June 30, 2009
I have decided to end this unveiling of A Tale of Two Cities. It is boring me. I’m going to use the space to workshop some ideas, both visual and print. Here is the first. One of a group of new illustrations I’ve been working on I call block faces. I had been working on a lot of landscapes and I was inspired to change my point of view by another artist Stezaker at http://www.theapproach.co.uk/artists/stezaker/2
June 26, 2009
“What exactly do you do for a living, Harry?” Bud leaned over the bar, polishing the dark mahogany surface.
“What?” I was well aware of what Bud had asked, but was hoping that my feigned interest in the ball game on the television might discourage conversation. Bud repeated his question. I looked at Bud and winked. I had to say something to quench his boredom.
“I’m a character in a novel. I don’t need a job.”
“Seriously,” Bud responded. “How can you afford to come in here night after night getting drunk without some visible means of support? Some old lady bankrolling you?’
“I am one of those rich brats who lives in a renovated garage, drive my Benz through streets too deep to fathom, pop the folks into an old age home and live off their pension.”
Bud was still thinking about my response when I asked if he’d seen Mary Richards in the bar again.
“You don’t have to get smart ass with me, Harry. If you don’t want to answer a simple question than just say so.”
“Well,” I muttered, “it’s personal.”
“Ya, okay.” Bud accepted my explanation than spoke in a low voice so that no one could easily overhear us. “They want to interview people in the bar about their life styles?”
“Oh, ya,” I responded.
Bud shook his head and laughed.
“Who are you talking about?” I asked.
“The television people. That bitch you’ve got the hots for.”
“Ya. Why do you suppose they’d want to do something like that?”
“Why didn’t you ask them?”
Bud shrugged his shoulders. “Didn’t think of it. I told Miss Richards that she should talk to Frank. He’s so double jointed he can suck his own joint. Cut’s out the middle man and all those expensive bar bills. She didn’t laugh.”
“Is that why he’s still a bachelor?”
“It was a joke, Harry.”
There was a roar from the crowd in the television. I looked up. Olerud had hit a grand slam. As the tall lanky southpaw rounded the bases I could feel the presence of the fat man. What could the fat man be up to? Trying to manipulate events? Was I losing control? Had I allowed things to become too quiet? I opened up the windows to get in some fresh air in my head. Should I paint the sun to look like a looney? I remembered a collection of stamps in my parent’s attic. They must be worth a small fortune by now. The room began to spin slowly around, in a warped ellipse like a merry-go-round beginning to spin out of control. I felt like the Count of Monte Cristo. Who should I wreak my revenge upon? Maybe I should put a personal ad in the paper — WANTED: VICTIM. The fat man was having his way with this sit-com nonsense. Laugh tracks were playing havoc in my head. Some evenings I woke up angry, biting my lip, grinding my teeth.
“How about those Blue Jays?” Bud cried as he watched the lanky first baseman reached home. “I used to be a Twin’s fan but with the way the Jays are playing… Are you alright?”
“You look awful. Like you’re going to pass out.”
“I’m alright. Got to get something in my stomach.”
Before Bud had a chance to respond, Sheila’s roommate, Marlo, sat down on the stool beside me. She smiled. Teeth serrated like a steak knife. Lips the color of dried blood. I turned back to the television. I was hoping that if I ignored Marlo, she might disappear and I could get back to Bud about this interviewing business. Marlo ordered a drink for herself and a beer for me. There were still people talking in the bar. The lights remained dim. Bud kept skimming coins off everyone’s bill. The baseball fans were quiet. The Jays’ manager kept chewing his gum. I was surprised. Marlo had bought me a beer. I couldn’t remember her doing that before.
“Thanks.” My eyes were riveted to the set though my mind was all over the place. There were new diseases rising in Africa. Thousands were dieing. Red cross camps set up everywhere. Relief had become a cottage industry.
“Can I speak to you?” Marlo asked.
Tears began to run down my cheeks, crying for all those orphans in Romania. Why the hell was I getting upset by Romanians? I didn’t give a shit about their children. Marlo had a strange expression on her face. “Just a minute,” I pleaded. “The inning’s almost over.” I hoped the inning would go on forever. I was not up to conversation. Unfortunately the next batter struck out. “They ought to get a catcher who can hit,” I grumbled.
“It’s about Michael,” Marlo began.
“Michael! That mother. Where’s he been keeping himself?”
I had not known Marlo long. So common were Marlo’s looks next to Sheila that one hardly noticed her. But alone, she had a certain appeal. Black as night, Marlo had a small delicate frame, one of those women who look like they might break in a strong wind, but who prove able to draw on a deep well of strength in difficult situations. Marlo was from Buffalo. She had come across the border in the great AIDS scare. Overnight, unexpectedly, people who weren’t even aware that they were ill began to die. Prostitutes became the target for the vigilante mood of the day that blamed them for the spread of the deadly disease. An angry crowd had fallen upon a couple of girls in the Bay Street business section and torn them to pieces. Many of the girls quit the profession while others, especially the more beautiful, lined themselves up with a rich clientele, had themselves medically tested on a regular basis, and stayed off the streets. Marlo had moved in with Sheila.
Marlo was not dressed for business, no tight fitting skirt, or loose fitting blouse, no heavy mascara and eye makeup. Today she was dressed in jeans and a University of Windsor sweatshirt.
“Michael has been ill.”
Was it the strain that had come out of Hong Kong? Or was it the strain bred in the Bank of Canada on Bay Street in board meetings where doves were gutted and their entrails read?
I laughed. “Michael has a strong constitution. He’ll be back on his feet in no time. Nothing wrong with his immune system.”
“He’s been staying at our apartment. Sheila’s been nursing him.”
I took a swallow of beer. There was no taste. Strange images drifted in and out of my thoughts. I wanted to see the naked body of a cigarette floating in urine. I wanted to hear Straus in a concert hall in Vienna. Or tear a rose from a bride flush with tears. My head was being ransacked by images.
“Did you know that Michael has a gun?”
“Wouldn’t surprise me.” I muttered indifferently, hoping that Marlo would get to the point. It was taking all my energy to focus on her words. Sweat began to roll down my temples. An assortment of soft porno images flew through my head: Leonard Cohen with two blondes in his 57’ Cadillac convertible, an assortment of dead birds in a basket, children skipping in a Chinese grocery store, blood and spit hanging from a diseased cheese burger. I looked at Marlo. She did nothing for me. I wondered where all these images were coming from. “If we could read each other’s minds, we’d all be up on charges.”
“What?” Marlo smiled.
I just wanted a few moments of silent dignity. Time to figure out why the Mona Lisa was smiling. Is it because she realizes men want to sell her? Did I have time to figure out how racism started? And why are so many of our poets working for the police? It was the fat man running these thoughts through my head. I had to shake the fat man off my tail. I smiled at Marlo. Each time she spoke I had vision of anal sex.
“One night,” Marlo continued, “Michael and Sheila started drinking. I warned him that it wasn’t wise to mix liquor and the medication he was on. Michael never listens to anyone. He’s like a kid. Does the opposite, out of spite. They were playing the stereo and dancing. I felt like the outsider, so I excused myself and went to my room to sleep. I was just slipping into a warm dream when I heard Sheila scream. I ran out to the living room. Sheila was on the floor, blood running out of her nose, tears out of her eyes. Michael was standing on the couch, in his shorts, with a gun in his hand. Sweat was pouring off his forehead; his eyes were glazed with a crazed wild look. He was swinging the gun back and forth at some invisible enemy and screaming. Come on, come on up and get me! I’ll take you, you bastards! In his other hand he held a bottle of gin from which he kept drinking. I huddled on the floor with Sheila. Sheila kept whimpering. He’s going to kill me! Her voice was shaken hut resigned. At any moment she was expecting a bullet in the head. I tried to pull her away, but couldn’t budge her. The people upstairs started to bang on their floor screaming at us to quiet down. Michael looked up at the ceiling, like he was the devil looking up into the face of God. Bastard! Always fucking with me! He fired the gun and then collapsed on the couch.
Up to this point I had been listening to Marlo with one ear while keeping my eyes riveted on the television. Milwaukee had a guy on third with one out. The Blue Jays’ manager had just been ejected. All over Sarajero they were hanging children and old men from billboards advertising Camel cigarettes. It reminded me of famous Flemish paintings from the middle ages. With the mention of gunfire, I turned all my attention to Marlo.
“There was a dead silence upstairs.” Marlo took a deep breath. “Not a sound. God, I thought, he’s gone and killed someone. For several minutes, the two of us remained on the floor, paralyzed with fright. We’ve got to get him out of here! I finally spoke. They’ll call the cops! Sheila was shaking, I slapped her. Sheila, I can’t do this alone! Sheila nodded. We dragged and pulled Michael across the floor, out into the hallway, and out the back entrance of the apartment into the alley. We hid him in an empty refrigerator box by the garbage. We returned to the apartment and waited for the police. We had no idea what we were going to tell them. The police never showed up.”
I leaned back in my chair and finished my beer. In the back of the bar where the lights were dim I saw shadows of men tying a girl to the top of a pool table. She was laughing. I shook my head. Fantasies kept creeping into my thoughts. The fat man!
“So what’s the problem?”
“Michael is crazy. He’s going to kill someone. Don’t you care?”
I leaned toward Marlo. “You ain’t worried about Michael.” I winked. “I’ve heard about you and Sheila.” Marlo slapped my face. I slapped her back. My fingers stung. Who could believe that the Rio Grande was so wide?
Tears rushed into Marlo’s eyes. “You’re a jerk, Harry!” She ran out of the bar.
“Haven’t lost your touch with women,” Bud smirked, bringing me another beer. There was a muffled cry from the back of the bar. Someone was pulling the girl’s panties off. I should investigate. “She hit me, Bud!”
“I overheard you, Harry.” Bud shook his head. “You shouldn’t have said that about her and Sheila. She’s sensitive about being called a lesbian.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Damn sensitive for a whore.” I gestured to the back of the bar. “What’s going on back there?”
“What do you mean?” Bud asked.
“The pool table.”
“There ain’t no pool table.”
“The back room!” I cried.
