Sunday, January 15, 2012

Billy Saddle: The Story So Far


When he sees it in his dreams – the ball bounding toward him like some round promise of destiny – Billy realizes that he cannot move his arms, because Frankie Minor has wrapped him in an ill-timed embrace. The ball flies past, so close that he can see the stitching. Billy’s anger is animal and quick, until he looks behind them and sees the ball bouncing into the right-field corner. The dream fades as McCarthy rounds third.


When he sees it in his dreams, the ball arcing toward the spruce forest like a Satanic missile, David realizes that he has superpowers. He takes a deep breath and blows the ball far into the woods, where it will do no further harm. Where it will not inspire his best friend to launch a Willie Maysian sprint away from the infield, and to end up in a crumpled heap at the left-field fence, his heart collapsing on itself like a termite-riddled shack.


They gather on the end of the jetty at Point Brown. David cannot recall the significance of this spot, but the will was clear. The trek was perilous – a half mile into the ocean along a narrow strand of rocks – but the late May weather is a miracle of sun and calm.
            David sets his sportcoat on a rock and offers the brief tribute he’s been running through his mind all morning. A man of music, and nature, and laughter. The kindest man I have ever known. He tells Larry’s favorite joke – the one that ends “tank tankity tank” – and is relieved when everybody laughs. And he tries, in his creaky bass-player’s voice, to sing a few measures of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” because that was Larry’s favorite song. He’s surprised to find that he’s not crying. He turns, opens the lid and sends the ashes into the ocean.
            When they return to the beach, Elena’s eyes are too dark and moist for him to fathom. Pablo and Derek are annoyed, but they’re teenage boys, it’s their job. He’s happy enough when they take turns slapping him on the shoulder.
            “I hear you were wonderful,” says Elena. “You’re such a good friend.” She hugs him, but he pulls back.
            “Dios mio!” (This is their little joke, the Anglo husband with his Spanish eruptions.) “I left mi jacqueta on the jetty.”
            “Silly gringo. You’d better get it – it’s your favorite.”
            “Okay. Ten minutes, tops.”
            “Don’t hurt yourself.”
            Derek and Pablo do their best not to groan.
            David runs the jetty, the same game that he played with his boys when they were small. Find a flat surface, stick it, look for the next. Elena couldn’t come to the scattering because she’s too fat. He hates to think these things. David slows his pace. He’s tired; he’s near the end. He hears singing.
            He sees a scarlet hunting cap, in the Bavarian style. A short black feather rises from the band like the flag on a mailbox. The cap looks like it’s gone through hell, and so does its owner, a human fencepost dressed all in denim. His wiry hair and beard are the color of rust, his skin like a sunbaked saddle. He aims a crooked, avian nose toward the landing point of Larry’s ashes and sings “‘Round Midnight” in a sandpaper baritone.
            David was wrong. This was Larry’s favorite song. And he knows why he didn’t sing it, because he can feel it taking him apart, brick by brick.


Point Damon is a living illustration in The Way of Things. The seaward shore, harassed by waves and wind, offers a rock-strewn but solid footing of wet sand. The harbor side, lapped by gentle waves, presents a layer of sand and soil the consistency of sponge cake. Each step sinks two inches, turning a mile hike into five miles of work.

            In the parlance of Ocean Shores, today is a good day: overcast with light rain and a wind that will not actually knock you over. David walks the seaward side, one gray crescent after another, and runs through his mental list.
            Larry. He never realized how close they were. He never knew the frequency of their daily interactions. What does he do with the trio? The softball team? Will every deep fly, every performance of “Witchcraft” be an insult to his memory?
            Elena. His wife is grotesquely fat. But this is the same woman he married, the woman he loved with a passion that threatened to swallow him whole. The woman who gave him two gorgeous boys. He cringes at the sight of her, at the very thought of sex, and he hates himself.
            Money. This was the plan: they would open an ice cream shop. At the end of the school year, he would go from teaching to dishing up sundaes. Summer sales were good, but not enough to justify a year-round overhead. They needed to find something to attract the locals during the off-season, or they needed to get the hell out. Besides, he suspected his wife was embezzling the stock.
            Thankfully, he’s interrupted by The Carousel. At the end of the point, the water from the ocean swings to the left, running along the shore in a semicircular stream. David could watch it for hours. But today he smells chicken. And curry. Rosemary, parsley. He has heard that grief can distort the senses, but he didn’t expect such a specific list of ingredients.
            He turns toward the smell and finds a wigwam built of driftwood. Some of the pieces are twelve feet high. A trail of smoke rises from the center. As he nears the spot, he finds an opening, and rough shapes: a log, a plank holding plates and glasses, one book. A large pot hanging from a length of copper pipe.
            He hears whistling: “Take Five.” Around the bend of the harbor shore stands a naked man, covered in soap. David beelines back to the ocean. For the first time this week, he’s hungry.


