning electric storm fills the entire expanse. Cloudbanks push and rise like clusters of purple grapes stacked to regrettable heights.
Thick, deliberate, pulsing columns of lightning pour straight down from the clouds with rhythmic frequency, as if hurled from unimaginably powerful weapons operated by malignant angels hidden inside the black clouds–mad angels rain desolation, bang away at the hapless world, the planted fields, the car lots, mini-malls, RV trailer parks, the ancillary sprawl of new dream homes, the highway…Fingers of cloud glow bloody.
A few warm raindrops dot the traveler’s windshield, not enough to cool the stifling air, just enough to raise the humidity to an even more uncomfortable level. He slows down to 60 and a semi truck hauling doubles roars up on their ass then grinds past them like a mad war elephant broke from the ranks and rushing berserk to the fray. It’s almost all the way dark. Continuous lightning ahead of them ignites the cloud bottoms with a dangerous blue glow. Charged ions cling to forlorn particles. The cat yowls again–he knows–and within the moment they plunge through the enfolding velvet curtains—then slam into the hot heart of the storm’s rampaging trouble.
The rain sounds like rocks pelting the roof and windshield, he turns the wipers up to FULL; they clip back and forth at an irritating rate.
She rolls up her window. The cat on her lap jounces like a crazy plush-toy, panting in the heat, making a strange demonic face, an imp with his pointed ears flattened straight out from the sides of his head; static electricity stands his short fur on end, and every few seconds his already gaping mouth opens wider to emit a loud, plaintive yowl. She strokes the cat absently with one hand while keeping a tight grasp on the safety handle over the door with her other. She looks straight ahead, a short section of her lower lip sucked between her teeth.
He backs off on the gas pedal some, then a sudden sheet of heavier rain forces him to slow a little more.
She turns to him, stares askance, vulnerable, concerned.
“Why don’t you put on some music,” he says. “The Doors…?”
She is temporarily relieved to have a normal task to do while lightning erupts everywhere around them. Fiery temple columns of dismaying height flash and rise with spastic majesty on either side of the road. They are so close the lightning looks red–red blood veins straining from the black forearms of a furious god punching his fists into the imperfect clay of a botched creation. The acrid smell of burning grass makes their throats constrict. The disc clicks in and the Organist of the Apocalypse begins softly, builds slowly to the music’s strident intonations. The foreboding coyote howl of the dead poet starts from the speakers, honey-thick with sex, hoarse with drink–
Strange days have found us…
Poets dangle enticing sweet carrots before us, promise strange pleasures. And what surging pleasure inside the burning temple! What extravagant pain, prostrated before the altar of annihilation!
Now music is your special friend
Da-ance on fire as it intends…
It is all too much for the cat who leaps from her lap, scurries to the back seat to hide, keeping up the pathetic yowling with more volume and intensity.
She squirms in her seat, rolls her dress back down to her knees.
…until the end, until the end…
The wipers barely keep up with the rain enough to offer any visibility. He’s in the slow lane, barely creeping along, straining to cipher the yellow line. A semi hurtles by them blasting a wave of wind and water–they buffet sideways–a silver sheet of spray blacks out the windshield–the wipers slamming at a manic pace are useless against it—black sky and roadbed become one and all boundaries of safety dissolve–the sensation is like falling–he applies the brakes praying they don’t get rear-ended by a semi–wonders how the truckers can even see to drive so fast in this–barely starts to get some visibility, gets moving–and another truck plows by them sending out another wave to black them out. They fall again. A lightning strobe flashes inside the cab. He can’t tell the lightning from the headlights of speeding trucks bearing down on them.
What have they done to the Earth?
What have they done to our fair sister…?
She presses her body into the seat back. “Why don’t you pull off the road!?” She is at the edge of panic. A tear leaves a silvery course on her cheek. But he can’t pull over–can’t see what’s there or how wide the shoulder is, and he’s afraid that other cars might follow, thinking they’re still on the road, and plow into them. His fingers dig the steering wheel….
“Fuck! I can’t!” He immediately regrets the tone of despair in his voice.
