Thursday, May 11, 2017

chapter 1 through 3

chapter 1

the girl
     Every sad sack story has a girl in it. In my story her name is Samantha. We met two years ago.  I was working the Gold Coast, Chicago’s ritziest neighborhood, delivering porno flicks on my bicycle for Melvin’s Adult Video store.  One breezy summer evening I rode up to an apartment on North LaSalle Street, rang the bell, and there she was—braced against the doorway eyeing me, a bit skeptically. Maybe I wasn’t exactly what she was expecting. Or, maybe I was.  She blinked at me with just the slightest smirk tugging at the corner of her lips and I handed her the videos, When Harry Banged Sally and Pile Driving Miss Daisy
     “I see you’re a fan of the classics,” I said to her.
     Her smirk sharply turned. “They’re not for me,” she assured me.
     “I’m not here to judge you, lady, I just make the deliveries.”
     “No, really. They're for a bachelorette party,” she insisted.
     I snuck a peek inside the apartment - in both directions - not another soul in sight. I nodded at her knowingly.
     “No one’s arrived yet—the party doesn’t start for another hour,” she persisted.
     “Whatever you say, lady.”
     “Why are you calling me ‘lady’, I’m probably at least two years younger than you.”
     “Okay then Missy, enjoy your flicks,” and I gave her a sly wink as I was about to turn to walk away. But surprisingly, she continued, “You don’t believe me?”
     I said nothing... tilted my head sideways.
     “Just come back in an hour then,” she protested, “You’ll see.”
     I’ll see? I felt like egging her on some more, so I leaned
forward and softly asked, “What do you care what a lowly delivery boy thinks. If you get your jollies watching that despicable smut, then that’s your business.”
     “I should slap you,” she grinned.
     This made me break a smile. “Ew, how kinky.”
     Her smile became seductive, that look—the look that

the good girls give. Not the ‘fuck-me’ eyes that the bad girls have, but more like the ‘you’ve got my attention’ look that only the nice girls have.  And that one look was all it took.  The ‘mechanism’ kicked in.  It began with the faint rhythmic pounding of inflamed African drums sounding off inside my chest; slow at first, but rapidly increasing... dramatically... I somehow managed to swallow the wad of sandpaper that had formed in my throat and enunciated the words, “About an hour, you say?”
     She nodded, still grinning seductively. And I backed away slowly, cautiously, as though I was certain I was about to be struck by a rattlesnake at any moment.
     Of course I didn’t go back to her apartment that night, not in an hour, not in two hours. Instead, like every other night, I tooled around the downtown Loop on my mountain bike, weaving in and out of alleyways and between parked cars, a thousand feet below the right-angled edges of multi-million dollar glass skyscrapers.  As I glided underneath the elevated train tracks that lurked above like the skeletal remains of overgrown metal reptiles, I had that eerie feeling— that feeling that always came when riding around alone in the wee hours. The dark sky cast a vastness over everything that made the architecture even more mystical, more sinister.  There was a stillness that resembled the reverential calm and quiet found deep in a thicket-rich wilderness at three or four in the morning.  Only the far-off murmur of semi-trucks on expressways hinted at an urban pulse.
      My dark, late night rides allowed me to meditate and to journey deep into the far recesses of my thoughts, but sporadically the solitude was interrupted by other night creatures; a group of four or five young swingers laughing and joking... or the sounds of live music escaping the graffiti-marked back doorway of some basement club... a drunkard stumbling along... a pair of valets sharing a funny-smelling cigarette beneath a parking lot light pole.  I saw homeless night urchins sifting through dumpsters as art students walked briskly past with their big Art bag in tow.  I saw young couples coming home late from a date, leaping over a water puddle while holding hands and bumbling comically along the sidewalks.  Occasionally a taxicab would breeze by or a newspaper delivery truck would shuck a load of the latest edition onto a vacant curb...  But for the most part I had the streets to myself. I could ride as fast or as slow as I wanted. I could weave from side to side, hop curbs, or ride no-handed. Why did I do this every night? It’s hard to explain but somehow riding the deserted downtown streets late into the night and the early mornings gave me a breath of fresh air. It was as though I was privy to an intimate portrait of the city that no one else in the world could see.  And every so often there were these little episodes or images that revealed themselves. Little moments that made no sense at all. 