David has taken up smoking. Not because he likes it; because he needs something to do. Isaiah has begun his solo dinner hour. David sets his bass on a stand next to the dance floor. He descends the long flight of steps next to the hotel and settles on a low wall near the dunes. The night is crystalline cold, stars flocking over the beach in record numbers. An elderly couple walks the wooden path over the sand, bundled up like ice skaters. David pulls a mint-green box from his windbreaker. He’s had it for two weeks, and still has five cigarettes. He pulls one out and stares at it. He hears singing.
            No. It’s Isaiah, playing “Cottontail” at an easy swing. The man’s a genius. Just keeping up with him makes his brain hurt. People say David’s basswork sounds great, but it’s hard to enjoy yourself when you’re a swimmer lost at sea, fighting a rip tide of chord changes. Weird. It sounds like Isaiah’s playing one of those Ella Fitzgerald scat lines. How the hell do you get that from a piano?
            He hears a finger-snap, and spies a shadow at the back of the hotel, hiding between a dune and a patio. David closes his eyes and listens to the voice, deedling an arc of nonsense syllables over the top of the melody. He makes it sound easy; it isn’t. Larry was the best singer he’s ever known, and scatting totally threw him. If he lights the cigarette, Shadow Man will disappear, so David listens for a while, pockets the mint-green box and heads upstairs for a soda.
            Ralph won’t let his musicians drink until they’re done playing. David can’t really blame him; he’s known a lot of musicians. But it’s hard to play cold sober, especially tonight. At break time, they head for Isaiah’s truck and break out the miniature liquor bottles. David resists the temptation to raise a toast to fallen comrades, and takes his Jack Daniel’s at a shot.
            “Ah! Much better.”
            “Always,” says Isaiah.
            Isaiah is seven feet tall. A seven-foot Jew with a Barry White voice and one of those chin-spike tufts that the Beats called a goatee.
            David once said, “You ever consider the fact that you could snap me like a twig?”
            Isaiah unleashed his monstrous smile. “You know how hard it is to find a good bassist?”
            No talk now. They take turns sighing, watching their breath rise into the streetlights.
            “Tourist season,” says Isaiah.
            “I know.”
            “Need a singer.”
            “Yep. And Ocean Shores is just crawling with Bennetts and Sinatras.”
            “I keep playing the old intros,” says Isaiah. “And I look over to give the cue…”
            “Yeah. Tell you what. I’ll take out an ad. We’ll do some auditions. Frankly, I need the money.”
            “Ice cream?”
            “Because the tourists of Washington State deserve the same chance at obesity as my wife. Oh God. I’m sorry.”
            Isaiah cleans out a Captain Morgan. “Nonsense! This parking lot is our confessional. You say whatever you need to.”
            “Thank you, Father Silverstein.”
            “Here. Take the sacrament.”
            He hands David a bottle of Binaca. David takes a blast and hands it back. They make for the hotel.
            “What do you wanna play?”
            “Something happy.”
            “‘Girl from Ipanema.’”
            “That’s not happy! She doesn’t even see the poor guy.”
            “Yeah,” says Isaiah. “But she’s tall and tan and young and lovely.”


David stares at home plate, a Milky Way of scars and scratches. The umpire finishes his sweeping and stands up. “Real sorry about this – recent events and all – but I gotta start the clock, David. Y’got five minutes to come up with that eighth man.”
            “I understand. Just wish I knew where Georgie was.”
            David wanders down the line. His players are warming up, heads on a swivel, looking for a savior. He peers into the spruce forest beyond the bleachers and catches a flash of red.
            “Hey! Guy in the cap!”
            The man slows to a halt and looks in David’s direction. Still wearing denim, still with the Bavarian hat.
            “We need another guy or we have to forfeit.”
            The man squints and blinks. “I don’t know…”
            “You don’t have to do a thing. If you just stand out there, you’ve already saved us.”
            The man studies his boot-tops, then stares into the outfield. He licks his lips and scratches an ear.
            “Right field okay?”
            “Right field’s perfect. Hey! Anybody got an extra glove?”
            Oscar offers a beat-up Rawlings. They go with the standard eight-man defense, leaving second base open and trusting David to pitch for the inside corner. Naturally, his first attempt drifts over the plate, and the batter lifts a lazy fly to right. Merzy’s fast, but there’s now way he’s going to get there. Their new recruit is frozen, gazing skyward as if he’s just spotted an interesting bird. David realizes he doesn’t even know the guy’s name, so he’s left to watch in a silent panic.
            The man flips his hand into the air. The ball lands with a smack. He takes it out and studies it, looking for secret messages, then chucks it to the second baseman who isn’t there. It rolls to David’s feet. Merzy jogs by and slaps the man on the back. He flinches.
            After the third out, the man walks directly across the foul line and sits on a tree stump. Oscar comes over to confer with David.
            “You see the way he threw up his glove like that?”
            “Yeah,” says David. “He’s a player.”
            “Shall I invite him to join us in the dugout?”
            “Nah. Probably won’t bat till next inning.”
            “O ye of little faith.”
            “Well if you bozos would line up a few hits…”
            The following inning, someone laces a ball down the right field line, and the legend of Red Man grows. He races to the line, plants a foot and spins, hurling a one-hopper to second. The batter rounds first and stays there, shaking his head. At the end of the inning, Red Man strolls to the rack and picks out a bat.
            “You’re up third,” says David.
            “Figured.”
            His eyes are bullets of steel blue.
            “I guess you’ve played this game before.”
            He wraps his fingers around the handle and flexes his wrists.
            “Tell you the truth, I can’t remember.”
            The first two batters manage to wind up on second and third. Red Man stands in, leans his bat against his shoulder and watches four pitches go by, two strikes, two balls. David is tempted to call time and remind him that it’s okay to take a swing, but decides that it really doesn’t matter. The next pitch is about to drift by for strike three when Red Man punches at it, slapping a grounder into right. Both runners score. He stands on first, arms folded, as if nothing could be more natural.
            They lose the game – ten-on-eight being a pretty hefty advantage – but they do manage to fight off the ten-run mercy rule. With condolences added to the mix, the pitching-mound handshakes take longer than usual. When David returns to the bench, he finds Oscar’s old glove dangling from the bat rack. Red Man is nowhere in sight.