“There ain’t no back room.” Bud leaned over and looked at me. “You ain’t taking that drug that’s out on the street, are you Harry?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Bud turned away and moved down the bar to another customer. I turned back to the television but was unable to get back into the game. Raising my beer, I found I couldn’t drink. My thoughts were doing laps in my head. Was Bud really going to swim across the lake? Why were all my bills arriving late? Maybe the fat man was reading my mail. Why were all my chain letters being returned? My heart felt like a sparrow in a prison yard. Wanted to be a kid dancing on American Bandstand in Philadelphia. Had to keep my thoughts bobbing and weaving. I wanted to be gathered in. Harvested. Canned. Put on a shelf with a bright yellow label. Marlo must be exaggerating. Michael wouldn’t hurt Sheila. It didn’t make any sense. Michael was always in control. And even if it was true, what could I do? Does Marlo want me to suggest to Michael that he seek out professional help? Tell him to confess his sins, sins that couldn’t be spoken. Convince him that he might be forgiven. Don’t sentence yourself to silence, Michael. Innocence is guaranteed to those who speak loudly and often. He’d laugh at me. I’m just not good at this personal stuff. Besides, if Michael took an inkling to shoot Sheila, does Marlo expect me to get in the line of fire? I put my life on the line for no one. Jesus, this is the fat man’s work! He’s trying to get me away from Mary. Christ, he’s jealous. He wants her. A jealous motherfucker. The fat man was Lou Grant. Of this, I had become certain. I wanted to call him up and set up a meeting. Got to take control. Can’t let things get out of hand. I should tell Michael about Lou Grant. He would know what to do. Put a contract out on him. My head was spinning. Had to get some fresh air. I got up and staggered toward the door. The girl I’d seen in the back room ran passed me clutching her blouse, the buttons falling off and rolling across the floor.
June 23, 2009
Unusual formations in the Cydonia region of Mars – including a massive rock shaped like a human face – may have been carved by a lost civilization, four American scientists said yesterday. A former astronaut said a photograph taken of the Martian surface in 1976 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Viking spacecraft looks like a Negro, twenty to twenty five years old, wearing a black leather jacket and considered armed and dangerous.
Richard Hoagland, founder of an organization of scientists called The Mars Project, said he has studied the photo for years and has discovered that in addition to the face there is a complex of unusual objects that he calls a city and believes could have been built by intelligent design.
“We’ve known about the face for a decade now. But it was dismissed when someone pointed out how much the face resembled Malcolm X.”
Brian O’Leary, a former astronaut and an expert on Mars, said that a year earlier he had been in touch with Soviet space scientists, who were preparing to launch the first of two probes to Mars, to examine the area where the face appears. He said the Soviets reported back to him that indeed the rock was a face and that in its forehead there was a bullet hole.
I’m Mary Richards and that’s the way it was July 4, 1988.
June 23, 2009
As I read the installments for A Tale of Two Cities I’m thinking of rewriting the whole book… actually not rewriting as re-editing and sticking to the parts that are centred on the The Mary Tyler Moore Show and eliminating the rest OR perhaps reshaping the rest into two other books, one about the guys fascination with MTM and the other a series of prose poems about Murder. I like the original story line but I can see that it moves slowly and perhaps ponderously along. Terrible to say about your own children, but it could lose some weight or perhaps it is bi-polar. At any rate once as I continue to place this on the blog I think I’m going to work on the two other ideas (or was it three>).
June 20, 2009
3. Mary’s Confession
Lou Grant tiptoed quietly up behind Mary Richards who was sitting at her desk proofing copy for the evening news. Lou tapped lightly on her shoulder. Mary leaped to her feet, clasping her breast with her hand, a high-pitched mouse like squeak scurrying from her mouth. “Mr. Grant!”
Lou Grant’s eyes beamed with a prankster’s satisfaction though the scowl of his workaday face remained.
Can’t get inside Grant’s mind. Does that make him the fat man? Or a member of the Reform Party? I don’t understand politics. What makes someone want to expose himself in public? Money? Power, Michael would say. Or a need to spout high-sounding clichés. To sell everyone on the idea that we are not alone on this lonely planet in a sea of vacant star systems. I don’t think Grant’s the fat man. He doesn’t smell right for the job. Too much Old Sailor after-shave. The fat man uses Taboo cologne.
“Could I see you for a moment?” Lou Grant muttered.
“Of course, Mr. Grant,” Mary responded, catching her breath.
Mary Richards followed Lou Grant through the newsroom into his office. After she entered, he nodded toward the door. Mary closed it. Lou took his seat behind his desk and gestured to the chair across from him. Mary sat down.
“I know what you’re going . . .” Mary began but was interrupted by her boss.
“No, you don’t.”
“I don’t?” Mary replied. She did not like surprises, especially from Mr. Grant. Taking a deep breath, she waited.
Lou looked across the desk at Mary and then down at his hands, which were tapping out a rhythm on the oak top. Annoyed that his fingers had sought out independent action, Lou pressed his hands together as if he were trying to smother some small life form in his palms.
“This isn’t easy for me to say.” Lou’s eyes darted around the room, trying to avoid any contact with Mary. “I…” he began but hesitated. He opened his mouth to speak but could only smile. “We live in a global village,” Lou began but once again found his voice stranded over a chasm of silence. Mary waited on each of Lou Grant’s gestures with eager anticipation. Lou’s eyes once again returned to his hands as he began to mutter. “This isn’t easy…”
“Excuse me, Mr. Grant?” Mary interjected, her voice begging Lou to continue.
Lou looked up from his hands, suddenly realizing that his face had been hijacked by an idiotic grin. Mary fell silent. Lou began to speak once again and once again hesitated.
Mary leaned forward. “What is it you’re not good at, Mr. Grant?”
“This…” Lou gestured to the room.
“This?” Mary repeated with the same gesture.
“Personal stuff.” Lou smiled, almost giggling, his head waving back and forth on his shoulders as if it was making an effort at lifting off his shoulders and taking flight.
“Me and Ted?” Mary asked. “Are you asking about me and Ted?”
Lou stared at Mary for a minute, repeating in his mind, the question that Mary had just asked him. That sounds about right. “What’s going on between you two?” Lou Grant words burst out of his mouth like a lobster on a dinner plate that finally spits out the sea.
“Did you hear that?” Lou looked around the room. “You didn’t hear that?”
“Heard what?” Mary asked. Mary looked around the room.
“I…” Lou began but was interrupted by Mary who had put her hand up in a stop gesture. “That, Mr. Grant, is none of your business!”
Mary bolted to her feet and headed toward the door. She opened the door and hesitated. She did not exit. For several seconds she stood motionless, looking out into the newsroom. Lou watched, halfway out of his chair, frozen in anticipation of Mary’s next move. Mary took a deep breath, released a mouse like sigh, shut the door, and slowly turned around. Without saying a word she returned to her chair, eyes on the floor. Lou Grant slowly sank back into his seat. Mary’s eyes rose, wet and glossy. Lou swallowed deeply. “No, not that!” he whined.
Mary’s bottom lip began to quiver. Lou Grant dove toward Mary with a box of tissues just as her eyes burst, and tears began to stream down her cheek. “Oh, Mr. Grant!”
Lou turned away. “Mary. Stop that!” Mary continued to weep. “I can’t talk if you’re going to start that stuff.” Lou muttered angrily then reached back, grabbed a handful of tissues and blew his nose, the racket resonating throughout the room, rattling a spoon that sat in an empty jar of Bromo Seltzer on the half empty water cooler.
When Mary had regained control of herself, reducing her sobbing to sniffles, she explained the events of the evening before, leaving out the details, which she understood by the grimace on Lou Grant’s face, were not appreciated.
Lou leaned on his desk, head in his hands. “You threw yourself at Ted!”
“Was that a yes or a no, Mary?” Lou could not bear to raise his head and look Mary in the eyes.
“That was a yes, Mr. Grant.”
“He could have done…” Lou stammered. “He could have had…”
“A…” Lou struggled for a moment for the right word. “A disease!”
“Ted could have put on…”
Lou cried out. “Don’t say that word.”
“Ahh!” Lou stamped his feet on the floor. “This whole thing is so…”
Mary took a deep breath. “He didn’t want me, Mr. Grant. I threw myself at Ted and he turned away.” Mary grabbed a handful of tissues and blew her nose, rattling a spoon that sat in an empty jar of Bromo Seltzer until it fell out of the jar and onto the floor. Lou looked up as the spoon made its downward trajectory. “It’s humiliating! Oh, Mr. Grant, I feel so ashamed!”
“But,” Lou Grant pleaded, “why Ted?”
Mary wiped her eyes. “Ted and I have always gotten along so well together. I laugh at his jokes.”
Lou gasped. “Ted tells Jokes? All the years I’ve known Ted and I’ve never heard him finish a joke. He always screws up the punch line.”
“Not big Jokes. Little Jokes.”
“Little Jokes?” Lou sneered. “What the hell are little Jokes?”
“Asides,” Mary explained.
“Oh,” Lou nodded knowingly. “Asides. Yes, Ted is good at asides. Sarcastic bastard!”
“And,” Mary continued, “We’ve had some very interesting conversations. Serious conversations. It’s surprising how well read Ted is…”
“I’d be surprised.”
“And Ted is very sensitive about feelings, a woman’s feelings. He’s not afraid to show his feminine side.”
“His feminine side! Ted’s a cross—dresser?”
“No! Mr. Grant,” Mary protested than hesitated for a moment. “What’s a cross-dresser?”
“Beautiful,” Mary added.” Ted is a beautiful man. A nice guy. Rhoda says that Ted is the most beautiful man she’s ever seen.”
Lou shook his head. “And we all know about Rhoda’s standards.”
“You should hear what the other girls in the office say about Ted.”
“What do they say about me?” Lou muttered under his breath.
“Excuse me, Mr. Grant?”
Lou shook his head.
“I thought,” Mary continued, “Ted and I had the potential… I thought we had something to… Oh Mr. Grant, I Just threw myself at him! It’s so unlike me. I’ve never done anything like that before. You believe me, don’t you, Mr. Grant?”
Lou stared at Mary for several moments without responding. “Oh, yes. Of course.”
“I would never,” Mary continued, her words and tears mingling “have made such a fool of myself if I thought that he wasn’t interested in me. I’d had a few drinks. And Ted looked so handsome. It was like this little voice inside my head was telling me what to do. I had no choice, Mr. Grant.”
“No choice? A voice inside your head?” Lou stared across the desk at Mary, shaking his head. He pulled open a drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle of brandy and two glasses.
Mary looked up. “Thank you, Mr. Grant. I could use a drink.”
“Forget it, Mary. You’ve still got work to do.”
Lou threw the first drink back, then sipped on the second.
“I can’t believe I’m telling you all this.” Mary wheezed. “It’s this voice in my head. Do you believe in determinism, Mr. Grant?”
“Determinism? Are we going to blame all of this on Hobbes?” Lou leaned back in his chair and thought for a minute. “Okay. Two things are apparent to me. One is that you really don’t want Ted.”
Mary looked up at her boss, grabbed another wad of tissues, and waited.