     One night, for instance, I watched some middle-aged man, a middle-management type of guy dressed in a suit and tie walking down the middle of State Street at 3:30 in the morning, struggling with the most humongous air conditioner I'd ever seen - he looked as if the fate of all humanity hinged on him getting that air conditioner somewhere.  I didn't know where he was taking it, or how he had obtained it.  Had he just won this in a poker game? Was he stealing it from his office?  Then another time a very elderly gray-haired black lady, probably 80 years old, who was wearing a big floppy hat and a flowery dress as if she was going to church, danced with an invisible partner then pulled down the collar of her top to reveal her saggy wrinkled, pathetic old breasts to me as I rode and called out, “What do you think of these, Sonny?” Yet another night, in a back alley, there were these two bare-chested Hispanic men having the most brutally civilized boxing match I had ever seen.  A small boy, an old woman and a dog sat there calmly and watched as the two men took turns exchanging deliberate bare-knuckled blows for 20 minutes. I stood back, concealed, halfway down the block, watching until the older, shorter man fell to one knee, unable to continue.  This seemed to settle some sort of disagreement.
      These sights and sounds came one after the other, like a collection of snapshots from a favorite photographer, some bizarre, some mundane. But riding around like that, seeing those snapshots every night, kinda made me feel like I owned the city somehow— for at least those few moments anyway... those few moments when the city exposed its secrets to me... nobody else but me.
     So that night, like any other night, I rode along in the silence, my mind free to think about everything, or nothing. But somehow all I kept thinking about was that girl. What if I did go back there? What if I took a chance? What if, what if, what if...? But I just continued to ride through the night like I always did...

     The very next afternoon I arrived at work to find a list of deliveries and pick-ups in my box at Melvin’s Adult Video. Samantha’s address on LaSalle Street was highlighted in yellow.
     “What’s this?” I asked Hickie—the greasy overweight guy who worked the phones.
     “Lady requested you personally,” he slobbered, wrestling with a Twinkie and a headset. “Says she forgot to give you a tip.”
     Hickie gave me a smile I didn’t like, and I jetted outside into the ghostly night. 
      A light condensation had accumulated.  It released a certain familiar mist into the atmosphere that settled onto the streets and dotted them with silver and white reflected pools of light. Slicing my way through the soft night air, speeding along the glistening streets, I rushed through my stops as an exhilaration built inside me. I was still debating whether to show up at Samantha’s or not, even as I inevitably found myself walking the last empty steps to her apartment. It was slightly past 11:00 p.m. Samantha opened her door, wearing a silk bathrobe. The 'mechanism' erupted, wild flames and African drums danced on fire once inside my chest once again. I afforded myself a quick survey of her cleavage, her smooth curves, her seductive grin.
     “So how was the bachelorette party?” I managed.
     “You should have stopped by,” she miffed. “I was waiting for you.”
     Maybe I was looking decent because I was tan and tone from riding my bike all summer, or maybe the rush of riding through the crisp night air had brought character to my face, or maybe the lighting was just right, but whatever the case, this beautiful untouchable girl was flirting with me madly—and to be honest I wasn't accustomed to having such a high caliber specimen as Samantha flirt madly with me. She wasn’t just pretty or attractive—she was indescribably fucking beautiful, by anyone’s judgment. She exuded that intangible aura that inspires artist to sculpt statues and musicians to write songs. It was the kind of aura that could cause a man to lose his common sense, and from the moment I laid my eyes on her my insides began slipping away from me. 
     So I stood there, thoughts filled my mind, thoughts of her running through a meadow of golden wheat in a light blue summer blouse with her silky sepia-toned skin gathering light from the setting sun, her shoulder-length auburn hair flowing in the breeze, her soft feminine cheekbones... I...I... I tried to think of something a porn star might say.  In a fit of inspiration, I uttered the words, “So where’s my tip?”
     With this, she cocked her right eyebrow and let her robe fall to planet Earth, it all happened in one simultaneous motion.  Underneath her robe was nothing but a lacy pair of red panties. I attempted to suppress the gulp in my throat as I stepped inside her doorway, clasped my hands upon her soft, supple hips and then uttered possibly the corniest pre-sex line ever recorded: 
     “That’s the best tip I’ve had in years, mama,” or something similarly ridiculous.  And then, with that, the carnival ride began Brother—right there on the floor, with the door wide open, and the both of us in plain view of any neighbor, jogger, or UPS delivery driver who might have happened by. Samantha was on her back, I was between her thighs and for reasons that I may never quite be able to explain, I was heavy-breathing a staccato play-by-play commentary of the proceedings into her ear as if I was a radio sports caster.
     “The veteran is going... into his... patented cradle maneuver,” I heard myself grunt as if to warn her. “A very risky and... complicated move.”