David’s children are a joke of the universe. Elena’s father Pablo died during her first pregnancy, so their eldest automatically took his name. Naturally, the genetic blender kicked out a gringito with blond hair, blue eyes and a windstorm of freckles. This crook-nosed Ichabod Crane charmed his way to an insane level of high-school popularity, and now, at 19, maintained his dominion over the local youth as night manager of Laney’s Pizza. He rarely left the premises.
            The naming of number two fell to David, who chose to honor his still-living Uncle Derek. This time, the blender delivered jet-black hair, coal-black eyes and skin the color of pancakes. Now 16, he resembles a young Desi Arnaz, minus the skills with music and women. He is, in fact, the biggest geek David has ever known – but he glories in his geek-ness, which is somehow very cool.
            David loops his softball bag over his shoulder and closes his car door, unleashing all the stars in the galaxy. He sends his thanks to the tall pines that block out the lights of town. And there’s Gemini. He and Larry were so much alike that they called each other Castor and Pollux. In the sky, he could never remember which was which.
            He stows his bag in the hall closet and reports to the computer room, where Derek is pursuing his parallel life in the World of Warcraft. His avatar, a blond viking with green gecko-skin, is doing equestrian battle with a gold-plated triceratops. He wins, as expected, stomping the poor critter into a copper-puddle extinction.
            “Yes!” he exults, and spins in his chair. “Hi Dad. How’d you do?”
            “Lost.”
            “How much?”
            “Eight runs.”
            “Woohoo!”
            “I don’t…”
            “You beat the spread.”
            “You’re making book on slow-pitch softball?”
            “Sure. I had you as eleven-point ‘dogs. And Toby Monamer, that almighty oaf, now owes yours truly a cool deuce.”
            “Deuce?”
            “Two bucks. We keep it pretty light.”
            “But it’s still gambling.”
            Derek tents his fingers like a district attorney and speaks in a booming baritone. “Miss Thompson, please read back the testimony from… sometime last month.” He places a pair of reading glasses on the tip of his nose and responds in a Lily Tomlin nasal. “Derek’s father: ‘Son, the best way to stay out of trouble is to find creative ways to stay busy.’”
            David grins. “You are such a geek.”
            “Damn straight. And if you really are going to raise me in the bustling cultural paradise of Open Sores, what’s a little gaming if it keeps me away from the crackheads?”
            “You know, one of these days…” David raises a rhetorical finger, “I’d sure like to win an argument with you.”
            Derek flashes a Cuban bandleader smile. “I’ll toss you a bone once in a while. Ya got my numbers?”
            He hands him the scorebook. “Stat monster.”
            “You beat the spread with eight men? Who the heck is Red Man?”
            “We had to Shanghai a civilian. Didn’t even catch his name.”
            “Not to tweak your old-school sensibilities, Dad, but today we call them Native Americans.”
            “Gotcha. Get to sleep sometime.”
            “I will. Love ya!.”
            “Love ya back.”
            David heads down the hallway, already working on his next-day limp. He pauses at the bedroom door and is relieved when he hears Elena snoring.


            “When Lincoln and Douglas debated in Charleston, Illinois, Lincoln said the following: ‘There is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as… there must be a position of superior and inferior… I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”
            He spots a hand mid-class. Ah yes, Kevin Konker.
            “Kevin?”
            “Isn’t this just another case of a bunch of liberal academics trying to rewrite history?”
            From the tone of his questions, Kevin had long ago given himself away as a fan of conservative radio, where grand conspiracies could be constructed from whole cloth whenever the host ran out of actual arguments. David always found it best to begin with a compliment, the better to knock his opponent off-balance.
            “That’s an excellent question, Kevin. In fact, ne of the biggest mistakes made my academics is to judge historical figures by modern moral standards. Imagine if Lincoln ran for President in 2012 and made this same statement. Holy crap!”
            His low-level obscenity gets a laugh, which in a final-period class, on a sunny day, is a major victory.
            “However, the Lincoln-Douglas debates were widely attended and recorded, so I assure you, that is what the man said. Lincoln saw the abolition of slavery as an unattainable goal, so he kept his focus on stopping the spread of slavery. And he occasionally talked like a racist. If he had tried for more – if he had become an outright abolitionist – he would not have become President, and we would not be talking about him right now.
            “Now. I want you to understand something else. All your lives, we have sold you an image of Abraham Lincoln as a great and saintly figure. This is because your minds were not yet capable of grasping the jarring complexities that make up the true Lincoln. In the end, I hope that you will see him as I do: not that giant dull face on Mount Rushmore but a flawed and vigorous human being, an absolutely brilliant politician and legal thinker, and an amazing leader of men. But I leave that decision to you.”
            He checks the clock and finds he has only ten seconds.
            “Chapter 16 for Monday. One week till finals. Hang in there!”
            He nails the last word at the bell, then steps away from the door lest he be trampled. In Ocean Shores, spring fever is an actual and perilous affliction. The salmon swimming upstream is Abigail Sparling, a gathering of strawberry blonde curls, freckled cheekbones and hazel eyes that bend light like Einsteinian opals.
            “David, I love you.”
            “Hold that thought.” He catches Kevin by the shoulder. Kevin turns with a blank look, that expressionless expression used by teenagers the world ‘round.
            “Mister Konker. Keep those questions coming. Makes for a lively classroom.”
            “Oh. Sure. Thanks.”
            And he’s gone with the rest. David makes certain to close and lock the door before he returns to Abbey, who is perched provocatively on his desk.
            “Now I love you even more. First I loved you for that fucking brilliant analysis of Lincoln. Now I love you for taking that Limbaugh-loving punk – he who claims that it ain’t poetry unless it rhymes, ahrr! – and planting that devious little seed of skepticism. You are a beautiful, beautiful man, and I want to have your children.”
            “Thanks. But could you please stop the gushing before one of my children passes by?”
            She twirls a strand of hair around a pinkie. “Sorry. I’m a poet.”
            “No shit. Any other reason for your visit, Ms. Sparling?”
            She hands him a flyer. “The annual literary anthology. Tell your students. Perhaps buy a dozen copies for your family.”
            “Well, I don’t know about…”
            “Because your son’s in it.”
            “Really?”
            “Two poems. Excellent poems.”
            “I had no idea.”
            “Derek’s mind is almost as interesting as his old man’s.” She hops off his desk and makes for the door. David’s always had a weakness for women who wear jackets with blue jeans. She turns at the door.
            “Listen. I understand the wife thing, the professional thing. That… other thing. But I am well acquainted with tragedy. If you want to talk sometime, I’m sure you’ll find a way to let me know.”
            Abbey opens the door with her left arm – because it’s the only one she’s got – and slips into the hallway. He listens to the tock of her cowboy boots until they fade into the hum of the ventilation, and wonders if his son is in love with her, too.