Lou Grant shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m actually talking like this. I’m going to have nightmares about this for weeks. It’ll take a real bender to wipe this out of my memory.” He turned to Mary. “You don’t want Ted. What you want is the image that Ted represents – the tall, dark, distinguished, successful, full head of hair, middle-aged gentleman. It’s what all women want, or think they want.” Lou jumped to his feet and stomped around the room, hands in his pocket. He stopped once to pick up a pair of old running shoes off a spread-eagled spider plant. He dumped the shoes into the garbage can. “Ted is a bore. He’s too dull for you, Mary. You’d be bored stiff of him within a month.”
Mary opened her mouth to protest, thought better of it, and closed her mouth then reverted back again to her first impulse. “I just can’t agree with you, Mr. Grant. Ted is not dull. Besides, how do you know what I want?”
“I know that opposites attract, Mary.” Lou growled falling back into his chair. “Ted is dull and so are you, Mary.”
“Quiet!” Lou screamed at the ceiling. Mary remained silent. Lou took a deep breath and turned back to Mary. “Don’t take that the wrong way, Mary,” Lou raised his hands in defense. “It’s alright to be a woman and to be dull. You can still have a very successful career.”
Lou bolted to his feet and stalked around the office once again. “I told you I’m no good at this.” Lou hesitated for a moment at the door, opened it slightly to look out into the office then closed it. He turned, walked back to his chair and sat down once again. “Mary, you’re a very attractive young woman. You’re bright. You like to laugh. The camera loves you and you get along well with everyone. No one has anything bad to say about you. You see, Mary, you are cursed with that worst of afflictions – niceness. It’s a wonderful attribute in a person but it is not exciting. Nice people are attracted to… not nice people. People who are dangerous, who are on the verge of catastrophic self-destruction. People who are unpredictable. The lamb lies down with the beast, and that sort of stuff.”
“Someone like you, Mr. Grant?” Mary grinned mischievously.
Lou glared at Mary.
“Oh, Mr. Grant!” Mary laughed. “I was joking!”
Mary realized that Lou was not amused by her joke. “You really think I should give up on Ted?”
Lou nodded. “Now maybe, we should get back…” Lou began rising to his feet.
“There’s something else,” Mary interrupted.
“Something else?” Lou queried, sinking back into his chair.
“After Ted left, I stewed for a while. Deciding it was time to go to bed, I stepped up to the window to close my curtains. I have a lovely view of the city. The ravine behind my apartment building has a lush green almost black look to it. And there was this lovely fragrance rising from the valley after the rainfall. As I was looking out I had the strangest feeling that someone was out there, looking at me. Watching me. It made me feel nervous and strangely excited. I drew the curtains closed but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I took a warm bath and a stiff drink. Still I had trouble falling asleep. When I finally I dozed off, I had a nightmare. A horrible nightmare. The next morning I remembered none of the details except one. Eyes watching me! A pair of eyes watching me!”
June 17, 2009
At 1 A.M. today, swarms of Boston police officers streamed out of police headquarters.
“The street had so much blue on it, I thought the sky had sprouted holes.”
Hours earlier two cars, both shiny black, had carried seven masked men, each of them weighing about 180 pounds away from Brinks Inc. where they had stolen $1,000,000.
“We was having lunch when they walked in. Harry refused to open the safe. They put a hole in his stomach. His ham and cheese sandwich came spilling out.”
Detectives and uniformed police swarmed into the railroad stations, bus terminals, and hotels to watch for anyone acting suspiciously or appearing as if they were on anything but legitimate business.
“We picked up a kid in a movie theatre who cried that he hadn’t shot anyone. He was fourteen years old. His name was Oswald.”
The robbery was so neatly executed, Captain John D. Ahern of the special service squad said, that it must have been engineered by the cream of the criminal world. “They was only in the office for twenty minutes and then raced up Prince Street where they disappeared off the face of the earth. Strange sightings were spotted in the sky that night.”
For weeks there was silence. And then bodies began to show up all over Boston. One in the harbor. One in a dumpster. Two on hooks in a meat packing plant. Two others in bed with each other. Six in all.
“There were two conclusions we could have reached. The seventh man had killed the other six and kept the money. Or, we had miscounted.”
I’m Mary Richards and that’s the way it was January 18, 1950.
June 14, 2009
Chapter Six – Part 1
The Nightmare Begins
1. Lost In A Mirror
Harry O’Toole has begun to care for Mary Richards. This is not what I wanted. I just wanted the fantasy. The fat man has made me care. My thoughts have exploded over the bathroom tiles. Blood is caulking up the cracks. The mirror on the wall is swallowing an echo. Somebody else’s face belongs in there. I am giddy with dread. Too much of this drug called God. One moment I am in Mary’s life, the next in mine. Worlds collide. The sun is blinded by her eyes. Sacrifices must be made. This can only lead to trouble. I must forget her but in my forgetfulness, the world invades my mind. Trees branches are flaying the sky. There is blood all over the lawn. A kid’s throat is bleating. A lawnmower has burst into flames. Is this the work of the fat man? This swirling ceiling spinning blender called reality? I need another drink. Her eyes like gasoline spilt at the self-service burning my balls. Atlanta is blooming. Flowers are being eaten alive by sunlight. The White House is bursting with shame. Dylan Thomas is trying to quench his thirst at the bottom of a poem. The streets of Paris are nervous with revolution. Tanks are rolling through Tinnamen Square. Metal teeth chewing cobblestones. Spielberg is making an action thriller about the invention of time. Bob Dylan is dying of exhaustion. The world is in chaos like a jealous lover and all because of her eyes. I’d like to get my hands on the bastard who sold us on the idea of peace of mind. Princess Diana has a hard-on. And William Wallace is being torn apart by his love for Scotland and the affection of English arms. Quit screaming at me. I don’t want to think about her.
2. Personal Stuff
Ted Baxter stepped into Lou Grant’s office, a small room filled with shelves of books, videotapes, magazines, socks, shoes, awards, empty liquor bottles, Styrofoam cups (some growing strange and sentient life forms).
“Busy, Lou?” Ted asked, trying to stand taller, trying not to dance, trying to look like a stand-up comic, but bombing.
“Always busy to you, Ted.” Lou looked up from his desk where he was leafing through some papers.
Ted laughed uncomfortably, braying like a donkey. “Seriously, Lou.” Ted slapped his hands together.
Lou sighed. “Sit down, Ted.”
Ted smiled, a gesture of gratitude that always rubbed Lou the wrong way. He stepped into the office and closed the door behind him. Nodding and straightening out his tie while cocking his head to one side, Ted moved over to the chair opposite Lou. Lou picked up his coffee to finish it, and finding it cold, turned and poured the remainder of the coffee into the lush green arms of a spider plant. He threw the empty cup toward the garbage can, missing it, but landing in one of the other empty cups on the floor. Ted sat down then immediately stood up, picking up a pair of running shoes that were on the chair.
“My son’s,” Lou explained. “Got to get him another pair. An identical pair.”
Ted placed the pair of shoes on the floor and took a seat.
“He hates shoe stores,” Lou continued. “Seventeen years old and I still have to buy his shoes. Ashamed of his feet. Says they smell. Of course they smell. He wears those damn running shoes all the time.”
Ted grinned anxiously. Straightened out his tie once again. Once again cocked his head. Lou held up the papers from his desk.
“You read these?”
“They call it the ultimate drug.” Lou glanced at the papers. “Its street name is God. Where do they come up with these names? Madison Avenue? Sounds like a bloody perfume for men. Say all the kids are doing it. Selling it on every street corner. Going to make a great story. They say it raises the average male IQ almost ten points. I’m trying to find a down side to this stuff.”
Lou leaned back in his chair and thought for a moment before speaking. “Maybe we can link this up with Mary’s idea about interviewing the toddler gangsters. Why is it that almost all gangsters are men? Why is that, Ted? Is there a bias in the hiring practices? Crime is the last bastion of male dominance. They say this drug God deludes the user into thinking that he can shape reality. Isn’t that what all drugs do? What do you think, Ted?”
Ted shrugged his shoulders.
“Come on, Ted!” Lou continued, “You must have smoked a little weed?
Ted laughed uncomfortable, squirming in his seat, cocking his head to one side.
“You keep twisting your head like that, Ted, and you’re going to need a neck brace. Now, how can I help you, Ted?’
Ted continued to squirm in his chair, looking down into his lap. Straightened his tie. He muttered under his breath. “I wanted to talk to you about something personal.”
“What?” Lou cried leaning over the desk. “Speak up!”
Ted repeated what he had said.
“I told you, Ted. The station cannot afford to give you another raise.”
“Personal stuff, Lou.” Ted cleared his throat, adjusted his tie, cocked his head once again, smiling sheepishly.
“Did you sprain something, Ted?”
Ted shook his head.
“Personal stuff! You know, Lou!”
“Personal stuff!’ Lou cried, his face squirming with distaste.
Lou picked up the papers again and hid behind them. “I’m not good at personal, Ted! Why don’t you talk to Murray? Murray’s good at personal stuff. Or Mary. Try Mary. Women love that personal stuff. They think it makes you a better person. I don’t want to be a better person, Ted. I just want to get my work done.”
“It’s about Mary,” Ted muttered, tears in his eyes. Once again he straightened his tie, cocked his neck.
Lou dropped his papers on the desk. His eyes flared with rage. “You straighten your tie one more time, Ted, and I’m going to use it to strangle you!”
“Oh, Lou!” Ted began to bawl, tears bursting out of his eyes.
Lou released a deep animal like growl.
‘Sorry, Lou.” Ted wiped his eyes then blew his nose with a handkerchief from his jacket pocket.
For several long moments Lou glared across the desk at Ted. “Okay!” Lou blurted out like a dam busting. “What’s this about, Ted?”
“Mary…” Ted began but could not continue.
“Has she refused to wash your coffee cup again?” Lou suggested sardonically.
Ted shook his bowed head.
The words blurted out of Ted’s mouth. “She tried to seduce me the other night.”
There was a moment of silence. Lou looked at Ted then at the spider plant next to his desk and then at Ted. “Run that passed me again, Ted.”
“Mary wanted us to…” Ted’s voice trailed off into a high pitch wine.
Lou pointed at Ted. “You and Mary?”
Lou shook with laughter. Tears ran down his cheeks as he continued to howl with laughter. Ted looked behind him, hoping that no one from the office would knock curious to discover what was so funny. After a few moments Lou regained his composure and stared at Ted intently as if he were trying to probe his mind.
“Good joke, Ted. Now you can go.”
“I’m serious, Lou,” Ted responded defensively. “It’s not something a guy would make up. Not with Mary. I wouldn’t make it up about Mary.”