The rain makes the decision for them, lets up some, allowing him to see more of the road. He accelerates. Something appears in the headlights. They bump over an object in the road–swerve to avoid something particularly disturbing standing out in the flashing blue darkness like a nightmare entity who compels the dreamer to gaze upon its hideous visage–his eyes fasten on the long, bloody slick leading to the kill, the ripped white fascia spewed and strung from obliterated flesh that had recently been something alive. Semi must’ve hit it. Bigger than a deer… Cow…? Overweight motorist caught wandering on the side of the road after pulling off…?
At the sight of it she cups her hands before her face, gasps, calls his name out loud.
When the music’s over
Turn out the lights
Turn out the lights.
It is only habit, the collected and accumulated assortment of weights and hooks of shared past that holds the travelers together, set on the same destination. Ghost man.
Ghost woman. Real cat. He turns the wipers off, rolls the window down. Good air fills the interior bringing the incense of washed sage and wet earth to them. A few stars beam cool between torn, straggling clouds. The cat has finally settled down and gone to sleep.
They speed south toward California through clean darkness.
She offers him a feint smile. “My hero,” she says dryly. Her hands lay like petrified doves on her lap. She amends the statement in a whisper he can barely hear over the low thunder of road noise. “ My ambiguous hero.” She turns her head and repeats it to the stars over the black silhouette hills outside the window. “My ambiguous hero. You are a hero in the end…aren’t you?”
He wishes he could foretell the future. He wishes a lot of things were different.
Wishes he could answer the question. But the question must remain unanswered because the ambiguous hero has no answer. The only thing he knows for certain is that they can’t go back. Can never turn back. Everything behind them is on fire.
Steven Bird is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay and is working on a book, Lost River (Amato Publications), due out next year. © 2007 by Steven Bird.
Rogue movie review: Sicko
Photo courtesy of Dr. Steve Sainsbury
What made Sicko, the brainchild of Flint, Michigan’s favorite son, a nondocumentary? Let me count the ways.Health care in the ‘evil’ empire
By Dr. Steve Sainsbury
Despite being a physician, and part of the complex medical institution skewered by Michael Moore in the movie “Sicko,” I actually liked this film. It was interesting and entertaining. Of course, I also loved all three “Lord of the Rings” movies, “Harry Potter,” and most of the “Star Wars” series. I guess I just like a good fantasy. Sicko certainly fits the bill.
What made Sicko, the brainchild of Flint, Michigan’s favorite son, a non-documentary?
Let me count the ways.
The main contention of Moore’s movie is that 50 million Americans have no health insurance. What he conveniently fails to mention is that nearly half of all uninsured Americans go without coverage for four months or less, often while between jobs. Eighteen million are between 18-34 years old, and presumably healthy. Fourteen million make more than $50,000 a year, and 7 million make more than $75,000 annually—a group that can obviously afford insurance (but choose to spend their money elsewhere). Finally, 10-20 million are illegal aliens, who by definition have illegally entered our country and are not able to get insurance through conventional employment. Guess those stats were left on the cutting room floor. Must have been a big room.
Moore puts forth Canada, France, and Britain as shining lights of successful socialized medicine. Yet the cameras must have been out of film when it was time to show the massive lines, cash shortages, and extended waits for “elective” procedures that plague all the systems celebrated in Sicko. Need your gallbladder out? Sorry, it might take years to get around to it, but those crippling gall bladder attacks will just keep on coming. Hip worn out, causing excruciating pain with every step? Sorry, but hip replacements in the socialized system of medicine are elective. How does the spring of 2012 sound for your surgery? You have a nice day, now.
In Canada, Moore’s medical-care nirvana, only half of all ER patients felt that they received medical care in a timely fashion. One of my colleagues worked in an ER in Detroit, where he saw hordes of Canadians cross the border into the U.S. for their surgeries, CT scans, MRIs, and specialty care that were too hard to get in their home country northward. Care that we take for granted here in Moore’s evil empire.
Most laughable however, was Moore’s visit to Cuba. Does anyone honestly think that he received the same level of care that the average Cuban receives? Do you imagine that maybe, just maybe, the Cuba government might have used his visit as an opportunity to skewer their formidable brother to the north.
I was in Cuba last year. I went there legally as a volunteer to determine what emergency medicine needs could be supplemented by the relief organization that sent me (Caribbean Medical Transport). I went alone, but met up with some friends of the organization who arranged for me to talk with doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators. I went into several facilities, observing and talking with patients and medical caregivers alike. No one from the government knew who I was or what I was doing there. This was all accomplished in a very low-key, informal way, so as not to antagonize the government, and in order to get a true perspective.