He pulls into the Beach Mall to find young people on mopeds, running loops around the parking lot. This is both the plus and minus of Harvey’s Bike-Rent. Plus: it brings in traffic. Minus: stupid, reckless traffic. A teenage couple is headed right for him, legs and arms all over the place. They wobble past his fender in a burst of Doppler giggling and turn for the beach. It’s Derek’s friend, Toby Monamer. With a girl.
            “Hi handsome.”
            Elena slides a bowl into the sink. She may or may not have been eating from it.
            “Hola, guapa.” (?)
            He leans over the counter for a kiss and comes back with Exhibit B. Strawberry.
            “How’s the biz?” he asks.
            “Sunshine! Got a nice little after-school rush.”
            “I’ve been slipping subliminal messages into my lectures. Benjamin Franklin got the French to send Lafayette largely by plying his wife with pistachio ice cream.”
            Elena releases her bright, rounded laugh. Her laugh is as tasty as her lips. And she laughs at his jokes.
            “One more week, I’ll be back there with you, honey. You okay for closing?”
            “I’m fine. Could you pick up a pizza?”
            “I know just the place.”
            She draws up a simple smile. There’s something else about her that he has never figured out, until now. Her eyebrows are perfect: dark and sharp, curving inward at an angle that makes her seem ceaselessly witty and sexy. All these years, he has been in thrall to something he has not actually seen.
            “What?”
            “Looking at my beautiful wife.”
            The smile grows. With whiter skin she’d be blushing.
            “You make me feel like a teenager.”
            “Just stay off the mopeds.”
            “Gringo loco.”
            He exits to a warm breeze. A twelve-year-old grinds past on a skateboard.


He drives all of one block to Laney’s Pizza, but he pauses at the entryway. Pablo is hands-on, dancing among register, oven and counter, touching up the rough edges, nudging his workers this way and that. Pizza management is not civil engineering, or graphic design, or teaching, but look how good he is.
            David makes his entrance to the usual greeting.
            “It’s my old man! How ya doin’, Pops?”
            Pablo offers a sloppy grin and four knuckles. David delivers the fist-bump and follows with the finger-pistol salute.
            “Hey!” says Pablo. “New school/old school. Coolest father in town, man. Gets it from hanging out with teenagers all day. Am I right, Cube?”
            The Asian kid with the white Mohawk thumps his chest and flips a peace sign. “Word!”
            “I’m here strictly on business,” says David. “Your mother would like a large combo with anchovies.”
            Pablo makes the Yuk Face, his rubbery features sucking toward the center.
            “What is up with that?”
            “It’s Ocean Shores, son. Ocean. People here like seafood.”
            “I’m gonna be sorely disappointed tonight when I raid the fridge and find fish all over the pizza.”
            David moves toward Cube at the cash register. Pablo waves him off.
            “Yer money’s no good here, old man.”
            “You’re sure.”
            “Hey, I’ve earned some freebies. Just don’t tell my cheapass friends. Now go play. I’ll come getcha.”
            David wonders why he never feels like the father anymore. It’s a long downhill road, one that began with Pablo’s first command, at the age of five: “Not that jacket, Dad! Nobody likes that jacket.”
            David heads for the arcade and finds The Sopranos in working order. Who wouldn’t love a pinball machine with its own stripper pole? He cherishes this tiny island of time created by the cooking of pizza. It’s mindless, it’s fun, and – thanks to the thousand wasted afternoons of his youth – he’s good at it. The last thought before he slips into the noise and blink is this: I have got to find a singer.