Lou stared at Ted for a moment.
“You haven’t…?” Lou stuttered. “You and Mary… haven’t done anything…?”
Ted shook his head.
Lou smiled. “You must have misinterpreted the situation, Ted.”
Ted hesitated. Words seeped through his clenched mouth. “She was wearing a negligee.” Lou’s mouth fell open.
Ted continued. “I could see everything! I didn’t want to look. I couldn’t help myself, Lou.”
Lou’s mouth dropped further. For a few moments he said nothing. “Our Mary? Mary Richards? The young woman sitting out at the desk in the other room writing copy?”
Ted nodded, took out his handkerchief again and wiped his brow. Then he remembered with a look of disgust that the handkerchief had been used for other functions.
“But you didn’t…?” Lou asked.
Ted shook his head.
Lou sighed with relief then stepped out from behind his desk and over to the glass door of his office. He opened the door and peeked outside. Satisfied that no one was listening, he returned to his desk, pulled open a drawer of his desk, removed two glasses and a bottle of scotch, poured two stiff drinks, swallowed one.
“Too early for me,” Ted responded, but not before Lou had downed the second drink as well.
“Now, calm yourself, Ted, and tell me what happened. And Ted, keep it clean.”
Ted recited in detail the events of the preceding evening. When Ted had finished his story, he looked up at Lou.
“She really pulled your zipper down.” Lou smiled lustily then realizing he was talking about Mary Richards wiped the smile from his face. “But, you didn’t…”
Ted shook his head.
“Can I ask you a personal question, Ted?”
“Of course, Lou.”
‘What held you back?” Lou blurted out. “No. Don’t answer that.” Lou blushed, than poured himself another drink. “This is crazy. Why should I care what you and Mary do in your private lives? She’s not my daughter. You two aren’t teenagers. Have you met my kids, Ted? You can tell my eldest, he’s the one with the tattoo on top of his head. It wouldn’t be so bad if he could grow a full head of hair but he’s inherited the Grant premature baldness.”
“And Marty, the one who owns the running shoes, thinks he’s going to make it to the N.B.A. He’s five foot eight and shrinking.” Lou cleared his throat, hesitated, than swallowed the scotch. I remember the first time Mary stepped in that door, Ted. Just graduated from college and asking for a job. When I told her to get lost, she sat in that very chair, Ted, and cried. Cried! I can’t stand it when women cry, Ted. I can’t handle that kind of… personal stuff.”
“I gave her a job. It was the only way I could get her to stop crying. And you know what she did, Ted? She started to cry again. Told me how happy her parents would be, how proud they would feel. Told me how hard she had worked in school, about her problems with her periods, about her eating disorder. Why can’t people keep what’s private, private?”
Ted smiled sheepishly.
Lou continued. “That’s the problem with the world. No one has any sense of discretion. Last weekend my grandmother, who’s almost ninety-four, wanted to talk to me about female orgasm. In front of the whole family. Over a roast beef dinner!”
“She’d been watching Oprah and realized that she had never had one. Have you ever listened to the description of an orgasm while your pouring gravy over mashed potatoes and lean slices of bloodied roast beef? Ted, I love roast beef and mashed potatoes and gravy and I love my grandmother in my fashion but I had a knife in my hand, and she was getting personal, and I was tempted to…” Lou took a breath before continuing. “I don’t know what is going on between you and Mary and I don’t want to know. Don’t raise the topic again. Am I understood, Ted?”
Ted swallowed deeply. “Yes, dad.”
Lou glared. “What!”
June 11, 2009
Captain Andrew Towart, 14 year old, of the ‘Young Websters’ faced Harry Becker, the fourteen year old pitcher of the ‘Young Twilights’ for the decisive ball in a game of baseball in a vacant lot at 149th Street and Gerard Avenue, the Bronx, late yesterday afternoon.
“It was a full count with two out. I was determined to drive the next pitch down Harry’s throat.”
The ball, a small leather-covered sphere of twisted rubber bands, shot toward the batter and a moment later whizzed hack at the pitcher, burying itself in the pit of young Becker’s stomach.
“I just stood there looking at Harry. His face turned this awful white. Harry was dead. His ghost threw the ball to first base.”
Becker sank to the ground. When the two teams reached him his eyes were glazed, and he died before an ambulance from the Lincoln Hospital reached the diamond.
“The cops dragged me into a room and grilled me for three hours. I told them I was just trying to drop down a bunt.”
I’m Mary Richards and that’s the way it was May 20, 1910.
June 7, 2009
5. Follow That Car
Streetlights splattered on the sweating asphalt. In the carnival of night, the sky was slit open by a punk god yielding blades of lightning. Thunder like knuckles cracking. A streetcar rang its bell. Kids salivating in their ice cream. Rain stumbled like a drunk down fire escapes. Lovers huddled underneath each other. Newspapers wallpapered the sidewalks. Teenage girls in football jackets over their heads, giggling while their boyfriends strutted down the sidewalk bare-chested. I wish I owned a gun.
Mary Richards and her friends huddled under the two umbrellas held by Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens. Sue Ann screeched as the group made a mad dash across Church Street to the parking lot next to Gatsby’s Steak House.
I stood at the entrance of the Blue Lagoon. My collar pulled up, rain dripping off my hair, and the tip of my nose and chin. Music playing in the bar behind me. Billy Joel’s Piano Man. I could hear the laughter of the WTM crowd as they separated and piled into two cars. Doors slamming. Mary climbed into the silver Mercedes with Sue Ann and Ted. Lou and Rhoda continued on through the lot until they reached Rhoda’s red Rabbit. The Mercedes moved slowly across the lot, beeped its horn once and then stopped in front of the attendant’s booth. Windshield wipers slapping. The muted siren from a window lowering. Voices. A ticket receipt.
I stepped out to the curb and haled a cab. I could sense the fat man’s presence. Nausea rose in the pit of his stomach. He can’t stand motion. Wants his voyeurism static. Wants things to settle down. Doesn’t care for this planet. Prefers the moon where he can sit peacefully and watch like an old man in a rocking chair on a summer porch. I remember my old man sitting at the kitchen table, a beer in his hand, my mother finishing the dishes and the old man loosening his belt, preparing to make love.
“Where will it be?” the cab driver asked as I climbed into the front seat. The driver had one of those square fat faces marked both by hardness and good humor that seemed born on his profession.
“Follow that car!”
“Follow that Mercedes pulling out of the lot.”
“You a cop?” The driver snarled, thinking about the one bedroom apartment where his wife sat watching television, worrying about the son that wasn’t home yet, who was out prowling around, hanging out with his friends. Thank God, we don’t have a girl. His wife was afraid of everything. Afraid of a knock on the door, a telephone ringing, a news flash on the television. Afraid that her son has been hurt in a car accident, or been knifed in a playground fight, or been seen near an alley where someone has been shot. And driving a cab, he was unable to soothe her brow, comfort her.
The fat man’s nausea made it difficult to listen to the cab driver’s thoughts. How the fat man hates it when I fall into the thoughts of strangers. Embarrasses him. I should make a reservation for a quick flight to Berlin. See how he takes to air travel. I would go see where the Berlin Wall had been. Look for ghosts. Was the Wall torn down or freed to wander through the night of the city’s streets?
“Do I look like a cop?”
The cab driver turned to me. “Hey, cops look like anybody. The only thing I can tell for sure these days are hookers and accountants. They got the same thing on their mind – money. You ain’t one of those. Ain’t looking for some action, I mean?”
I shook my head. “I can find my own.”
The Mercedes pulled out of the lot and moved up Church Street.
“You’re going to lose him.”
“Hold onto your hair, Harry. We ain’t going to lose nobody.”
“How’d you know my name was Harry?”
“I got this knack for names.” The driver grinned. “The other day I had a rider with the name of Idi. It wasn’t the African dictator but some old broad who used to be a pop singer in the 5O’s. This ain’t going to take long, is it? There is a curfew. I got my license to think of.”
I slapped a twenty on the dashboard. I hoped Michael wouldn’t check his wallet. I’d slipped it out when he was preoccupied with Sheila and her friend Marlo. The driver grabbed the bill and sped off after the Mercedes.
“I hope this rain washes some of this heat off the streets.” The driver flipped down his sun blind and slipped the bill into it. “Hard on the tires. Just about time it broke. Can’t sleep properly. No air conditioning. Sweat tickles me. Ever heard of the cabbies nightmare?”
I shook my head.
“It’s a dream where someone has gone and changed all the street signs. When you get real tired, you sometimes fall into it.”
“Always. I got a wife that worries about our son. Keeps her up all night. When I go to hit the sack, all she wants to do is talk about the kid. I just want to sleep. You got kids?”
I shook my head.
“That’s a nice car, Mercedes. How much you figure they go for these days? Almost eighty grand, I hear.”
“You always talk this much?” I grunted.
The driver laughed. He was a short fat man with thick squat powerful fingers. Tufts of hair grew on his knuckles and out of his ears. He wore a black leather Jacket and a Blue Jay hat. Maybe he was the fat man. I wondered if God made personal appearances in his own dreams.
The driver glanced at me. “You look like a cop looks. You sure you ain’t a cop?”
“What do you mean, I look like a cop?”
“You’re sizing me up. Giving me the once over. Makes me nervous. My mother-in-law does that. Always looking at me, to see if I brushed my teeth, if I washed behind my ears, if I’m good enough for her daughter. Twenty years married and she still hasn’t given me the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I feel like decking her. Out cold on the floor. Know what I mean?”
“Sorry,” I apologized. “I’m a private investigator.”
“A private eye!” the driver whistled and shook his head. “First time I’ve had a dick in my car. Lot of pricks, but no dicks.” The cabbie laughed in a wheeze like an asthmatic. “I didn’t think you guys existed. Wait ‘til I tell the wife. Big fan of you guys. Got all those old shows on tape: Mannix, Rockford Files, Peter Gunn. You guys really shoot that many fellas?”
I shook my head indifferently. The Mercedes pulled up to a red light. We slid in behind her.
“That’s what I thought,” the cab driver continued. “You shoot that many people; you’d spend all your time in the slammer. But, the wife doesn’t believe me. Believes everything she sees on the tube. I’m what you call a skeptic. You don’t work in a hack as long as I have and believe everything that comes down the pipe. I don’t believe nothing and it suits me fine. People going on about how you have to believe in something. Where’s that written down? Don’t go for this faith business. I know what I see. Don’t need nothing else. Wife goes to church every Sunday. When someone lays a religion trip on me, I reach for my wallet to check if it’s still there. Not that I mind people bull shitting. Bull shitting is what life’s all about. Adds spice to a boring day. That’s what we’re here for, eh? To entertain each other. That’s the meaning of life. Didn’t Adam get bored in paradise? So the Lord gave him Eve. Didn’t solve the problem though. That’s why we got over population. Can’t solve loneliness and boredom by fucking it away. I got a theory about why human kind is getting stupider. There’s only so much intelligence to go around. We all come out of the same planet. Pies the same size. More heads to fill, the less for each head.”