     She giggled hard—which I took as a good sign. So I coiled her into the “cradle position”, raising her calves into the air, scootching my hands underneath her waist, then sliding them up her torso until I was able to clamp them onto her shoulders. Her toes stretched skyward, pointing to the heavens mockingly. Everything was set for the green light when I realized that those lacy, red panties of hers had somehow gotten snagged around her knees and they were now in fact tangled across my throat.  I started choking for air, her eyes fixed on mine.
     I coughed, “The veteran is... in trouble...” 
     Still undaunted to perform my patented cradle move, I lunged forward. Her panties stretched, then snapped my head backward as though I had just taken a quick jab from Muhammad Ali. I quickly gathered myself, adjusted my eyeballs back into their sockets and Sammy chimed in: “Kids don’t try this at home,” adding the color commentary to my play-by-play. Then, rolling sideways Ninja-style, she climbed on top of me, yanked the panties from around her ankles in the process and dropped them on my face in one fell swoop.           "Two-point reversal,” she declared triumphantly.
     "I..." I was deaf and dumb.
     She grinned, our eyes locked... 
     There can't possibly exist any better feeling on Earth than experiencing a beautiful woman shuddering in surrender to the physical pleasures of orgasmic convulsions right on top of you, her nipples hard as rare diamonds, her head stretched as far back on her neck as it can possibly reach, her white-knuckled grip deep into your thighs. It can almost make you think that maybe there is some purpose to your meaningless existence after all. Art, poetry, music, nothing can describe it. And then, much too quickly, our wrestling match was over... within minutes Sammy orgasmed and I orgasmed. It was harmony... beautiful harmony. Our wrestling match a virtual draw: two winners and no loser.  And a meadow of fragrant summer lilies sweetly bloomed all around us, butterflies broke out of their cocoons, birds sang and the heavens sighed as Samantha laid there, with her head on top of my shoulder, fingering the lint in my belly button, staring out the open door, looking at the cars passing by in the distance, though not really seeing them.  And me, I laid there as well, restful, peaceful... my mind slipping away again, deep into the blue abyss, a waking dream, where I gradually took command of my imaginary hot air balloon/pirate ship and piloted it between big, puffy white clouds somewhere over the South Pacific.  
      Then as I adjusted my Napoleon hat atop my head and shouted out instructions to my crew mates: “Man the starboard side flux capacitor!” I was in complete slumber.
     “Aye, Aye, Captain!” a sailor shouted and then Sammy abruptly shivered and sat straight up.
     “Pussy Pooh!” she cried.
     “Don’t mind if I do,” I answered, immediately snapping out of my dream and back into total consciousness as I dutifully made my way to paw at her crotch, ready for another go.
     “No. Sir Winston Pussy Pooh of Sassafras, my calico kitty,” she said in a panic, “I think he’s gotten outside.”
     “Here, kitty, kitty!” Sammy stood up, hurriedly slipping on her panties, then grabbing my Melvin’s Adult Video delivery shirt and wiggling into it as she raced out the front door in search of her Pussy Pooh. Left with no other option, I grabbed Samantha’s silk robe, tossed myself into it and, with my head on a swivel, followed Samantha outside.
     The next three hours of my life were dedicated to looking for a lost calico cat. We looked high and we looked low, we knocked on neighbor’s doors. One elderly blue-haired lady thought we were midnight Jehovah’s Witnesses. 
     “I’m not interested—I don’t believe in God!” she exclaims through the chain lock on her door. 
     We kept searching; we climbed trees, scaled fences, scurried through bushes and overturned garbage cans, up and down the block— “Here Kitty, Here Kitty-Kitty!” 
     Finally, three epic hours later, Sammy reached the conclusion that Pussy Pooh had headed for greener pastures. I consoled Sammy into the wee hours of the morn, not sure what all this meant, not sure what I should do...
      At sunrise I still smelt of own sex—steamed mushrooms and tuna fish and more than just a hint of perspiration. Without waking Samantha or even leaving a good-bye note I slipped outside, squeezed my mountain bike between my legs and bolted, fully realizing that I had never before made love to such a beautiful woman in my life—and pretty certain I would never make love to such a beautiful woman ever again. But I tried to convince myself that it was all right.  I told myself I could be happy knowing that at least once in my life I made love to such a beautiful woman... and that I could be content in knowing I would always have the endearing memories of that night forever etched in my mind. 