What did I find?
I found an abundance of wonderful, well-trained physicians, so many in fact that they are exported to Venezuela and other Third World countries in order to provide hard currency to a financially beleaguered nation. I also found long lines of people waiting hour after hour for simple medical care, many with nothing else to do but wait and then wait some more. I found dilapidated, ramshackle infrastructures—hospitals that at one time must have been truly impressive, now mired in neglect. Paint peeling from the walls, plaster dust laying everywhere, and huge piles of crumbling columns and bricks—pushed to the side so patients can walk by.
I found shortages of medicines, supplies and technology. Remember the firefighter from New York in Sicko, who got a CT scan while the impressive white-coated Cuban physician solved all of his medical problems? He must have been a very lucky man as there are only two CT scans in the whole country, and only one in the entire city of Havana (2-3 million people). Amazing that he was able to get to the head of what must have been an extremely long line. And don’t you find it just a little revealing that Fidel himself called in doctors from outside Cuba to treat his recent abdominal ailments?
Finally, I’m amazed at the myth that Moore perpetuates when he implies that those without insurance cannot receive medical care. First of all, seniors are covered by Medicare, a well-defined form of socialized medicine, which covers them from retirement to death as long as they jump through the Medicare hoops established by that giant government bureaucracy. Secondly, many of the medically indigent are eligible for Medicaid, a state and federal form of socialized medicine that covers emergency and routine medical care.
But most annoying is the blind eye he turns to this fact—no one is turned away from emergency care. Whether you are fully insured or completely un-insured, it is illegal to refuse care in any emergency room in the nation. You can beam down from Mars, lacking identification and without a penny to your name, and still receive care in any ER. I know this—it has been my profession for more than 20 years.
Ahhh, you say, sure you have to see everyone, but they won’t all get the same care.
Wrong again! When I see a patient in the ER, I have no idea what their insurance status, or lack thereof, might be. The rich (well insured) tourist and the homeless (uninsured) alcoholic will both get all the X-rays, lab tests, and operations they need. In over 20 years of providing emergency care, I have never been pressured by anyone, including hospital administrators, on how to triage my care according to the ability of the patient to pay. The principle of equal care for all prevails in the emergency room. Is it free? No, of course not, just like food, clothing, and shelter are not free. But unlike those other necessities, payment for emergency medical care is requested only after the care has been given. Try that at Vons or Mervyns—give me the food and clothing first, and I’ll pay you later.
Will Michael Moore to be traveling to England, or France anytime soon for his gastric stapling? I doubt it. No, I strongly suspect that his surgeons will be U.S. trained, and his hospital bed will be found in one of the fifty United States, all of his Sicko posturing notwithstanding. Or maybe he will just go to Cuba where everyone was so darn nice. A guy can dream can’t he? §
Dr. Steve Sainsbury is a physician who works in the South County. He can be reached by email at Stesai@aol.com.
Personal worsts: Carpenter
One night she locked me out of our cottage, forcing me to sleep in the bed of my old pickup.
‘So where’s your tool belt?’ he asked.
‘I don’t have one.’
‘You don’t have one,’ he repeated to himself.Carpenter on (and off) the roof
Two days on (and off) the job By Dell Franklin
I was living with Lauren, who actually resembled Lauren Bacall and was disappointed and frustrated with my drinking and defeatist attitude about finding a job. One night she locked me out of our cottage, forcing me to sleep in the bed of my old pickup. After not speaking to me for a few days, she cooled off and suggested I go see my friend Ethan, an accomplished and fully equipped carpenter, who’d once mentioned, jokingly that I might try “pounding nails,” since I’d tried and failed at most everything else.
I talked to Ethan, a boyish, impish guy about 18 years my junior.
Whenever repairs were needed in the cottage, Ethan, at Lauren’s urging, would come over and fix the problem before I could get to it and ruin it.
“You sure you wanna try this?” Ethan asked. “It’s hard work, especially in the beginning. Tough on the old body—like boot camp.”
“I’ve been to boot camp, boy. You haven’t.”
“This is a different kind of boot camp. You’ll be using different muscles and parts of your body. Dell, you’re almost 50 Years old.”