The Mercedes turned left onto Isabella and headed west. Before I could point this out to the driver, the cab had already begun to make its turn.
“Don’t worry. This guy ain’t going to shake us. You want me to force him off to the side…”
“Just follow him,” I said casually, trying to imitate the cool detachment of all the private eyes I’d seen on television.
The cabbie glanced into his rear view mirror. “Notice anything different about the city.”
“I guess not. You wouldn’t notice unless you were in the street every night. City is changing. I don’t mean for the better or the worse. I mean it’s changing. Streets are different. Different look. Different names. Sometimes I find myself lost and I used to know this town like the back of my hand. Buildings where there weren’t buildings before. Parks where there were once houses. This used to be Minneapolis. I don’t know what the fuck it’s becoming. Wife says I’m overworked. I know what I see and it’s got me worried.” The driver slapped the wheel with his hand and laughed. “You mind me asking who we’re following?”
“I don’t mind you asking,” I said shaking my head but said no more.
Ted Baxter slipped a cassette into the recorder, the back of his hand casually rubbing against the side of Mary Richard’s leg. Mary moved her leg closer to Ted’s hand. Sue Ann Nivens sat in the back seat, chattering away. Neither Ted nor Mary paid much attention to her. Sinatra’s voice seeped out of the speakers. Ted’s free hand caressed Mary’s dress. Mary swallowed, glancing down at Ted’s hand.
What the hell is this guy up to? Sneaking a feel?
“I love Sinatra,” Sue Ann sighed. “Mother used to tell me about what a big star he was. Scrawny little fellow. The bobby-sockers would swoon over him. What a reputation he had with the ladies? Maybe that was part of his attraction. I saw him on television a couple of weeks ago. Still in good voice though he doesn’t walk so well. Didn’t exactly take it easy in his time. Supposed to have been involved with gangsters. I can’t imagine why. What would they have to talk about?”
Ted looked in the rear view mirror.
“What do you see?” Mary asked.
“A yellow cab,” Ted responded. “I could swear it’s been following us.”
“Oh, how exciting!” Sue Ann squealed remembering her late husband Frank and his BMW. The two of them flying along the expressway. And her mother sitting at home, biting her nails. And her sister stewing in their bedroom, blaming Sue Ann for the new curfew inflicted on both sisters because Sue Ann was still out carousing when she should have been home. And her and Frank parking in lover’s lane. And Sue Ann laughing and her hair thrown back, her arms and legs wrapped around Frank as wrote poems in her head about how fast love seems to pass through us. “I hope someone is following us. Mystery is life’s greatest spice.”
6. The Seduction
The Mercedes slowed down and slid into the circular driveway in front of a modest six-floor apartment building. The cab pulled over to the side of the road. The driver took out several sticks of gum and stuffed them into his mouth. I took out a package of cigarettes and lit one up. After getting out of the Mercedes, Sue Ann waved good-bye to Ted and Mary, and then walked quickly to the front door. A minute later she was inside. Ted slid the Mercedes slowly back into the Yonge Street traffic.
“We’ll give them some lead time.” The cab driver glanced over at me. “Don’t want to raise their suspicions.”
The cab driver moved into traffic then slowed down, allowing another car to pull in between him and the Mercedes.
“He knows we’re following him.”
“What?” I cried.
“Don’t fall asleep on me.” The driver laughed.
The cab driver could have been the fat man. Except his tempo was too upbeat. The fat man has trouble finishing a sentence, keeps hoping someone else will finish his thoughts. Gods are lonelier than we are. That’s why we were created, to keep them awake. Most of us must be a terrible disappointment.
The Mercedes pulled off onto some side streets, finally heading north up Russell Hill Road. When the Mercedes reached St. Clair, it turned west. A few minutes later he made a u-turn and pulled over to the side of the road. The cab continued up St. Clair for a while before pulling over to the curb. I looked back. Mary and Ted stepped out of the car and walked up a gravel path toward a fashionable apartment building.
“Looks like they’re home.” The driver’s gum snapped. “Although I’m not sure where home is. Don’t recognize the bloody street. You know where we are?”
“We’ll wait.” I rolled down the window and flicked my cigarette out into the night. I could smell the fat man in the dampness of the night. His presence was everywhere: in the asphalt that sucked up the blackness of the night, in the branches of trees as they hung so slovenly over the sidewalks, in the streetlamps and the moon, the streetcars and the convenience stores. I felt claustrophobic and used. I hated feeling like I was part of a greater plan.
“You mind if I listen to the ball game?” the cabbie asked. “The Yankees are playing the Twins.”
We waited three innings. It was a pitching duel. Except it wasn’t the Twins the Yankees were playing.
“What the hell! God damn Blue Jays!” the driver grumbled, switched stations but finding no other game on returned to the Yankee game.
Ted stepped onto to the balcony of Mary’s apartment and looked out from the seventh floor window over the ravine and city skyline. The city lights were smeared on the sky like pastels on purple satin. Across the ravine stood the dark shell of the Forester building, derelict for years since it had been condemned by the city then abandoned by its owner. America too was a derelict. Sleeping in dangerous streets. Trying to bum a meal on Main Street. Sleeping in air vents. Dreaming about Ayn Rand. Trying to come up with another scam.
Ted returned to the bar and made a drink for Mary and himself. Returning to the couch he placed the drinks on a coffee table. His eyes toured the room, tastefully decorated in the fashion of a magazine layout but reflecting nothing of Mary Richards’ personality. Ted liked that. Character meant chaos and Ted preferred order. Mary returned to the living room, having changed into a nightgown, a dark purple lace gown that trailed along the floor, falling loosely over her shoulders. Ted swallowed deeply, the bouquet from his cognac rising up his nostrils and filling his eyes with tears.
“Why the hell have they got the Blue Jays on?” the driver asked.
“The Jays? Why are they on the radio?” the driver repeated. “Maybe the Twins got rained out.”
“Sorry,” I responded. I lit up another cigarette. “I’m not much of a fan.”
Ted couldn’t keep his eyes off Mary as she stepped across the room to put on some music, Nat King Cole in concert. The lights were dimmed. Ted got up to refill his glass. When her returned, Mary was waiting, sitting on the couch, her gown revealing a bare knee, her chest heaving, her eyes dark and liquid, her lips open in a smile. Ted sat down beside her.
“I find the people in the Blue Lagoon so interesting.” Mary spoke softly, sipping at her glass of white wine. “They live lives I would never have the courage to pursue. Outside convention. Impulsive. Passionate. Living on the wild side. On their wits. We live such calculated safe lives. Don’t you ever have a desire to step over the line, Ted?”
“Step over the line, Mar? I mean, what are lines put there for? I believe that the true vocation of each individual is to emulate as closely as possible someone that they most admire. I’ve always admired Dr. Albert Sweitzer. Or was it Dr. Livingstone? The one in the movie with Spencer Tracey where Tracey says Dr. Livingstone I presume. Who do you admire, Mar?”
“So how long are we going to wait here?” the driver asked.
“The meter is running.” The driver’s interruptions were making it difficult for me to focus on what was happening in Mary’s apartment.
“Ya, but there is a curfew. The cops can be real sticky, especially with us cabbies. I hate cops.”
“We’ll wait,” I responded. I didn’t want to give the cabbie another bill. And what if Michael checked his wallet and found the bills missing? Would he notice?
“You are a strange case,” the driver said shaking his head, chewing on his gum. “I guess it’s the world you live in, eh? We’re all the product of the company we keep, don’t you think? My mother wanted me to become an altar boy and so I became an altar boy. Where did it lead? Life as a cabbie. Go figure, eh?”
Mary placed her hand on Ted’s knee. Ted swallowed deeply.
For Christ’s sake pop her. She’s asking for it.
“You know what I hate about public speaking, Mar? I never know where to put my hands.”
Mary took one of Ted’s hands and placed it on her breast. “How’s that, Ted?”
Ted laughs nervously. “Reading Robinson Crusoe again last month.” Ted began to babble. “It occurred to me that Crusoe was an odd sort. He missed civilization more than a woman, missed conversation more than sex. God, Mar, I’m going to ramble on like this forever…”
“You think he’s got his hand in her pants yet?” the driver asked.
“What?” I asked. The driver was becoming an irritant. Why couldn’t I have fantasized a cabbie that could keep his mouth shut?
“The guy we’re following and the good looking broad he’s with.”
Mary put her drink down on the table, then leaned over and kissed Ted on the lips. The drink in Ted’s hand began to shake. Mary reached for the belt on Ted’s trousers and undid it.
That’s right, flip the damn thing out.
Ted squeezed his glass, his hand shaking. “I’m sorry, Mary!” He bolted to his feet. “God, I’m not very good at these things. I shouldn’t have come up! I know I’m not going to sleep tonight. I like you, Mary, but I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression… I want our relationship to remain professional. Strictly personal! Lou’s got a rule about fraternizing with the staff. Too many complications. Lou would kill me!”
Mary reached over and slowly pulled down the zipper of Ted’s trousers.
“Alright!” I cried.
“What?” the cabbie asked.
“Nothing,” I responded. “Something just occurred to me that I have to remember to do.”
The cabbie laughed. “Happens to me all the time. Especially when I’m on the can.”
“Mar!” Ted cried, jumping back. “We can still be friends, Mary. I’m sure of it. Tomorrow we’ll laugh about this. Jesus, I better get going. There’s a curfew. You’re not angry at me, Mary, are you?”
Ted walked quickly toward the door.
“I’ll let myself out,” he said, and was gone.
Mary sighed and fell back onto the couch.
I can feel her long nails running along the inside of her knee. The song on the stereo ended. She was sighing. Stick your finger in. Finish yourself off. An audience applauded. Nat King Cole thanked everyone who had attended. Mary tried to finish her drink but could not.
“No!” I cried jumping out of the cab and sucking in the night air.
“I can’t do this. It’s the fat man’s doing. The bastard is a pervert.”
The driver got out of the cab and looked at me. “You alright, mister?”
I was sweating. “Ya.” I needed to clear my head.
“Here comes lover boy.” The driver pointed across the street. Ted stepped out of the building, walked quickly to the Mercedes, and sped off down St. Clair.
“You want me to follow him?” The cabbie asked.
“What?” I asked.