     Yet as hard as I tried to convince myself that the simple memory of her was good enough, the mechanism rumbled.  The mechanism knew that that was complete bullshit.  And the Gods of fate must have known it as well for, like a glitch in the universe, synchronicity was injected into my reality.  Less than two blocks from Sammy’s apartment, I rode up onto a sidewalk, cut left into a deserted back alley and out of nowhere a small orange streak of fur darted right out in front of me. I choked my hand break in reflex, my mountain bike jerked to a sharp halt and then, as if I have been punched in the gut by Mike Tyson, my head bolted forward as I went flying nose-first over my handlebars.
     “Whaaaathafaahk!” I yelped, as I nearly landed right on top of the furry little critter. 
     From sheer fright the little hairball did a pogo straight up into mid air, like a superhero taking off to fight crime. And then reaching its apex its, almost in slow motion, it returned to Earth making a perfect 4-point landing onto my left eye. It was at that point that I realized this creature was in reality an orange and gold kitty. 
     “Sir Pussy Pooh???” I questioned.
     Getting no reply, I nonetheless snatched the puss up by its shoulder blades, stuffed it down my shirt collar and peddled back to Sammy’s doorstep at full speed. When I got there I rang the doorbell and Sammy looked confused to see me, until... that little orange kitten popped its head out of my collar.  Sammy’s face lit up like a toddler seeing her mama after a hard day of pre-school. 
     “I can’t believe it,” she exclaimed, overwhelmed, "How did you...?" 
     Sammy's face glowed - even as she made a quick survey of the orphaned kitty’s underside and determined that this was not her Sir Winston Pussy Pooh of Sassafras at all. This cat was a female. But still, Sammy couldn't stop smiling at the little critter.  She was in love with it... and utterly impressed. 
     “Seriously, how did you get this?” she questioned me—perhaps thinking I had gone out and bought her a new one somewhere.
       “Oh, you know...” I said sheepishly. 
    And with that Samantha threw her arms around me... and our lips touched again... softly... and the African drums erupted inside my chest... and there we were, just as we were the night before.
     “What are you doing the rest of the day?” Sammy asked once our lips parted.
     I shrugged, “Nothing really.”
     “How would you like to escort me to my friend’s wedding?” 
     I hesitated. Sammy was still clinging to my arms as she added, “I mean we wold have to find you a tuxedo -- it’s a very formal affair...”
     “Yeah, I guess I could...” I answered, trying to fight off the warm sensation building inside my chest, trying to fight off the bagful of whirly-gigs that suddenly began gushing through my veins like champagne... suddenly overtaken by the inflamed African drums that kept pounding away deep inside. Maybe the mechanism was trying to tell me something. Maybe this was the feeling people get right before they’re about to fall in love.
     Samantha ran her hands up my arms, and goose bumps followed in their tracks. “Yeah, definitely, I’ll go.” I told her. 

chapter 2

the mechanism
     When I was six years old I saw a dead body. My mother worked as a cleaning lady at a hotel in the South Loop that had been built in the 1920s, but was converted to condos in the early 1970s.  My mom took me to work with her every day during the summer.  I carried supplies; bottles of cleaner, dust rags, garbage bags, etc as she made her rounds.  The residents in these condos were never at home, yet my mother didn’t allow me to touch anything.  In fact she forced me to sit in a chair, with nothing to do but stare at the walls, as she went around and cleaned.  My favorite condo was the one that always smelt of incense, for hanging in the entrance hall of this condo was a huge poster-sized, framed photograph.  This photograph was of a man in a hot air balloon and it must have been shot from another hot air balloon (or perhaps a plane) because the point of view was from above the man, looking down on him.  You could see the Earth way below him, hundreds of feet below him.  But the thing that struck me about this photograph was the smile on the man’s face. It was a huge grin, the kind of smile that can’t be faked. It was an authentic expression of total happiness.
     Week after week, sitting in that chair in that condo, I would just stare at that photograph, at that man’s face, just trying to figure out what he was so damn happy about. The only clue to his happiness was something that was placed on a small shelf underneath the photograph: an ivory box with intricate folk art engravings on it. I would sit there and wonder what was in that box, because it seemed obvious that there was some connection between the box and the photograph. Maybe because it looked like the guy in the photo was reaching out toward that box, but whatever the reason, I felt certain that whatever was in that box was the secret behind that huge smile on the face of that man in the hot air balloon - and my mind began coming up with scenarios and explanations. Maybe the man had won a medal in a hot air balloon race and he kept his prize inside this box. Or maybe he had discovered a new island and he stored pebbles or sand from its beaches inside the box. Who knew? But I kept wondering, week after week.  
