Shirtless Mike

The alarm clock wrenched him from sleep: motionlessness shattered, as the ivy atop his bookshelf pulled its shadows from the wall. Like a goldfish vacuumed from the warmth of its transparent domain, Colin was evicted without ceremony into the day. The alarm, a rheumatized, mechanized, asthmatic parakeet called out in unison with a telephone. And it might have occurred to him the two were competing for his attention, a notion that jamming his toe into the corner of the bed sufficiently discouraged him from investigating. He tried to say something into the telephone before he tripped over his suitcase and landed back into bed.
Colin opened the front door. Dennis stood on the other side, massaging the lenses of his glasses with the hem of a wrinkled blue button-up dress shirt. He said something as he was yawning. Yawning back, Colin retrieved his suitcase and they followed one another down a winding concrete path, past the concrete staircase leading to Shirtless Mike’s apartment. Posies in orange clay pots stood at the corner of every other stair.
Appointed with the task of collecting the rents and keeping track of the tenants, in addition to his old job of watering plants, trimming things and mowing the lawn, Shirtless Mike had lived in this two-storey Spanish-style apartment complex for a few years now, and his graduation from groundskeeper to property manager and groundskeeper, along with the hours he put in at his own landscaping business ensured Mike that he seldom had a day to himself. As a boy, he cared for his sisters from the time he came home from school to whenever his parents—both working two jobs—made it home themselves. He never complained if a neighbor asked how he managed to work so much. And though most were inclined to doubt he harbored any great powers of judgment, Colin admired him. This was despite the fact Shirtless Mike addressed everyone as Bro, and in spite of the fact that the empty truck he drove was bigger than his apartment. In the time that Colin had known Mike, he had seen the short, round man fully clothed on two occasions: in line at the grocery store with a jacket and shorts, a setting in which his tanned pectoral muscles, luxuriant chest hair, and patchwork of blurry tattoos could have spelled disaster for the appetites of anyone bumping carts with him in the aisle where quantities of bologna and other processed meats were kept; and at Easter, when Mike returned from church in a huge white t-shirt that read Got Jesus? in black letters.

Unaccustomed to passengers, Dennis’s library was situated on the floor of his black PT Cruiser; and when Colin attempted to move enough of the books to sit down, he realized how many more were behind him. Instead he lay on top of them without a seat belt, his suitcase in the hatchback, somewhere between Harlan Ellison and the complete works of Balzac.

The Regulars

They sat on the front patio of Charley John’s. They met there every day, discussing their backs and their wives and the minutiae of their lives. One old man had a poodle the color of wet cement. It sat on his lap. The old man who hated dogs sat on the other side of the table, lest this superficially passive beast foam at the mouth or show its jagged yellow teeth. There were stories; he heard them all the time. Anyway, the cement colored dog didn’t like him at all, so the man wore sunglasses—so he wouldn’t have to make sort of contact with it. His name was Edgar. Seated next to Edgar was a man who always brought the subject of war into their conversations. His name was George. As far as George was concerned, a war parable was as good a lesson as he knew for life’s bigger questions. Your back hurts? He could tell you a good story about swimming to shore after a torpedo strike in the Korean war. George pulled an unconscious captain ashore, and his back never felt the same. He took hot showers—as hot as he could stand—every morning, which helped sometimes. The showers reminded him of a story his son-in-law told him about suicide showers in Vietnam. George had a theory about the Civil War, but Edgar and the man with the poodle were both sick of hearing it. Jim was his name (the man, not the poodle). And seated next to George was Garrett. Garrett swore that the new president was going to take their guns. Soon. Jim didn’t have a gun, and he didn’t care. If Garrett told Jim that Obama was going to take his poodle Charley away, then he might have been interested. Garrett promised the United States was on a path to socialism. The new president was crafting regulations that were going to make it illegal to believe in God. He heard about it on the radio. This reminded Garrett of a story…