            God knows how he got so many sharks in the family, but Derek’s into the anchovies, too. Unfortunately, the little buggers have decided to pursue a second life, swimming laps around David’s stomach. An hour into the struggle, he gives up on the idea of sleep and rises to the edge of the bed. Elena moans and shifts; the mounds of her flab settle into place like cooling lava. He cannot imagine how he will ever again venture into these territories, but he knows that someday he must try.
            This is not a positive track. He wanders to the laundry room, finds an extra pair of jeans and heads outside. It’s one o’clock. Pablo’s not home yet.
            Out of sheer habit, he walks into town. Past the ice cream shop, his personal albatross, toward the hotel, his primary irritation. He takes a left toward Laney’s.
            Pablo’s pickup is out front. The front door is wide open, the lights are on. The anchovies in David’s stomach have gathered in a tight pack. He stops in the entryway and listens. Nothing. He steps inside, light on his feet, the way he feels after he releases a pitch. The place is unnervingly perfect, like a museum of a pizza parlor. He hears the faraway roll of the breakers.
            “Pablo?”
            A small sound from the back. He steps into the hallway past the arcade.
            “Pablo?”
            The response sounds like the mewling of a cat, somewhere inside the walls, but then it gains consonants.
            “Dad?”
            He finds a doorknob around the corner, takes a breath and turns it. It’s a tiny, dark room, smelling of ammonia and vomit. The light slides across to reveal a figure huddled next to the wall, his head buried in his knees. David crouches next to him; he’s breathing in short, gasping intakes, like an engine about to stall.
            “Pablo, it’s okay. It’s Dad.”
            He manages to get an arm under his knees, another around his shoulders, and carries him to a bench. Pablo smells of urine; he’s shaking uncontrollably. David holds him on his lap and tries to remember all the old tricks: smoothing the hair, gentle rocking, the whispered chant of “It’s all right, it’s all right.”
            Pablo looks up, his pale blue eyes bigger than ever. “They had guns, Dad. I thought… I thought they were gonna…”
            He buries his head in his father’s chest and shivers, the adrenaline working its way out.
            “It’s all right,” says David. He pulls his cell phone from his jacket.


            David is almost grateful that tonight’s candidates are awful. He’s got enough on his mind. Mostly his eldest son, who has not left his room for days.
            Candidate number one is a tough-looking redhead who comes from a blues background. She sings every song as if her old man is coming home to blow her head off, and the more she emotes the harder she sings. Putting all that pressure on her throat causes her tone to blat out, nicely illustrating the line between singing and shouting. He’d like to give her a good, hard slap for crimes against music, and feels fortunate that Isaiah is handling personnel duties.
            “Thanks so much for coming out. You’ve really got a terrific voice. We’re going to take quite a while to come to a decision, so please be patient with us.”
            “No problem!” she says. “I’m so sorry about your friend.”
            “Thank you. That’s one reason we’re taking so long with this. We’re still in a bit of shock.”
            He sends her out the door and returns to the garage, eyes  to the heavens.
            “Sorry, Larry.”
            “You are so smooth. You sure you never went to law school?”
            Isaiah grins. “That is so much preferable to ‘You sure you never played basketball?’”
            “So you’d prefer to be stereotyped by race as opposed to height?”
            “‘How’s the weather up there?’”
            Candidate number two is even worse. David recalls a mention of classical training and choirs. Larry used to attribute his breath control to just such a background. But to show up with sheet music, and to reproduce each note with Mozartean precision? Well, yikes. He and Isaiah are dragging him through a metronomic rendition of “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” when a ruckus breaks out inside the house. It sounds like a pit bull on the attack.
            David cuts out, leaving Isaiah with Luciano Pavarotten, and sails down the hall. He opens the door to find Pablo in his briefs, sparring with the TV screen as he sends a squad of zombies to horrible deaths.
            “Die, you motherfuckers! Pieces of shit DIE! Fuck you and fuck you. Not so fucking bad now, are ya!?”
            He spots his father at the door and freezes. David is stunned at the transformation, the scraggly patches of beard, the snarled fright-wig, dark circles under wild eyes.
            David points at the screen. “Watch out! They’re right on top of you.”
            Pablo pauses, confused, then turns to find a circle of flesh eaters bearing down.
            “Shit!”
            “Get ‘em!” yells David. “Kill those motherfuckers!”
            “Yahh!” Pablo guns them down in a shower of blood. “Die you assholes! Fucking DIE! Ahahahaha!”
            David returns to the garage, feeling very fortunate that Elena’s not home.
            “Hi. Sorry ‘bout that. So Isaiah, have we heard enough of a sample?”
            It takes a moment for Isaiah to realize that David is initiating an escape sequence.
            “I think I’ve heard enough.”
            “Thanks so much for coming out,” says David. He punches the garage door opener. “You’ve got a fantastic voice. We’re going to take a while to…”
            By the end of the spiel, he manages to walk Placido Dumbingo to the driveway. He grabs two beers from the fridge, and they toast their auditioner farewell as he circles the court.
            “We are so fucked.”
            “Come on,” says Isaiah. “That’s only, what? Seven singers?”
            “Eight.”
            “Shit. Maybe we need to start cruising the karaoke bars.”
            “Ha! Right.”
            “I’m not entirely kidding. What was the ruckus about?”
            David takes a deep drink and stares at his fake-book, which has flipped itself open to “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”
            “I think that was… therapy.”
            “You got a weird family, man.”
            “Define ‘weird.’”