A streetcar screeched to a stop. Someone slipped on wet newspaper on the sidewalk. A cop car passed the cab and bolted up a side street. A dog barked. Stepping out of the streetcar, a young woman wept. And the trees along the avenue were twisted around in a sudden gush of wind.
June 2, 2009
THE HARRY O’TOOLE STORY
Chapter Five (Part 1)
1. The New Dreamer
This is my world. The world of Harry M. O’Toole. My story. The tale of the H. Born in the customary fashion. Brought up by a couple of strangers in the suburbs on newly poured sidewalks, amongst jealous saplings, and viciously painted fire hydrants. Pushed out into the cold cruel whirl, cap in hand, ready to show up for work. The Canadian Credo – ambition sacrificed to attendance. God did not put us here to succeed. The Garden of Eden split amongst RIFFs and RSPs is hidden in the seat of gray flannel trousers. In Canada we like our rich to inherit their money. Don’t try to show us up by earning it. Mediocrity was the ticket to happiness. Except for the lesbians who live next door, everyone else on the street is getting better looking. That’s as far as I will allow my optimism to go. Only cynicism can emancipate you. Everything you might want to believe in has a membership fee.
The night was up for lease. Real estate agents baying at the moon. Hell’s Angels dressed up like Martin and Lewis. Red necks terrified that the string of teeth they’re smiling with might turn out to be paste. Marathon runners mistaken for bicycle couriers looking for their stolen wheels. Hollywood ready to make serious art films. Actresses competing in the backstroke. Out of Washington came reports that the FBI was going to release confidential files on the Kennedy assassination. JFK is buried under Marilyn Monroe. The Millennium was at hand and then over. What a disappointment. Something should have happened. Strumming on someone’s pain. Beats four of a kind. Horsemen on palominos. Cisco Kid and his three sisters. Dikes pour into Amsterdam for a convention. The Pope prays for peace. Gene Autrey unplugged on an electric horse and out of control.
History has become show business. The Mafia is lined up outside the late Marilyn Monroe’s apartment to pay their last respects. James Dean riding on every boxcar. Johnny Carson replaces Peter at the Golden Gate, renamed the Golden Arches. Bogart and Claude Rains holding hands in a gay pride parade. Richard Nixon playing piano. Kennedy’s playing touch football. Reagan chopping wood. Dead presidents playing poker. Idi Amin roasting children over an open fire. More satellites girdling our senses. Neighborhoods wrapped in security blankets. Pornographic thumb sucking. Flagellants on Reality TV. Jesus is the deserted woman in a harlequin romance. Walter Cronkite’s tears have shorted out Camelot. Dreams served up on a dish. There is no reality. We all live in the fat man’s dream. The fat man is God.
I wish I were someone s bride. Dressed up in white. Satan’s Choice as flower girls. I can hear the fat man think. I can feel his breath on the back of my neck. The tomb I’m buried in is my body. There’s a rash on my ankles. The woman on her knees with her well-flossed teeth pulling on my joint is my Armageddon. She’s so sensitive she puts Preparation H on her lips. Nostrils flare. She’s into body piercing; has a spear stuck in her side. I have found a way out of the fat man’s dream. Keep all your senses on red alert. Flip the television channels. Eat snacks. Mix your drinks. Give each of your friends nicknames. Fill out forms. Smoke weed. Change your socks and mind often. Chug each day. When you feel like laughing, weep. Always offer him the unexpected. Keep moving. Stay manic. He can’t stand all the commotion. God loves order. The fat man does not play with dice. Gamble! Use your dreams as a net.
What does God do for a living? We know how he spends his Sundays. Do old gods retire or do they buy semi-automatics and go down to the local mall and blow everyone away? Do they become generals in small republics and rent themselves out as maids at the American Consulate? Do they pass themselves off as bank clerks and down size companies? Cut out the fat? Mean and lean. Streamline. Invent new languages to disguise suffering? Market Forces are a cloud in the fat man’s trousers. The fat man likes the little inventions we tinker with in our sleep.
The fat man is a peeping Tom. A French voyeur. A vicarious hedonist. He rents his pleasures. Bored with pleasure, he imagines pain. The sun is microwaving his brain. He fondles his inventions and calls it history. The fat man’s cock is flaccid. It lies off to one side like an amputated appendage. He cannot jerk off without danger: assassinations, rapes, torture, plagues, bus accidents, earthquakes, and breast cancer. The millennium came through the Net. The fat man wants a Son. He wants someone else to do his suffering for him. I’m going to catch the fat man in my dreams and I’m going to dream about Mary. He won’t be able to resist her – innocence and violence, the lion lying with the lamb. I’ll catch him and pull off his mask and we’ll all have a good look at the bastard.
Got to quit drinking. Too many voices in my head. Too many fingers strumming their knuckles on the coffee table. I see the fat man in a lounge chair under the mid-day sun. The lounge chair has a handle like a frying pan. The fat man’s gut is spitting bacon at the sky. Squirrels in the trees are rolling and smoking the wind like it was a weed that keeps popping up through cracks in the cement. Crows on a nearby wire are speaking church Latin, singing canons, and collecting taxes from the faithful. The fat man exhales and the leaves are moved to speak in tongues. Everyone says he has a terrific sense of humor. Someone dies. The fat man giggles. Can you hear him snickering in the back row at the funeral?
The fat man is in my head. I can see his eyes, popping out like popcorn, staring straight through me. His thoughts are sad like all fat men when they find their past leaking into their lap. Dripping. Warping the floorboards with his melancholy. Mary Richards shall be my bait. He won’t be able to resist her. I’ll fantasize about her life, about her job, about her love. She will seduce him with her vulnerability and her big brown eyes.
The fat man is spying on my every thought. He has created me and now finds that I am getting out of control. But I know how to catch him. I have to keep my thoughts moving so fast he can’t pin anything down. I smell his breath. Garlic and cod liver oil. The only escape from his dominion is invention. Harry, I tell myself, make up a world he cannot control. The old man demands sacrifice. He wants Harry O’Toole to take the fall for his sins. He has a weakness for blondes and deep-sea fishing. The fat man is burning in Hell.
What are His sins? Complacency. He’s got fungus growing on his toes that make it too painful for him to dance. Shaves his head. Daydreams that he is living on death row. He is so old he can’t remember being young. Doesn’t approve of anyone who is wild and crazy and useless. Never pays his Master Charge bills on time. He cheats at dice. Knows that every number that comes up is His. I want to know what it’s like to watch God die. I’d love to sit on the grass beside his lounge chair and listen to the fat man fry. His tears are history.
I shall dream, not of salvation, but a situation comedy. Mary Richards shall be the star. My Christ shall be the All-American Girl. She shall have her Golgotha. Horror will be applauded by canned laughter. Innocence shall be the original sin. He is like the mailman delivering bills getting his kick out of watching people open their mail. The fat man is the heart surgeon opening his own chest and finding nothing inside. The moon slips like a turd out of a cloud. The heavens reek like compost. The stars glow like flies.
Nobody is going to turn me in. I won’t take the fall for anyone. I will not be a paranoid henchman for a chartered accountant agency, no storm trooper for the school board, no cheer leader for a line of ladies” foot apparel, no evangelical healer for the Law Society. It is my world and it shall be unpredictable. Accountants will be forced to live on a diet of beans. Everyone else will be racked with laughter. Jocks will get their French letter. The powerful will be treated fairly. The rich will be drawn through a needle’s eye. Time is in retreat. A class reunion in the Black Hole. This time an intrauterine device will be used during the Big Bang.
A cop stops me for a routine check. He has no personality, as if part of the squad car stepped out into the street, holding a flashlight, the other hand on his gun, telling me to keep my hands above my head. Spread your legs, he tells me. I feel like a whore. Does the fat man really like to see us humiliated? Does he want to see us spread across the hood of a Ford begging to be saved? Desperation breeds contempt. I am Harry O’Toole and I ain’t going down on no one.
I am sitting in a bar, the Blue Lagoon. Smell is the key to reality. Stale beer, cigarette smoke, urine, popcorn and her perfume: lilacs, rosebuds, vagina farts. I turn from the bar and spot Mary sitting with her friends at a table and so the dream begins.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked.
I look up. Frank smiled like every bartender I’ve ever known, not impatiently or angrily but with resignation, like the grim reaper. He knows it’s a one-way street. And he ain’t going nowhere.
“You’re in a strange mood, Harry,” Frank said. “Sitting there now for hours, your thoughts a million miles away. Soaking up the beer. You seem to have taken quite an interest in the people at the table over there. Staff of WJM. Look out of place in a joint like this, don’t you think? Slumming. You meet all kinds. Lousy tippers. Wish Bud was in tonight. Took a few days off; left me holding the fort. Running my ass off. Better take their drinks over. Talk to you later.”
Frank picked up a tray of drinks and makes his way over to her table. I wondered what it would be like to be a drink sliding down Mary Richard’s throat.
2. Mary Richards
Mary Richards leaned back in her chair, sipping on a daiquiri. Everyone gets lost in her eyes. The fat man is around somewhere. Have to keep my wits about me. The earth is making alcoholics of us all. Frank has just served the drinks, stands behind Mary, transfixed. Frank looks like the Scare Crow from the Wizard of Oz. Or the loyal member from Etobicoke South in Deep Throat. They think Frank has been mesmerized by Mary’s beauty when all he’s waiting for is a tip. Sue Ann Nivens, a middle aged dyed blonde, make-up applied with a trowel, noticed the waiter’s behavior and nudged Lou Grant in the ribs. Lou Grant, a graveyard of flesh, a bible of bitterness, grunted, then looked up, with the startled eyes of a sleeper suddenly awoken. His mind is closed. What has he got to hide from me?
“Gosh,” he gargled with embarrassment and handed the waiter a tip.
Frank slipped away from the table and returned to the bar. “Cheap fucking bastards.” He placed his tray on the bar. “Intellectuals! You can tell every time.” Frank had been unaware that he was talking out loud. A businessman sitting at the bar looked on with a puzzled expression on his face. Frank turned to him. “They want to free the workers from the tyranny of the owners but they wouldn’t think of offering a fella a cigarette!”
“Did you see that?” Sue Ann whispered, her eyes flashing. Upbeat, a nauseous flow of enthusiasm flowed out of her mouth. “They just can’t keep their eyes off Mary, Lou!”
Lou looked at Sue Ann with a puzzled expression. Are you the stupidest person I have met? Or just challenging for the crown?