“I’m stronger than you are. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
He flashed an impish grin. “Oh yes you are, and you know it.”
He vowed to look around, and within a week gave me a phone number of a man named Curt who needed somebody to assist him in the hills around Paso Robles, 28 miles away from Cayucos, inland. I called Curt and he gave me directions. He’d pretty much built the structure frame-wise, was now tar-papering, preparing the roof, putting in windows, etc. His right-hand man was temporarily out with a chronic arthritic elbow from pounding nails for 30 years. I decided to drive my truck, which would lend me the aura of a laborer type. I left early in the morning and after passing through Paso Robles, wound around some verdant, oak-dotted hills before finding a few acres on a knoll, where I saw the structure. Curt drove a big white pickup truck, the bed of which was stocked with ladders, cabling, power tools, hand tools, cans of nails, screws, bolts, levels, etc.
Curt explained that the structure was to be a large art-studio-recreation room for the wife of the owner of the main house, a sort of Taco Bell mansion atop the knoll a hundred yards up a drive, where a huge a pickup, Mercedes and SUV were parked out front.
Curt appraised my battered, 1950 truck, then me. “So where’s your tool belt?” he asked.
“I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have one,” he repeated to himself. He was lean, weather-beaten, with a brush mustache. Ropey veins popped from his wrists and forearms. He wore a rubber neoprene wrap around his right elbow, was perhaps 40. “What about tools? You equipped?”
“I have no tools at this time.”
He sighed. "Jesus Christ, who recommended you?"
“OK. Follow me.” We went to the bed of his truck, where he rummaged around and tossed me a tool belt. “This was my first tool belt. Don’t lose it. You can return it when you buy your own.”
When I strapped on the belt, it hung awkwardly to my knees. Curt adjusted it. He handed me a hammer, which I stuck in the belt. I wore shorts and a sweatshirt, shivered in the morning cold, fingers already numb, Curt handed me some big nails, which I stuffed in pockets of the belt, and led me to the side of the skeletal structure, where he told me to pound nails into side boards to further strengthen the frame. I had to bend ever to pound the nails. I gnarled most of them and had to pull them out. I had a rough time, smashing a fingernail, yelping in pain. Curt walked over, issued me a long look, asked had I ever done carpentry before, and when I told him I had not he frowned and kicked at some rubble and paced around, fuming, muttering to himself.
“Bill Bright told me Ethan was sending me a goddam carpenter, not a fucking novice. I can’t train you. I got to get this fucker built, so I can go to my next job. I got mouths to feed. I got two boys eatin’ me outta house and home and a wife wantsa new car….” He came over and showed me how to hammer correctly, I watched carefully, nervous, wanting to please Curt and keep my $12-an-hour gig. He ob-served me hammer a few nails, nodded, walked off, went to work. He hammered fluidly, nails in his mouth, one after another, an effortless human assembly line, like me tending bar on a busy night. I went up and down the frame for an hour and pounded in all my nails and Curt re-turned to check my progress and threw a fit. “You pounded them on the wrong fucking side, goddammit! Don’t you listen?”
“You thought? That’s the trouble! Just do as I do, go where I go, don’t fucking THINK!” He glared at me, incredulous, then stared at the ground. He meditated a few seconds, then pointed to two huge piles of rubble off to the side and ordered me to go over and find lumber, mostly 2-by-4s and extract nails from them, then pile the wood in the wheel barrow and move it to where the lumber was stacked, Could I do that? I nodded. He warned me not to walk on any nails, glancing sourly, at my hightop sneakers and snorting.
“Why you wearin’ those goddam things?”
“They’re all I have. I play basketball.”
“Basketball,” he muttered. “I hate basketball. Buncha niggers jumpin’ around. I’m a stock car guy. Dale Earnhardt’s my man.”
Instead of telling him I hated stock car racing, I walked over and began rooting around in the pile. It was painstaking work. I bruised my knuckles. My hands ached, turned raw. I was inept at extracting bent nails, jerking, rooting, cursing. Soon my knuckles bled. My lower back throbbed from bending over so I knelt on my knees. Already my elbow twinged from the brief hammering. All my joints were stiff and arthritic from years of athletics. I bungled on. By lunch time I’d derailed every lost 2-by-4 and wheel barrowed them to the lumber site.