     My mother warned me not to move from that chair as she cleaned, but sometimes I wondered what was this guy up to now?  What was he doing?  Was he still smiling so brightly?  And then one day as I was sitting there, my mother opened the door to the smiling man’s bedroom, walked in and let out a death scream that caused the hairs on the back of my neck to stand up.  Automatically I stood up as well.  Cautiously, I tiptoed over to the bedroom, quietly entered, and there was the guy from the poster, hunched over in a chair, dead. Obviously he wasn’t smiling that much anymore, even though, he did actually look rather content. His eyes were still open and his face and neck was a shade of sky blue, with intermittent puffy white cloud-splotches here and there. I stood there, not knowing what to do. My mother fluttered her hands around like a penguin trying to fly then started moving about in zig-zag fashion all over the room.  She was certain that she was going to get blamed (and probably fired) for this. In a panic she ran out of the condo unit, looking to find the building manager. And there I was - all alone, staring at this dead guy - and it dawned on me: this was finally my chance to get at that ivory box with the intricate folk art engravings on it and to see what was inside.  So I quick-stepped over to the shelf where the ivory box rested and then I nabbed it. And that is when it happened.  Right then, at that exact point in time, that exact point in space, right as I clasped my hand onto that box... that was the moment that the mechanism came into effect on me.
     It’s hard to explain this, so bear with me, but that pounding of the African drums and those fluttery gushing sensations that erupted deep inside my chest the first time I saw Samantha -- these sensations weren’t exactly something new. They had been there, inside me for years—born from that very moment when I grabbed a hold of the ivory box that belonged to the smiling (well, formerly smiling) dead guy. It sounds weird I know, but it was at that very moment that the mechanism first erupted. As I stood there, holding that ivory box, I experienced something the likes of which I had never before experienced in my young life.  The mechanism let loose with a myriad of sensations. It began with pounding and gushing followed by a weird feeling like an icy, itchy, chaotic buzzing chainsaw had been let loose inside my veins. At the same time a swarm of spitting hornets attacked the inner lining of my intestines, grinding up and down, building until everything galvanized into a brilliant firework display of kaleidoscopic geysers flushing through my guts and my blood stream.
      It's a small miracle that I didn't shit my pants.  Perhaps because, in the midst of all of this inner biological chaos, I found myself looking directly at that photo again.  That crazy photo of the smiling man. I don’t know whether it was because my mother had done too much LSD in the ‘60s when she was pregnant with me, or if I was just in shock from seeing the dead guy, or if it was just the hallucinations of a five year old child's imagination—convinced that it was the hand of God, or perhaps even the devil, who had put a curse on the dead guy that somehow transferred to me on his death -- but whatever it was, I know what I felt.  I felt some strange mechanism that jumped from the body of that dead guy and leapt into mine. And as I shook there, just looking at the photo of the smiling dead guy, I can’t explain it, but to say that it was just like I was looking into a mirror. It was as if I was looking at myself in that photo and it was me that was smiling so broadly and flying that hot air balloon, way up in the sky.  And suddenly the mechanism turned to total bliss - peace, tranquility, complete and total pleasure.  And for that brief moment I understood and felt the happiness of the guy that was smiling.
      But just then as it seemed to reach its apex, just as quickly as it appeared, the mechanism went dormant. Poof! 
     I stood there, stretched out, still in the position I was in when I reached out for the ivory box.  In a cold sweat, not sure what to do, thinking I might just pass out, I heard my mother fluttering back toward the condo unit.  Now she had the building manager in tow. She was still upset, but now she was upset because the formerly smiling dead guy had owed her several months of pay. 
     “I wouldn’t count on getting Jack Squat,” the building manager said.   I quickly came to my senses, stashed the ivory box inside my sack lunch, clutching it very close to my chest, and I tried to look as if my entire constitution had not just been turned completely inside out.

chapter 3

the summer of 1978
     That evening I hid the ivory box under my bed. I was reluctant to open it, fearful that some mystical power would be released, fearful that whatever it was just might kill me too.  I waited three days before I summoned the courage to finally open it. But all I found inside was some papers - papers that had been ripped out of a textbook. I couldn’t really read too well at that time of course, being just six years old, so I folded the papers back into the ivory box and hid it under my bed.  I didn't give them much thought again until four years laterthe summer of 1978 to be exact.  That was the summer that my old man came back to town, the summer that the mechanism revealed its true nature to me.