The Penguin’s Office

That enclosed recess next to the staff break room turned out to be a yellow cubicle with an armless yellow chair on wheels crammed as far as it could go under a crowded desk. To the cockroach looking up, or to a parachuting mouse, the teetering piles of files on the desk resembled skyscrapers: towers of information looming and soaring beneath a flickering white sun. A pyramid of paper-clipped paperwork—some of it intended to augment these files—was leaning against another, taller stack. A young man sat there awaiting the arrival of the Penguin. It occurred to him, as he listened to a cheap clock hiccupping on the east wall, that if he were to blow softly the top third of the files would slide forward, detaching themselves, one chasing the other chasing the other chasing the other chasing the other into a wastebasket positioned (probably) for this purpose. He could make out a conversation now from the break room, and he recognized the voices, but he was afraid to call out to them. So, he sat. Realizing how long he’d been sitting, he desperately wished that he had the nerve to leave the Penguin’s office and open his locker. Instead, he looked around for something to read that wasn’t business related. The clock ticked, and he waited, until, abandoning his concern to the dustbin at his feet, he found a yellow notepad and a pen and he began to write.

Rowdy Rob

Racing one another to red lights, the cars swarmed past a big blue mailbox at the corner: the place where one small city became another. As the signal changed at one intersection, a vehicle jumped across. A white sedan waited reluctantly behind, its bumper and front end obscuring the crosswalk. When the light changed, the car lurched around the concrete island that ran up the middle of Westcliff, negotiating a frenzied U-Turn to get to the dentist’s office on the other side.

Rowdy Rob Robertson rarely brought his classic car above the posted speed limit. He was behind the white sedan. Rowdy Rob drove a 1957 Pontiac Super Chief, red and white, with original black and yellow license plates. He made a casual turn into an ‘L’ shaped parking lot, “Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen buzzing through the speakers of the portable stereo on the seat beside him as he passed an Italian Deli, gliding into an empty space and letting the engine idle while he looked for something on the dashboard.

It was 4:40pm, his second trip of the day to Charley John’s Coffeehouse. Rowdy Rob lived alone, rising in the afternoons to make his way through the week of mail he hadn’t been bothered to pull from the mailbox, squinting in the light reflecting through his kitchen window, crow’s feet deepening as a cigarette smoldered in the corner of his mouth. Thin lips, a day and a half of stubble, reading glasses someplace else. The bedroom? Nothing more than the usual junk, he rolled the papers into something like a ball and looked for his shorts. Not needing to set an alarm, Rowdy’s bladder woke him; he proceeded toward the diner on 17th and a big plate of scrambled eggs with hot sauce. He took his time getting there, imagining the honking noises were compliments.

The sound of so many drivers anxious to get ahead of and around his own car set the tone for Colin’s mornings. It’s tough not to let it bother you, he told his mother when she asked him about his new life in California. He didn’t enjoy driving. And getting tailgated by monster trucks who lay on their horns—and shouted as they shot past—shortened his daily allowance of exuberance as he pretended to enjoy minimum wage. Colin worked an 11 – 3 shift, clocking out instantly, as he learned to do at the employee meeting, arriving at the coffee shop and getting in line.

Back to the sound and activity around him, he was glad to be pulled, happy to see someone he recognized. Colin nodded, smiling, his head turned toward the door.

Dennis took a seat.

“You just missed Alex,” Colin said.

“He’s in the parking lot.”

“He left half an hour ago.”

“Rowdy got him.”

The baristas called out the names of the drinks, punctuating the background music. Colin said that he woke up this morning and forgot where he was. And then, after realizing he learned that today marked one year since he relocated to Costa Mesa.

In the café, the man who sat near the windows was in his late fifties. The sun had weathered him; his goatee was the only part of his face that wasn’t a shocking pink. A profile view displayed a throat the color of rare steak, as he walked inside from an afternoon on the patio. In the time that Colin had been coming to Charley John’s, he noticed this man, on the periphery, always; and because no one else noticed him, Colin entertained the thought that he was looking at a ghost. Blue jeans were faded, he wore a black leather jacket with scuff marks to show he had broken it in a year or two before Reagan and Gorbachev’s summits. Maybe he’d been a cold war spy who retired to the land of sunshine. Maybe he was still undercover. The weathered spy spent his days reading the newspaper and patting his pockets for cigarettes.

Colin could remember, back home in the week or so that lead to the actual, official start of packing to come—that it was—he convinced his friends, his family and himself—going to be temporary.