Curt wouldn’t look at me. “Bring your lunch?”
I shrugged, having only a power bar and bananas,
“Figures. You got half an hour. That ain’t enough time to go into town. Where’s your gallon of water? Gets hot in the afternoon and you need water. I don’t want you passing out on me.”
He climbed into his truck and turned away from me, opening a lunch bucket and turning on his radio to country western. I sat in my truck half an hour resisting an urge to walk off or punch out Curt. He re-fused to talk to me, except to issue orders. I was bone-weary, de-hydrated, starved, sore, dazed. After my meager lunch, he had me toting double-door sized slabs of siding to the lumber area. These slabs were a combination of plaster and paper and whatever, heavy, cumbersome, un-wieldy. As I hauled them, I had to peer down at the rocky, irregular terrain to see where I was going, so that I was like a blind man careering and lurching about with these sidings, falling down several times, scraping and gouging my arms, hands raw and bleeding because I had no gloves. Each trip to the lumber area was a tortuous, perilous ordeal. Curt, up on a ladder pounding furiously, peered at me occasionally. My sweatshirt was now torn arid filthy, my knees skinned.
The owner of the estate pulled up in his pickup with giant-sized wheels. He was broad, big-gutted, beefy-faced, wore boots, Levis, Western shirt, Stetson. He talked in a jovial, familiar manner to Curt, whose attitude turned solicitous. A school bus pulled up on the country road below and deposited two young girls who walked toward the mansion toting book bags. They were nattily dressed. A young, pretty mother met them at the door. Minutes later they all poured out of the mansion and piled into the SUV, clad in tennis outfits, carrying rackets. After the owner drove off, a rugged-looking guy in a ballcap drove up in another pickup with WALT’S ROOFING INC. on the side door. He and Curt visited, the roofer, from time to time, glancing over at me as I stumbled along with the siding, as if I were a zoo animal. As I tried to reach down and snare the belt, it slipped to my ankles and I went down landing on my back, gouging my buttocks on a sharp rock, the siding atop me like a triumphant wrestler. I quickly shed the siding and jumped to my feet and adjusted the tool belt while the roofer and Curt watched me, shaking their heads as tried to balance the siding. I made it to the pile. The roofer drove off. It took me most of the afternoon to move all the siding.
“You know how to operate power tools?” Curt asked me.
“I’m willing to try.”
“OK. Tomorrow. You look pretty beat. Let’s call it a day.” I could hardly move. Drank a six-pack on the way home. Lauren greeted me with a cup of coffee and a kiss, asked me about my day.
“I’m learning, baby.”
“Aren’t you proud?” She flashed me a rare, approving smile.
“Look at me. I really paid, honey. Boot camp.”
“Well, it’s a man’s work, and you’re a real man.”
Ethan called to ask how the day went. I said OK but for the tool belt and Curt. He said he didn’t know Curt, had gotten me hired through a contractor in the daisy chain. I told him Curt was an asshole, bossing me around, treating me like an idiot, disapproving of every move I made, hovering over me like an ogre and sapping what little confidence I had in myself. Ethan informed me carpenters were this way. Proud of their professions and disdainful of novices, an impatient, intolerant, hard-core breed. I told him I’d put up with anything, even Curt, because I was broke and needed the money.
I had trouble sleeping that night because my arms and face burnt like fire. At dawn I awakened and packed apples, oranges, bananas, power bars, and a gallon of water into my Olds Cutlass, which had rusted badly from salt air and was held together with duct-tape.
Curt was waiting when I pulled up. Right off he began teaching me how to cut lumber with the power saw, but the loud rackety saw terrified the shit out of me and after he watched me come close to sawing off a toe he took it away from me and handed me a power drill and instructed me to drill holes in the cement foundation inside the structure, and I did that as best I could, feeling my arms and shoulders vibrate while dust flew in my face, Curt asking did I have goggles and a bandana for my mouth as I sneezed and coughed. I ignored him and when I was finished drilling holes he had me assist him putting in window frames. This was touchy work and I followed his in-structions carefully, started to feel somewhat worthy and competent as we fitted in window after window. Then we climbed to a second story scaffolding to fit in more windows. The scaffold was uneasy, tilting this way and that, and at one point Curt had to reach out and grab me to keep my ass from pitching off and falling to the ground.