      I had never actually met my old man prior to that—he had split before I was born. He was a traveling salesman of sorts, living out of his suitcase, staying in cheap motels when he could afford it. And when he couldn’t afford it he’d sleep in the back seat of his 1965 Chevy Nomad— the Blue Max, he called it. During the summer of 1978 he was back in Chicago. He landed a somewhat stable job with an outfit called Lakeland Distributors.  His job was to go around to various Chicagoland department stores like Sears and K-Mart and Woolworths to take orders for vinyl records, cassette tapes and 8- tracks.  Since it was summertime, and I wasn’t in school, my mom decided that I would spend my days with him and I would go around to these places with him. My old man owed over 10 years of back child support at this point, and taking me with him was probably his way to keep certain people from bothering him about that money.  My mother probably figured it was a good idea for someone to keep an eye on me—or maybe she was looking to get back together with my old man, I’m not sure.
      So there he was one day. I was standing beside my mother, waiting at the curb.  The old man pulled up in the Blue Max. He was tall and slim with wavy black hair and similar features to my own. He dressed like a salesman.
     "So you ready?" is all he said and I shook my head 'yes'. My mother smiled at him a bit too hard and he smiled back as a courtesy.
     "Let's go then," he said and then climbed into the Blue Max. I followed.  It felt as if I was starting off on an adventure.  The first thing I noticed was a map resting on the front seat.  This was a map of the sales route the old man was to take.  Each stop was marked with a circle in red pencil. As he drove he explained that "Some of these places have parking lots and some of them don't," his voice was monotone and his words short, as if he was preoccupied.
     "If we hit a department store that only has 'on street' parking and I can't find a parking spot, then I'm gonna have to double park and leave you in the car," he explained. "If a meter maid comes by then your job is to talk her out of a giving me a ticket. Think you can handle that?"
      I wasn't sure, "How do I do that?" as I started to realize this was going to be a working adventure.
      He patted the hair on the back of his head down, "Just tell her that your daddy had to run into the drug store to get some medicine for your sick baby brother or something like that—then tell her I'll be right back."
      I wasn't sure I could lie on the spot like that, but I agreed anyway.
       "And if a parking spot opens up while I'm inside, you'll have to get behind the wheel, start up the Blue Max, put her in gear and move her into the spot. You know how to drive?"
      Was this really happening? I was going to actually get to drive a car? "Yeah," I agreed, suddenly able to lie perfectly.
      "Most department stores on my route will have parking lots though, or back alleys,  So I will just park there.  You'll come inside with me in that case. The best thing for you to do is hang out in the record's department and act like you are interested in 8-track tapes."
      I was taking this all in with the utmost seriousness.
      "Wakeland has an overstock of 8-track tapes and they are trying to unload them," he continued, "so go browse the 8-tracks and act like they are the greatest thing since tomato soup."
      “Tomato soup,” I agreed.
     A few minutes later we came to the first stop on his route, which happened to have "on street" parking only. My old man found a parking meter spot. There was a clump of change on the dashboard.
      "If a meter maid comes by, throw a nickel in the meter," my old man instructed then he grabbed some papers and disappeared.
       I scooted over, sat behind the steering wheel and looked at the odometer.  The Blue Max had over 300,000 miles on it. I tried to imagine the places it might have been and I tried to imagine what my old man's life was like on the road. He was already a mystery to me and as that summer progressed, with every new thing I learned about him, he seemed like even more of a mystery. For instance, here he was selling music records, but he didn't even like music. I found this out when he came out from that first store. I turned the radio to a station that played music. But the old man turned it off. "No music," is all he said. Then we were off again.
      The next stop on his route had a large parking lot, which meant that I would venture inside and experience the inner workings of the retail business first hand. This happened a lot that summer and I ended up loitering around the stock rooms and break rooms and manager’s offices of Chicagoland's department stores a lot, watching the adults interact with one another.  At 12 years of age this seemed fascinating. The adults generally ignored me, but eventually my presence on these endeavors seemed to sit right with the old man as he realized that being seen with a kid made the store managers think he had his pulse on the youth market.
       By the third stop that first day, I was honestly perplexed how the old man could convince anyone to take any records—after all he didn't even like music. The only song that he even remotely seemed to like was Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard light." For some reason that summer, the stores couldn't get enough of that song. My old man didn't even know the song until one day later that summer when it came on the radio. When it came on the old man thought we were listening to a ballgame because the song has a long section in the middle that gives a play-by-play announcement of some guy trying to "steal home".
      "This is Meatloaf," I told my old man.
     He gave me a quizzical look then he kind of smirked. For a moment, he actually seemed amused.