David lights the cigarette, and takes a puff, and releases it. It rises toward the green exit sign as a low-flying cirrus. Okay, he thinks. That’s pretty cool. Twenty feet beyond the sign, Isaiah plays “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” spilling out the chords like he’s not actually sure if he’s going to play it. Then he chunks a cluster of notes and kicks into an easy swing. The singer comes in a little phlegmy, but he coughs it out and swells the second line like a rubber band, playing with the finish on a delayed staccato.
            This is the voice David’s been carrying around in his head. Weathered brass, rough but dead on pitch, an apostle to the song but willing to play around. He surrounds the final note with baby notes (exactly like Sarah Vaughan) before landing it with a nice warm vibrato for the sendoff.
            David leans back and finds him in the same spot, camped between the last dune and a low balcony.
            “Hey! You’ve got a great voice.”
            Shadow Man freezes.
            “It’s all right. I’m with the band.”
            He answers in a mumble. “Sorry. I’ll get moving right away.”
            He shuffles away, stumbling in the sand.
            “No, hey! We need a singer, and…”
            “Don’t want trouble.”
            Once he hits the wooden path, he’s gone. David flashes on the feral cats behind the ice cream shop, the ones that have been shooed away a thousand times.
            He takes another puff.


            “Jesus, Isaiah. That room is so dead.”
            Isaiah shoots a mini-bottle of tequila and coughs it down. “I never realized how much of our public persona was Larry. Tell you the truth, sometimes I thought he was pretty cheesy. But I guess people like that.”
            “Maybe we need to work up a reparteĆ©.”
            Isaiah snorts. “Oh yeah. That’ll work.”
            “How come I can lecture to students all day long, but I can’t think of a thing to say about ‘Mack the Knife’?”
            “Because there, you’ve got tons of material, and you love talking about it. Here, it’s all about that bass. It’s easier for singers – they’re already out front. Don’t push it. No one likes a phony. But if you do feel a wry comment coming on, give it a shot.”
“You’ve put some thought into this.” David opens a vodka.
            “Isn’t that four?”
            “Tough week. Month. Year.”
            “Any leads?”
            “The usual Aberdeen-crackhead theory. No actual evidence. Smart criminals. No security cameras. Caught Pablo alone, right when he was sorting the night’s take. Poor kid. I don’t know if he’s going back. Got him hooked up with a therapist.”
            “Parthenia?”
            “You’ve been?”
            Isaiah turns up his hands. “I’m Jewish. A physical freak. Divorced. A ‘working’ musician.”
            “They should probably just put you in an institution.”
            “Thanks to Parthenia, no. And I hate to add to your personal shitpile, but Ralph said we need to get a singer by next week or he’s going to look elsewhere.”
            “Jesus.” David downs the vodka in a spiteful shot. “Yaknow, I keep running into this homeless dude. Hides out behind the hotel. He’s got a way with a song.”
            “Oh yeah,” says Isaiah. “That’s what we need. Boxcar Willie.”
            “Hey, it’s like softball. Better to throw a body out there than forfeit the game.”
            “Oh it’s all good until he starts panhandling the customers. I’ll make a round of the town Dumpsters and see if I can sign him up.”
            “Let’s play some music before I get more depressed.”
            Isaiah smiles and hands him the Binaca.
            “I was thinking we’d start with ‘Learnin’ the Blues.’”
            “Asshole.”


            Coach Hazlett was nice enough to make David a key for the weight room, and during school vacations he became a regular visitor. His cover story was the equipment – so much better than the free weights at home – but it also made an excellent escape from the rest of his life.
            Such was the case over Christmas, when Elena’s evertalking mother had turned his home into a windstorm of blather. Here on the bench press, alone with his own breath and the steady chink of the weights, David could relax. Then the door opened: Abbey Sparling, black leggings and a Seahawks sweatshirt. Despite her innate radiance, she looked worn out. But this was no surprise; this was the first Christmas.
            She came to his side and bent forward into a stretch.
            “Hi.”
            “Hi. Doin’ okay?”
            She breathed out. “Too much time. During school I had distractions.”
            “Mike hook you up?”
            “Yep. Should I feel privileged?”
            “You, me and SeƱora Vitanza.”
            “Wow! I feel so VIP. ‘Course, it’s hard to say no to a woman whose remaining limb is taking a beating.”
            “Correcting papers?”
            “Oh God! Isn’t it endless?”
            “Hard enough with two hands.”
            Abbey stopped her stretches and studied the jungle of rods and cables. “Wow. Where do I begin?”
            “‘Love Story.’”
            “Seriously.”
            “Let’s try the pull bar.”
            He took her to the station. A cable ran from the weight stack to a pulley, dangling a bar with handles on either end.
            “Really?” she said.
            “Sure.” He set the weight stack at ten pounds, grabbed the center of the bar, slipping the cable between his ring and middle fingers, and pulled it to his chin.
            “I learned this after my shoulder surgery. The trick is to go real light, with lots of reps, and don’t go heavier till you absolutely have to.”
            Abbey took a wide stance, felt around for the proper grip on the bar and pulled entirely too hard. The ten-pound weight flew from the stack; when it dropped back it yanked the bar from her grip and sent it spinning. David stepped in to grab it and broke out laughing.
            “Damn, woman! You’re stronger than I thought.”
            He looked down to find her crying, and it was easy to guess why. Nothing in her life – not even this stupid, small thing – would ever go right again. He reached over to wipe away a tear, but his hand stayed there, and the sadness in her eyes was a gravity he could not resist. What followed was a storm of kissing, of breath and tongues and warmth. It ended five minutes later. Abbey knelt on the met, her sweatshirt gone, her hand on David’s crotch. When their eyes met, they realized they could go no further.
            Abbey stood and touched his shoulder – then took back her hand, as if his skin were electric.
            “I’m… sorry.”
            She picked up her sweatshirt, hurried to the door, and was gone. David stared at the door for thirty seconds. He set the stack to 50 and went back to work.