Later he had me downstairs and inside on a ladder, pounding nails.
The owner showed up and they talked, watching my progress. As I turned my head to observe them, the ladder tilted backwards and I lost my balance and fell hard on my butt, the ladder atop me, bruising my tailbone, but I sprung right up as the two men hurried to my aid, which I refused, insisting I took many a hard fall playing basketball. At lunch, Curt marched silently to his truck while I went to my Cutlass.
After lunch he ordered me to the roof to pound more nails. I took the ladder up, climbed on. The roof was flat, slippery wood. The roofer drove up, dropping off tiles similar to those on the hilltop mansion. The two conversed while I crawled like a bug up on the roof, afraid to look down, afraid to get up on my feet, for the roof was steeped sharply. As a kid, I ran along roofs with abandon, jumped off as if my legs were elastic, but now I was a petrified crab, stuck halfway toward the peak, clinging, unable to find anything to hold onto and gain leverage, wondering how the fuck I had ended up here after all my years of avoiding situations like this, already dreading my move DOWN the roof to the ladder.
Then I found myself sliding. I grappled for anything to dig my nails into, gaining downward momentum as I grabbed feebly for any-thing, anything, and then I was grabbing madly for the edge of the structure and plunging over the ladder and hurling through space, cushioning myself for the crash as I luckily landed sideways, cocking my shoulder in a scrap heap of rusty boards, wiring, tar paper, etc. I was not hurt! Jumped off the heap and hugged my limbs while Curt and the roofer dashed over, concern and shock written all over their faces, Curt’s eyes bulging with disbelief.
“You all right, man?” he asked.
I dusted myself off. My arm was out and bleeding. “Yeh, yeh, I’m fine. I know how to land. I’m an Army Airborne veteran.”
Curt rolled his eyes. “Looks to me like you’re scared of heights.”
“I’m not scared of shit. Fuck heights.”
“OK, calm down. Get back inside and nail some of them beams. The high ones. Be careful on that ladder, ey?”
I was ready to punch him, and the smirking roofer, a little mustachioed muscle head with an NRA sticker on his bumper. Instead, I slogged back to the structure, tool belt again at my fucking knees, hitching it up, hammer falling out, having to bend and snatch it and shove it in the belt. I climbed the ladder and commenced hammering in big, spike nails. By now I was a decent hammerer, having observed and copied Curt’s precise style. I began to feel a grinding soreness in every crevice of my body, and especially my lower back, wondering how the hell I could return for another day of this debilitating torture, wondering how the hell guys like Curt and Ethan survived such strife, deadening the mind, pulverizing the body, killing the spirit, and I had to grudgingly respect an asshole like Curt, though, if he, at this point, as much as looked at me wrong I was intent on beating him to a bloody pulp and dismembering his limbs.
Back at the cottage, I sat on my porch guzzling a six-pack. Lauren, home from work, dabbed at my cuts with cotton and peroxide. Ethan called around 7 p.m. with bad news. I was fired!
“Fuck, E-Man, I gave that prick everything I have!”
“I know. But he found somebody else. He says you’re too in-experienced.”
“What else did that lowly sonofabitch say about me?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“I’ve got a right to know. I wanna hear it.”
A pause. “He said if he gets a new man, an experienced framer, he can finish the job in two to three weeks. If he goes it alone, he can finish in a month. If he keeps you on, he said he might never finish. He doesn’t want to be responsible for you killing yourself.”
“Very fucking funny.”
He was laughing. I cursed him. “Listen," he said. "I take full blame. I should have waited, so you could work with me, and I could train you. It wasn’t fair for you to work with that guy, knowing what a demanding prick he is, and you having no experience. I tried to ex-plain that to my friend. If you want, on my next Job, I can take you aboard and train you. You’ll need tools and a belt.”
“I’m fed up with this shit. I’m thoroughly humiliated. This is the third straight job I’ve been fired. What little confidence I had is shattered. I’m suicidal.”
I hung up on him. Lauren was rubbing my stiff neck and back. “You tried,” she said soothingly. “I’m proud of you. You didn’t quit.”
It took me a week to recuperate from my ordeal in carpentry. I guess I was lucky to survive. It wasn’t boot camp, it was combat. §
We invite our readers to send their own personal worsts, those moments in life when we feel like we’d be better off as dogs. Send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.