      After our next stop, the old man announced "Here's breakfast," as he handed me some doughnuts and cheese with crackers. For some reason the break rooms in all the larger department stores always had these snacks just sitting there for free, so my old man grabbed handfuls of them.  Along with a Pepsi, these snacks served as my breakfast and lunch.  
       The best thing about the cheese and crackers were that they came with little red plastic, flat sticks.  These sticks were for spreading the cheese on the cracker—but the real value in these little sticks was that they were perfect missiles for shooting from my wrist rocket (basically a glorified slingshot).  After chowing down a doughnut, I stuck one of the little red sticks into my wrist rocket, pointed it out the window and shot it at a parked car. My old man didn't say a word. He just put the car in gear and pulled out.  
      I loaded up another little red stick and started providing a "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" kind of play-by-play commentary to my little game of shooting the little red sticks out the car window. 
      "The kid eyeballs an old woman on the street—he's gonna go for it!" I gasped to myself as I lined up a shot at two pedestrians. 
      "It's a difficult shot, but he's going to go for it!" I announced.  Then I reared back and out went the red stick, zinging by the passersby.
      As my old man drove around from store to store I continued this play-by-play while shooting the red sticks at moving cars. This activity would have gotten me a quick backhand from my mother if I had done it in front of her, but the old man didn’t say a word. He didn’t seem to care. His mind was on his job. 
     After just a few weeks the old man was really efficient at talking up the department store managers.  In fact he was soon able to meet his quota each day by noon, which meant that he could take the rest of the day off. This gave us plenty of time to head for the racetrack—which was another “adult” experience for me, and one that I found even more fascinating than parallel parking or exploring the innards of department stores. 
     At the race track, everything sped up.   Everything became more urgent.  There were the sounds of the trumpet calling the horses to the gate, the announcer’s baritone voice rising in anticipation as he called the race, the cheers and moans, the sights of scruffy old men in wrinkled shirts smoking cigars.  There were facts and figures that filled the racing programs, which I immediately started to process while taking in all the colorful race track lingo and shorthand and the bizarre names of the horses.  Plus there were the circus smells of stale hot dogs and spilt beer and the alluring images of the athletic struts of the horses themselves.  It all came together like poetry each summer afternoon I drank it all up in a whirl of enchantment.
      After a couple of weeks of spending every day at the race, the old man devised a way for me to a have a little something invested in the races. He made a deal with me: he would buy me a hot dog or a bag of chips and a Coke anytime he won 20 bucks or more on a race.  This was great because and he always had at least one race where we won over 20 bucks. The key to the old man’s success was that he hung out with this overstuffed looking man named Bobo, who seemed to live at the track. Bobo was always coming up to my old man, whispering something to him, then exchanging money and tickets with him.  It seemed that Bobo was involved in some sort of “business” that required a lot of whispering. But the good thing about Bobo was that he actually owned a horse and he had access to the area where the horses were kept before the races. My old man and Bobo took me down to that area and my old man would explain what to look for in a horse.
      “See that horse there,” my old man said pointing to a tall, sleek brown horse, “The way it has its head up? The way it looks alert and ready?”
       “That’s a horse that knows what the hell he's here for.”        That particular horse was Stranger Dan, the horse that Bobo owned.

      Stranger Dan was regal compared to the other horses. His leg muscles were perfectly, tightly defined, his gallop was powerful but quick, he had a long shiny mane like a Rock star and, miraculously, he seemed to win every race he was in. And my old man always bet on him, winning at least 20 dollars every time— which meant hot dogs and cokes for me.    Yes, the summer of 1978 was quickly becoming the best summer of my life. But then... well, there were two separate incidents that took place—two incidents which resulted in the awakening of the “mechanism”. The mechanism, that I had not consciously been awareness since that day I had taken the little ivory box from the smiling dead man.
      The first incident was pretty minor. Growing up I spent a lot of time in solitude—I spent most of the hours each day by myself, at home alone while my mother was at work (or wherever it was she went at night). Spending so much time by myself gave me reason to invent creative ways of keeping myself entertained.  So I created my own personal board game. It was sort of like The Game of Life at first, except that I based my game around that ivory box I had taken from the smiling dead guy’s place.      