            David pulls the bar behind his head, taps the metal to his shoulder and lets it back up. He feels the familiar weakness filling his arms, gives it one more rep and clicks the bar back to its holder. He finds Abbey walking his way in a yellow sundress festooned with asters.
            “So now you don’t even wait till school’s out?”
            “The little buggers better be out studying for their finals. I take it you’re not joining me?”
            “Going outside. In the sunshine. Maniac.”
            “You know, Washington was an amazing physical specimen. He once broke up a riot by holding two of the participants apart – by their throats.”
            “So your personal fitness guru is the Father of Our Country.”
            “Yes, well, I gotta do something. I’ve been deprived of softball.”
            “Oh no! The Larry thing?”
            “Yeah. We’re just not up for it.”
            “Maybe it’s the fact that it happened right there on the field. That’s pretty traumatic.”
            “You are quite perceptive. You should be a poet.”
            “Says the father of the poet.”
            She hands him a thin glossy book. The cover features a pale-skinned girl with a feathered mask and a lizard tattoo.
            “Hey! Sharp. And creepy.”
            “Paula, my genius photographer. Just a freshman. Well, I’m going to catch some rays. Happy lifting!”
            “‘Bye!”
            She walks away and out the door. David’s left brain is urging him to finish this round of lifts. His right brain says, Screw it! Read the poems. He wipes his arms with a towel, sits on the leg-press and flips to pages 32 and 33, headlined Derek Falter: Two Poems.

Walking Bass


I was born on a five-four-one
fast-change turnaround,
took my milk in twelve measures
in a house of funk

I am the son of a bass player,
my friends deep into the
ritual of eldermock when
Dad powers up,
thwacks the low string like a
Prince sideman,
blaxploitation soundtrack,
porn film.

Man! Your dad’s cool.

Youth of America!
Do not let this happen to you.
The first sign of parental-
musical interest should be
answered with a subtle
campaign of hints regarding the
accordion, the hammer dulcimer,
the ukelele
(which really does get a bad rap).

Otherwise, you will end up
trying to talk your way into a
front-porch kiss with a
girl more intent on the
walking blues coming from the
garage.

Cripes! that what I said
Cripes!

Really, Dad.
(Spoonful of cereal, sip of
orange juice)
The clarinet is a
vastly underrated instrument.


David chuckles. Pretty freakin’ funny. And “fast-change turnaround”? Who knew the kid was actually listening?


Promise


Mr. and Mrs. Caterpillar were married in the branches of a cedar in early spring.

“You know,” said Mantis (presiding). “Things will change.”

“I suspect they will,” said Mrs. C.

“But our love will transcend,” said Mr. C.

They took their honeymoon in the San Juans, and spun their cocoons in the bridal suite. Weeks later, Mr. C popped out as a swallowtail butterfly, with elegant wings of black and yellow.

He was admiring himself in the mirror when he heard a large crash. He found a small Orca flopping on their bed, clothed in dazzling lava-lamp patterns of black and white. The Orca bared its teeth, and from its mouth came the voice of his wife.

“Hi honey! How do I look?”


            Oh God oh God, thinks David. He sets the stack to 100 and goes back to work.


            He has sighted the torpedo making for the boat, but he has no idea what to do. He is angry at Derek, but for what? Being too keen an observer? Too masterful a writer? It’s his own damn fault – the kid was raised on the First Amendment. How could a Constitutional scholar introduce censorship into his own house? What he needed was a deeper understanding, and there was one obvious place to get it.
            “Abbey?”
            “Hi. What’s up?”
            “It’s about this poem.”
            “I hope I didn’t overexpose you on that. But I think most of the kids know you play bass, and it’s really a funny poem.”
            “No. The other one.”
            “Oh. The Caterpillars?”
            “It’s about my wife.”
            “Oh.” Silence. The flipping of pages. “Oh geez. Oh. I am so sorry. I get so much of this fairy-tale stuff. You would think an English teacher would be better at sniffing out an allegory.”
            “It’s okay,” says David. “I mean, shit, you can’t tell a kid not to write about his own family. I’m just trying to figure out how to handle it.”
            “Can you meet me tonight?”
            “Is that a good idea?”
            “Oh stop it, you moron. Just trust me on this. Meet me at McKenzie’s at eleven-thirty.”
            “Okay.”