“Were you going to say something, Lou?” Look at her. Fingerprints of disappointment all over her face. Thumb nailing through her thoughts, I can’t find one thought that fits reality. Was there ever a moment in her life when she saw the world as it is? Never depressed. Except for the cold shoulder she receives every day from Lou. She’s been sleeping with Bozo the clown on the kid’s show. She likes long walks on the beach. During mid-afternoon. With the entire Sable Beach male volleyball team. She likes the warm feeling of fresh liver in her hands. She’s as comfortable in an expensive evening gown as cut-offs. She dreams about confetti in her hair. And wearing the pajamas of a man with a barrel chest. Her mind is like a purse that no one but her as ever bothered to steal from.
Lou turned to Mary. “When you pay for a round, Mary, you’re supposed to tip as well.”
Mary smiled quixotically. “Really? Are you sure, Mr. Grant?”
Who put the laugh track in there? Could it be the fat man? Has he caught up to me? I must become a chameleon and disappear into their conversation. Keep my thoughts to myself.
“Make a note of it, Mary.” Lou pointed at Mary, then conscious of his stubby finger withdrew it. “You never know when you’ll need a waiter. I remember a time when I was doing a piece for San Diego Tribune… but, that’s not important.” Lou snorted with delight as he proceeded into his next thought. “It was so thoughtful of you, Mary, to invite us all to this…” Lou cleared his throat as he gestured to the bar. “… establishment. The last time I was in a place like this I had more hair, less belly, and the appreciated charms of two professional… mature young women.”
“Don’t you love these anecdotes of Lou?” Sue Ann sighed to Rhoda who was exercising her stomach muscles.
“They’re always so revealing.” Rhoda agreed smiling with contempt at Sue Ann. She hates her because Sue Ann is manipulative, facile, and employed. Rhoda, a little Jewish girl was worried that her hips were spreading. And worried that she was worried. Any thought had to be located to stop her worrying about her hips. Was someone trying to catch their breath in a mining accident? Was a little girl buried in blankets frightened that Uncle Tom was coming up the stairs? Rhoda shuffled through a manic carousel of horrific scenes, anything to displace the terrible anxiety inside her stomach. Rhoda kept running her tongue across her teeth thinking how much more intelligent she was than Sue Ann and hoping someone else besides herself knew it. And wondering, if she flossed more often would she lose weight?
Lou looked around the table before he returned to Mary. “So why have you brought us here, Miss Richards?”
Everyone at the table was smiling as broadly as Lou, waiting for Mary to respond. What silly idea had the young Miss Richards come up with this time? Mary blushed, looking around the table at each face.
“I don’t know what you can possibly be getting at Mr. Grant.”
Lou Grant chuckled, took out a cigar, than ransacked his pocket for a moment before finding his lighter. Sue Ann turned to Ted Baxter. “Did you see that?” Sue Ann whispered
Ted Baxter had the good looks of a mannequin, each hair on his head in its place, each line on his face assigned a particular function. He was a poster of what God would look like if the fat man had a better tailor. Ted, the son of ego, worried about his complexion. He smiled at Sue Ann. What is she talking about? Ted felt like a drive-in theatre, its screen ripped open by beer bottles, while young girls in vans played with their boyfriend’s wallets.
Sue Ann placed her hand on Ted’s sleeve. “Mary had that dear waiter eating out of her hand. She has such a spell over men, don’t you think so, Ted? In a little girl sort of way. Appealing to the pedophile in every male. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“See what, Sue Ann?” Ted looked around the bar. I wonder if I should go out and check the car. To see if it’s still there.
“The waiter!” Sue Ann leaned over and barked in Ted’s ear. “You must have seen the way the waiter behaved. He was staring at Mary. You’d have thought that he had seen a vision.”
Ted smiled charmingly, flexing his eyebrows. “Some people do have that effect on others.” An image of his mother crept across Ted’s eyes, and the interest in a bank account in Switzerland, and a pimple on his testicle discharging into his jockey shorts, and the orange peels forgotten in his blender, and the bookmark fallen out of his Reader’s Digest.
Rhoda howled with laughter. What a screech! Was I too loud? A dog in the apartment above the bar was startled out of his sleep. A cop writing out tickets in the street outside the bar, noticed a hole in his bulletproof vest but couldn’t remember how it happened. Toast popped up at the home of Rhoda’s mother. Rhoda’s mother reached across the table for the jam with her eyes blinded by tears thinking about her unmarried daughter. Rhoda looked around the table, relieved. No one was staring at her.
Sue Ann stared into Ted’s ear, opening her mouth ready to respond to Ted’s last remark when her response was arrested by a whiff of Lou’s cigar. A cloud of smoke lay siege on her hair. She turned back to Lou. “Lou!” Sue Ann smiled with the gracious charm she inherited from a small town in Virginia. “Do you have to smoke that awful… thing? I wouldn’t allow my Frank to smoke those vile things in the house. The butts look like little puppy dodoes. Frank was always cooperative, always departed for the balcony when he felt the urge.”
Ted whispered to Sue Ann from her blind side. “The urge for anything in particular? Or just urges in general?”
Sue Ann ignored Ted’s remark and continued on. “In all the years we were married, Frank never once smoked in the apartment. Consideration! That’s what characterized Frank’s behavior, bless his heart. Gentlemanship begins with consideration for others.”
“Consideration!” Rhoda howled, her chest shaking which Ted couldn’t help noticing. “Sue Ann, Frank dropped dead in a funeral parlor. That’s how considerate he was.” Rhoda’s drink dribbled down her double chin and onto her dress. Did anyone notice? Rhoda felt herself beginning to break wind. She sucked it up. Got to stop laughing! Next time it will be more serious than a fart.
Sue Ann looked at Rhoda’s dress. “That will come out with salt, dear. And you must try and control your braying dear. It attracts the wrong type of types.”
Rhoda lowered her eyes. How could Sue Ann, in one sudden thrust with her tongue, cut her down so completely? Rhoda wanted to die. The world was filled with mothers who kept reminding her how clumsy she was. She was being judged continually. Rhoda longed to live in a world where she was freed of being afraid: afraid someone might break into her apartment and find her bed unmade, afraid that they might find empty chocolate boxes on the floor under the bed, afraid they might discover the roll of toilet paper sitting on the edge of the bathtub, afraid of the dishes that weren’t done, and the windows that weren’t clean and the spots on her water glasses.
Sue Ann padded Rhoda on the hand gently then turned back to Lou. “Must you smoke, Lou? It’s not good for your health, or ours. Second hand smoke is responsible for twenty five point six percent of all lung cancer related deaths. And it is illegal to smoke in public accomodations. How can you expect our children to respect authority when you flaunt the very spirit of our legal system?”
“It’s a stupid law!” Lou growled and rolled his shoulders with indignation. “Bunch of old hens must have hatched it. Second hand smoke! Everything in life is second hand. Why should smoke be any different? Pretty soon they’ll pass a by-law against passing wind. Ted could end up doing hard time.”
Ted laughed then added, “I read that the pigment of the old masters is being affected by the passage of gas in museums.”
“I didn’t know you frequented museums?” Sue Ann sneered.
“I didn’t know he could read!” Rhoda added.
Rhoda slapped Sue Ann on the back, howling with laughter. Why do I keep acting like one of the boys? Why can’t I respond like Mary? Always demure. Gentility. Where did I pick up these male gestures? Do I want to be a man? A need to fit, to be accepted? Hate the smell of my skin. Mary’s skin is soft. Wish I could touch it without her thinking I was making a pass. Being Jewish is always being nervous.
Lou grunted then took another puff of his cigar. “I like cigars, Sue Ann. I like them a great deal.” Lou grunted like he has some inalienable right to be coarse and exhaled a cloud of white smoke that drifted over Sue Ann’s head like sunset.
Rhoda looked around the table. “They’ve elected a new pope.”
Lou looked lovingly at his cigar. “Did you know that these cigars were rolled in the salty thighs of young virginal Cuban girls? Just the thought of it brings a smile to this old man’s lips.”
“Pedophile,” Rhoda mumbled.
Sue Ann’s face squirmed as she glanced at Rhoda. Don’t be so witty, dear. It isn’t feminine. Frank never liked witty women. Women should be sweet. Blossoms in a spring rain. Not acid. A woman is supposed to hold a man’s sorrow in her lap. Make a man feel that there is some point to the pain they bring into the world. Women are built to buffer a man’s despair. She’s meant to make a man smile not laugh. Rhoda dear, what did your mother teach you?
Ted looked at Sue Ann with concern. “Are you having a dodo, Sue Ann? You’ve been staring at Miss Morgenstern for so long I thought that something got stuck in the plumbing.” Ted laughed delighted with his witticism. He looked around for applause. None was forthcoming. Sue Ann ignored Ted’s remark all together. Ted smiled victoriously. Over their heads. He took a cigarette case out of the breast pocket of his jacket. Why not live dangerously? He offered each of the ladies a cigarette.
Only Mary accepted. Lou grabbed the cigarette out of her hand. “You’ll ruin your voice!”
“But Mr. Grant, you’re smoking!”
“If I lose my voice, everyone in the office will be happier. I won’t be screaming at them. Your voice is your career.”
“You’re acting like her father!” Rhoda protested.
Lou turned to Rhoda and growled. “I’m more important than her father! I’m her boss!”
My swivel stick busted and punctured my skin. I looked down. Small drops of blood rolled out of the hole like ball bearings. Each drop a perfect ball. Rolling down my skin. Five pin bowling. Thundering outside. Threat of a storm. Dropped a ball of blood on some salt. Communism spreading through South-east Asia. All over America, widows are lying awake, remembering. Somebody has got to take responsibility for this echo in our hearts. The same Presley tune played on the jukebox. The lights flickered. Thunderclap. I wanted to feel something pure; something that makes neon lights flicker with joy; something that makes a mortician feel that everything is going to be okay; something to make the bankers on Bay Street apologize; something to make the old Frigidaire act polite; something as pure as the innocence in Mary Richard’s eyes.
The puncture hurt. I sucked on it for a minute. I shouldn’t feel pain in my dream.
Frank picked up my beer, looked at it, and put it down. “You really cut your finger. How’d you do that?”
“Carelessness,” I responded.
Frank reached under the bar and handed a band-aid to me. “That broad over there thinks her shit doesn’t stink! Frank shook his head, gesturing toward Mary. Thought I’d have to stand there all night to get a tip. Who does she think she is? Barbara Walters? You think someone else would have thrown me a bone. Fuck ‘em! I hope the storm breaks over them when they leave and soaks all of them to the skin.”
“Why so much rage over a tip?”
A reluctant smile gripped Frank’s mouth. “Business has dried up since they enacted this curfew.” He growled. “Stupid fucking law! People got to have a life. What, are we all supposed to hold our breath until this hot spell passed over? I’d like to get my hands around the throat of the politician who proposed the curfew.”