      I played this made-up game day after day, alone there in our apartment, and with each time the rules and strategies evolved. After awhile the game started to revolve around make-believe adventures involving my pretend hot air balloon. I combined various Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley game boards into one huge game board for my make-belief adventure game.  I glued and taped these boards together then added stray cardboard and cereal boxes to construct an even more massive playing board. This playing board was constantly in a state of flux, expanding as I added new designs and colors and stickers until eventually I had created this complicated, folding, playing board that became so large and complex that it took over the entire living room. For game pieces and tokens I gathered a potpourri of items; Pez dispensers, plastic whistles, marbles, bottle caps, tarot cards - anything I could get my hands on. The rules of my game were constantly evolving and they became far too complicated for even me to fully comprehend. But vaguely it combined the aspects of both kinds of board games: those that relied on luck and those that relied on strategy. Not only did the object of my game echo aspects of The Game of Life, but also Monopoly, Risk, Pay Day, Battleship, Stratego, Scotland Yard and even Chess. The overall goal became that I had to make my way toward the center of the board, for this was where I had placed the ivory box.  The ivory box represented my hot air balloon/pirate ship).  That was really the goal of the game, to make it to that hot air balloon/pirate ship.
       As my game evolved over the years, one of the more crucial aspects of it involved organizing and collecting baseball cards. Baseball cards served as money in this game and their monetary values were determined rather subjectively based on a combination of things, including the year of the card, the team of the player on the card, the statistics on the back of the card, or sometimes simply by the expression on the face of the player on the card.  
      I played this adventure board game religiously, for years, to these bizarre rules only known by me because I played by myself.  From the very first day that I discovered the smiling dead guy and his ivory box, I played this game.  But then, during the summer of 1978, I didn't have time for the game anymore.  Suddenly I was having real adventures with my old man.  I didn't have much time or interest in playing my hot air balloon game anymore—and I had fallen seriously behind in my collection of baseball cards. 
      Then one day I was walking through a K-Mart stock room, on my way to the Men’s room, when right there out in the open, as plain as day, was a crateful of freshly arrived boxes of Topps baseball cards. I just froze in my tracks. No one else was anywhere near. No workers, no security, no managers, no secretaries. Just me and these thousands of baseball cards.  How easy it would be to just stuff several packs down my pants and sneak them to the Blue Max without anyone noticing a thing, I thought.
     I’m not really sure what happened next because there is a moment between thought and expression that no one can really explain—a moment where free will dances with muscle memory, a moment where the instincts of ions of universal consciousness that are engrained in the chemicals and energy of the human body battle the consciousness of the resent reality. And it was there, in that stock room, in that moment, somewhere between realizing that I could take these cards and the moment of the actual physical expression of moving toward the cards and reaching out to them that, for a split second, I fully visualized the entire caper. I fully saw myself stuff those packs of cards down my pants. I clearly watched myself hustle my way back to the Blue Max with my booty.  I saw the route I would take, the obstacles I would encounter. But before I could actually reach out to grab for the packs of cards, a violently intense queasiness burst inside my stomach. This was followed by a sharp, tingling sensation in my extremities. Then my heart started beating faster and suddenly I was out of breath and sweating, even though I hadn’t moved a single inch.  I felt as though I was going to throw up. 
      I looked around the stock room again and still there was no one around. 
"The kid is about to make his move," I announced under my breath, quickly dismissing the disturbing biorhythms as I attempted to move and continue forward. 
     But then, wouldn’t you know it—just as I found myself reaching out to grab a packet of baseball cards—the mechanism snapped again.  This time I couldn‘t move
     The mechanism was pounding away inside me, moving up and down into my chest and my throat like large metal pistons.  A flood gate of liquid concrete burst wide open and its sludge flowed through my veins. What the hell was going on? 
     I stood paralyzed for what must have been a full nine minutes.
     Minutes passed.  Then at some point a stock boy came by and asked me what I was doing. I stood there drenched in sweat unable to answer. Why wasn't I able to go through with it—why couldn’t I take those baseball cards? 
     For the next couple of days this thought and the weird reaction that had taken place inside my body possessed me. But I began to identify something though—I started to realize that the bizarre reaction to the baseball cards was connected to the bizarre moment four years earlier when I stole that smiling dead man's ivory box. It felt the exact same somehow, even though it was different somehow. 
     I thought back again to when I snatched the ivory box from the dead guy, I thought about how I had snuck around all day with it tucked under my shirt.  And I thought about when I got that box home and when I finally opened it after three days.  Somehow I knew then that someday those pages I found inside that box would mean something to me. But what?  What did those pages mean? And what the hell was going on? 
     I had been too young to read those pages or give a shit about them when I had first acquired the ivory box, but now, after the baseball card episode, I knew it was time to go over those papers again.

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1 comment:

  1. Thought it was a captivating beginning. Good character development. Thought he called her Sammy too soon. Ding "beautiful" seemed put of character at the point you used it?