            McKenzie’s is a pretty standard neighborhood bar, but it affords certain advantages that attract some of the better karaoke singers. The low ceiling and modest surroundings provide a comfortable setting and excellent acoustics. The host, Captain Kirk, is good with a soundboard and not given to radio-DJ yakking – a rare combination. The singers perform in a cave-like room slightly separated from the main area and bathed in red light. This creates an impression that you’re watching the singers on a very large television, but the performers seem to find it reassuring, like an acoustic womb.
            David crosses the parking lot, full of doubts. His late-night constitutionals have provided a certain window for covert operations, but in such a small town the slightest whiff of teacherly hanky-panky is bound to cover the peninsula like a fast-moving fog. He finds Abbey at a back table and gives her a hug before heading off for a beer. Mrs. Lorenson from the post office is giving a reasonable approximation of “Black Velvet.”
            “Are you a participant?”
            “I try.” She’s twirling a strand of hair, a teenage move that makes him nervous. “I sorta stick to the eighties – the music of my generation.”
            “Good stuff. Any thoughts on my brilliant kid?”
            She pulls out a copy of the anthology and opens it to Derek’s poems.
            “First point. The Orca is a large mammal, but also a beautiful one. ‘…clothed in dazzling lava-lamp patterns of black and white.’ Best line in the poem. The swallowtail is also beautiful – with markings that mimic the Orca’s. The poet admires his parents, and understands the deep connections between them, but he also sees this troublesome gap threatening to break them up. He doesn’t need punishment; he needs reassurance.”
            David takes a moment to gather this in. Captain Kirk introduces Johnny Q, who works in the produce section at Sav-Mor. He wiggles his way into “Heartbreak Hotel.”
            “So why do I still feel like giving him a kick in the ass?”
            “Because he has placed you in a precarious situation, and pushed you toward a round of truth-telling with your wife that you have been putting off. Because you feel guilty and superficial for even bringing it up.”
            “Jesus! Slow down. All this insight is freakin’ me out.”
            “Sorry. I call it my Inner Parthenia.”
            “You too?”
            She holds up her remaining hand. “Oh yeah. Not much need for psychotherapy here.”
            “I’m pretty sure I’ll soon be a client myself. Hey, one other thing. Is this really a poem?”
            “Good question. We got short-shorts, flash fiction, microfiction… Derek opted for prose poetry, which carries the elevated tone and compression of poetry without the usual stanzas and line breaks. Oh! I’m up.”
            She sings “Allison” by Elvis Costello. Her voice is solid but pedestrian, marked by the usual amateur lack of breath support. She returns to the table looking sheepish.
            “Oh God I hope I didn’t suck.”
            “Beat hell out of most of our auditioners.”
            She takes a sip from her whiskey sour. A large man gets up to sing “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”
            “By the way,” she says. “I consider your son’s poems the best in the anthology. He is remarkably gifted, and he manages to entirely avoid the teenage love of abstractions.”
            “Abstractions?”
            “Non-specific words – words that don’t deliver an image. ‘Sadness.’ ‘Abomination.’ ‘Loyalty.’ Notice the difference if I say ‘hydrangea,’ ‘pancake,’ ‘blaxploitation soundtrack.’”
            “So I’ll have a starving poet to go with my agoraphobic pizza manager.”
            “Maybe he’ll get a job as an English teacher.”
            “Oh! Like there’s any future in that.”
            She delivers a backhand to his biceps. He rubs it dramatically.
            “Yow! Remind me not to give you any more weightlifting tips. One-armed monster.”
            She smiles. “So refreshing to be openly abused for my handicap.”
            “Oh! So now we’re using the H-word?”
            “Can I drive a stick? No. That’s a handicap.” She looks to the red room. “Ah. You’re about to see the real reason I dragged you here.”
            Captain Kirk introduces a singer named Billy, a bearded man dressed all in denim. Unlike the other singers, Billy uses the stand, loosening the midgrip before adjusting the height and pressing the mic into the clip. The KJ brings up the screen: “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” a Sinatra arrangement.
            The song begins with one of those Tin Pan Alley preludes. The accompaniment is spare but Billy’s right on it, a rich, unforced baritone, handling the high skips with ease. He’s got that Sinatran quality of convincing you that he’s just a guy in a bar, telling a story. But then the strings kick in and he’s painting a banner of coffee-colored torment; the tone rises and ebbs like a wave, falling back to the conversation.
            David is not entirely surprised to find that it’s the man behind the hotel – but here he’s unrestricted, amplified, and taking full advantage. He softshoes the minor intervals of the bridge, giving it the feel of a man perched in the clouds, contemplating his life. The strings well up and he’s back on the ground, a searing double forte, leaning away from the mic so he doesn’t blow out the speakers. He cuts the sound so drastically  that it sends a shock through the room; he issues the final restatement at a groomed whisper, then opts for the kind of unresolved end-note that Mel Torme favored, spelling it out till it dissolves in the air. The quiet hangs thick, till it’s cut through with applause.
            David finds Abbey grinning at him.
            “You’re like a hawk studying a mouse.”
            “He’s awesome. Does he need work?”
            “Really?”
            “Honey, I got nothin’. And that is so much more than nothin’.”
            “Okay. Um, listen. I better go get him. He disappears pretty quickly. So I’ll see you at school.”
            “Shouldn’t I meet him?”
            “Look. I won’t B.S. you. Billy’s a little… okay, a lot weird. He doesn’t respond well to direct approaches.”
            “Like a feral cat.”
            “Exactly. And you probably won’t get him for a rehearsal, either. But he’s good, and you’re desperate.”
            “Marriage made in heaven.”
            Abbey grabs her purse and gives David a kiss on the cheek. “Bye, hon.” Then she looks around at the crowded bar. “Whoops!”
            A man in a black cowboy hat gets up to sing “Walking in Memphis.” David takes it as a sign, downs his last swallow and starts for home. He sees his jacket in the window – black with a yellow collar. Like a swallowtail butterfly.