I looked around the bar. “Who keeps playing that same damn song on the jukebox?”
“You don’t like Elvis?” Frank responded defensively.
I looked back at Frank realizing who the culprit was. “I’m getting damn sick of In the Ghetto.”
4. The Proposal
“I’ve been lucky.” Mary addressed her friends seated around the table. Everyone stopped talking and turned their attention to her. “I know that. Things have a way of falling into place for me. People like me.”
“They adore you, Mary.” Sue Ann gritted her teeth in a smile. God, is she going to go on like this all night?
“They do, Sue Ann.” Mary nodded her head in appreciation. “I’m not saying I deserve it, but people go out of their way for me. Sue Ann taught me how to cook. She didn’t have to. She just jumped right in and took over.”
“Well.” Sue Ann giggled. “We didn’t want the Board of Health to shut down your kitchen.”
“And Ted.” Mary turned to Ted who smiled waiting for his accustomed accolades. “Ted got me a bargain on a vintage Ford Pinto. I know nothing about cars but Ted walked into the used car lot and put his fist down.”
“Gee, Mary.” Ted blushed. “You’re embarrassing me. Keep going.”
“And Mr. Grant took a chance on a kid who was so green behind the knees.”
“Ears, Mary,” Lou responded. “You’re green behind your ears.”
“Not anymore Lou. I’ve learned so much.” Mary turned to Murray who sat beside her and put her hand on his knee. “Murray found my apartment and taught me how to play poker.”
“We played for toothpicks!” Murray cried in his defense.
Mary pointed across the table at Rhoda. “That’s my best friend, Rhoda.” Rhoda began to shrink. Don’t do this to me, Mary. “Rhoda has always had a free shoulder for me to cry upon. She’s taught me not to give up and how to get up when I’ve been knocked down, and always to keep laughing, and…”
Rhoda started to weep. Sue Ann glanced at her. Give me a break!
Mary took a deep breath before continuing. “It’s been like that since I was a youngster and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but my life has become… boring. Everyone is very sweet and generous. Everyday at the office is lovely, amusing, fun, but… it’s always the same. Everyone is the same. Ted, you’re always charming. Mr. Grant is grumpy but loveable. Sue Ann is respectable and kind. Murray is helpful. Rhoda, well Rhoda is always there for me. I said that before, didn’t I?”
“Ya, Mary!” Rhoda responded. “Come up with some new material.”
“But.” Mary sighed. “None of you ever change. No matter what happens on Friday, the next Monday morning, you’re absolutely the same. No problem is so serious that there isn’t something amusing about it. It’s like a sitcom. I swear I can hear the laugh track. No one is vicious, mean, madly passionate or dangerous. Am I the only one who has noticed? I can’t stand it anymore. It isn’t real.”
There was a long pregnant pause. Outside the clouds were smothering the sun. Night was rising like smoke from its ashes. Ted cleared his throat. Lou tucked his tie into his trousers. Sue Ann smiled. Rhoda held her stomach in.
“Did everyone like my show today?” Sue Ann piped up. “I thought my tribute to Chinese cuisine was quite clever. The Twenty Minute Wok Out.”
“Oh, ya!” Ted started to laugh. “I just got it.”
No one else responded. There was a crack in the timber of the sky. The sky lit up like a flash on a camera. Lovers trembled naked in their raincoats. Heart attack victims were stripped of their pride. Sunbathers pretended that they’re wearing sunglasses. The streetcars began to sing, One more night. And still there was silence at the table.
“So, Mary.” Lou Grant smirked glancing around the table before lighting on Mary. “Why exactly did you bring us here?
“Oh, Mr. Grant.” Mary shrugged off Lou’s question with a giggle. “You’re always looking for an ulterior motive.”
“We’re waiting, Mary.”
Mary looked around the bar, passed her friends and right at me sitting there nursing a beer. But she didn’t see a thing. I didn’t exist. I was invisible. Like when she’s looking in the mirror and notices that her skin has begun to turn to putty. Like the face cream she smears on her forehead and cheeks and breasts. Like the poems that melt like chocolate in her mouth. Like the smell of that dead mouse behind the wallpaper. Like the infection dripping from her pubic hair, and those gray hairs in her comb, the toothpaste on her chin, the plunger tucked in behind her heart. I am invisible but not for long.
“Don’t you just love this place?” Sue Ann piped up. “The first time I stepped in to use the
little girl’s room, I fell in love. It looks so lived in. And look at the clientele. What characters!”
“Hookers, pimps, gamblers,” Lou snarled, “and us, the staff of the local news. But let Mary finish.”
“Sue Ann is right.” Mary added.
“I am?” Sue Ann gasped. “I thought I was being facetious.”
“Another dodo?” Ted laughed.
“Don’t you see it, Mr. Grant?” Mary pleaded.
Lou growled as he glanced around the room. “Bunch of lay-abouts, wasting away in a bar. Not unlike most people in bars. Half of them are trying to forget about today. The other half are afraid of tomorrow. Just what a bar was designed for. Home sweet home.”
Mary looked despondent as she addressed her boss. “Aren’t you interested in these people, Mr. Grant? What kind of lives they live? How they make their living? What their interests are, their dreams, their ambitions? These are the ones who make the news; we just report it. We are the scavengers. These are the glorious beasts of the hunt.”
I knew Mary Richards’ act. Middle-class liberals. Humanists. Like the rich crowd from Rosedale slumming. She wants everyone to watch the martyrs burn. The poor, lost, homeless, pimps, druggies, drifters and insane. The winners want to feel sorry for the losers. It makes them feel better about themselves, makes them feel that they are true human beings because they feel compassion. Can you hear the martyr’s eyes crackling like bacon? This Mary Richards wants desolation and desperation to be entertaining. It is the Las Vegas vision of paradise. The miracle is not to help the destitute; the miracle is feeling so much pain over their plight. Mary and her friends want to bring the injustices of the world to God’s attention. I want to bring the fat man up on charges.
Lou turned to Ted. “What the hell is Mary talking about?”
Ted smiled charmingly, and then shrugged his shoulders trying to loosen the jacket’s grip. Too tight. Too much starch in the shirt collar. An itch under the shoulder blade.
How I hate their smugness. I hate their right to be comfortable. Asleep in the harness of mediocrity. Domesticated beasts. Like cattle waiting for the slaughter. Harry O’Toole will not sit idly by waiting to be packaged.
“I’m in the dark too, Lou.” Ted grinned.
“Thanks, Ted.” Lou responded sarcastically. “I knew I could count on your support.”
“Strange bedfellows.” Rhoda mumbled. Got to keep my mouth shut. How can Mary be so innocent? Think about something else. A man’s unshaven face scratching the back of my knees. No! His beer breathe on my neck. No! Got to get these images out of my head. Hands on my hips softly shaking… No. Oh God. Too many mornings of regrets and bad breathe and trips to the toilet. Maybe Mary is right. Maybe love is sweet. Maybe life is a flower opening up… No! Did I say that out loud. No one is looking at me. I hate this. Hate being me. Why do I have to know the truth?
“I was thinking.” Mary hesitated.
Everyone looked at Mary.
“A dangerous and addictive habit.” Rhoda muttered than almost apologized.
Sue Ann glared at Rhoda and placed her finger in front of her lips.
“I knew it!” Lou cried, smacking his hand on the table.
Sue Ann jumped.
Lou continued. “I knew there was a hidden agenda. Do I know human nature? You don’t spend thirty years in…”
“Bars…” Rhoda interjected. Shit!
“…in a newsroom.” Lou scowled as he looked at Rhoda then turned his attention back to the rest of the table. “You don’t spend all those years in a newsroom without learning something about human nature.”
“Mr. Grant, hear me out.” Lou continued to smile. Mary cleared her throat. “The Homicide series continues to be a great success, but we need to follow it up with something new, something fresh. I thought we might do a series of investigative reports on the city’s underworld. Not organized crime or biker gangs, but the lower end of the criminal ladder. Small time criminals. Salt of the earth criminals. Gamblers, hustlers, pimps and hookers, pushers and thieves. The public is curious about how these people survive, what they do, what they’re like, where they come from…”
“How they make love?” Rhoda added. If Sue Ann says something I’m going to punch her lights out.
Sue Ann smirked. You’re such a slut?
Rhoda smiled at Sue Ann then winked. Why do I have to be such a smart ass? Why do I have to have these thoughts racing through my head. I didn’t ask for them. Two arms with no one to hold. Two hands with nothing to touch but yourself. Two legs with no one to wrap them around. Two eyes and a mirror looking out forever. Two lips with nothing to say. Too much time to sleep.
Ted turned to Rhoda. “How do they make love, Rhoda?” Ted chuckled and then asked sincerely. “Is it really… different?”
Rhoda smiled. “Different than you, Ted, They don’t do it alone.”
“OH!” Ted laughed heartily as he thought over what Rhoda had just said. He rubbed his chin with his fingers, thought again, and then glared at Rhoda from beneath his eyebrows. “Wait a minute!”
“So charming and yet so cruel,” Sue Ann giggled. Bitch!
“Thank you.” Rhoda bowed. Bitch! “I knew I could count on your support.”
“You mean to say, Mary.” Ted spoke and then hesitated, waiting for everyone’s attention to fall his way. When it did not he cleared his throat and spoke with the force of his newscaster’s voice. “Mary!”
Mary looked up. “Yes, Ted.”
“Do you mean to say that the suburban crowd wants to sit back in their lazy boys and live the dangers of crime…” Ted hesitated so that he could pronounce each syllable of vicariously individually. “…vi-car-ri-ous-slee?”
Lou’s mouth fell open with shock. His eyes lid up. Ted had an insight.
Mary nodded. “That’s exactly it. Thank you, Mr. Baxter.”
Ted smiled and looked around the table for his accolades.
“Give it a rest, Ted,” Murray responded.
“I think it’s a marvelous idea,” Sue Ann piped up. “I know it would go over with my girls at the noon hour. We could have some criminals on my show to demonstrate their favorite recipes. Al Capone made wonderful pasta. And we can’t forget Eggs Bennedict.”
Lou choked on his scotch. Murray smacked him on the back. Lou glared at him.
“I thought you were choking, Lou.”
“I’m serious!” Sue Ann’s voice rose with her enthusiasm. “It would be great fun. I’ve always wondered how gangsters cooked. They have to watch their waistlines like the rest of us.”
Rhoda turned to Sue Ann. “You’re dangerous.”
“Exactly,” Lou asked turning to Mary, “how do you plan on going about this? These people are not exactly the type of folks who seek publicity for their work.”
“I’ll appeal to their vanity, Mr. Grant.” Mary smiled. “Everyone wants to be on television.”