The older woman near the window wore her grey-blonde hair in a bun. Her blouse, a cheap-looking discount polyester blend, was dark green with light green leaves and flowers. Her stretch pants were black and the soles of her dark tennis were white. Nearby was a beige crutch cane with a dark brown handle. The newspaper was spread across her table. When the phone in her purse called out (a call she had been waiting for) the older woman answered it in a measured tone, rubbing her eyebrow as she spoke in quiet tones. Her right arm stayed in the pocket of her blouse. After a hushed invective, the woman, in her late sixties, heaved the telephone into her purse like a piece of hot coal.

Colin told Dennis he could have begged his girlfriend to hop on a bus. But he thought he’d have a better chance here. “Her father liked me; he’d give us his blessing. I was looking at trying to find a way of bringing him with us, back to Seattle.”

“Rowdy Rob,” Dennis muttered. It was an acknowledgment as well as an announcement of the suspension of logical conversation.

“You guys goin Saturday?”

The friends stared.

Meanwhile, a clock began to tick, loudly; a proposal of marriage was overheard; a honeybee died; a larvae awakened, a butterfly; sea levels rose; a photograph left in the sun began to fade; a woman wondered what happened to all the grasshoppers she remembered as a little girl; a mining town went bust; North American maps were redrawn; the price of gasoline was raised and lowered; a teen popstar had a mid-life crisis and Rome shed another pope. They continued to stare as an airplane burbled overhead. Neither had any idea what Rowdy—frozen in sunglasses like a figure in a wax museum—was talking about.

“They’re fucking headlining!”

Dennis acknowledged that Rowdy’s favorite local band (of whom he knew nothing) had come a long way, “but we’re,” he aimed a thumb, “we’re both working late…”

Colin mentioned tonsillitis.

“Fuckers are gonna wish you called in for this one,” Rowdy assured them, a slip of paper between his pinkie and forefinger. It was a flyer.

The biggest reason Colin endeavored to occupy himself in Rowdy’s presence was the singular goal to which Mr Rosenberg applied himself: it never failed that the Rowdy One, aware that Colin’s brother played in a semi-successful musical group, would query the possibility of acquiring an opening slot on one of their upcoming tours for his friends. Colin tried explaining; Rowdy still asked, as if it were the only thing that he was authorized to discuss with the young Mr Harris. He haunted the regulars of Charley John’s. Rowdy Rob Robertson’s slouching hobble from the parking lot to the front doors sent people running, shielding their worried faces, hoping not to have given the impression that they were hungry for a one-sided conversation relating to his five beloved topics…

1) The Sex Pistols, and that night at the Starwood in Los Angeles on their first and final US tour. It was 1978, and a turbulent time, in particular for a band who juggled animus, bedlam, and conflict. Their bassist and songwriter quit. Sid Vicious, a kid, not a musician at all, took his place. According to Rowdy Rob, Sid spat blood on the audience during the song ‘Pretty Vacant’, while, in the front row, Rowdy Rob was handing Sid the beer and wine bottles that he smashed over his own head. Rowdy also supplied the lit cigarettes that Sid put out on his tongue while the rest of the band played ‘God Save the Queen’. Next came an onstage argument with the singer: Mr Vicious spat, threw his guitar into the audience and walked off, two fingers in the air. Unfortunately, fans and music historians are aware that this concert never actually took place. Hungry for scandal and publicity, the Pistols manager booked them into a series of rugged saloons in the South for the start of the tour. By the time they reached the West Coast to play what turned out to be their last concert in San Francisco, the band wasn’t speaking to one another.

2) David Bowie (pronounced “Buoy”), and his 1983 appearance at the US Festival. Breezy and tall, in a crème colored suit that complimented his blonde, feathered hair, Bowie sang his classic songs as well as what were to become his latest hits during his first American performance in five years. The crowd, who waited more than an hour for him to appear, roared. Rowdy loved to tell this story, embellishing when something made him realize that the person he was talking to had already heard it. Those in the audience on that May evening shook their heads at Mr Rosenberg, unconscious for the duration of Mr Buoy’s show. The only reasonable guess could be that he had observed the performances by a few of the other artists from one of several beer tents. Bystanders recognized the muffled honking sounds of Mr Robertson, snoring on a towel between numbers by the singer he had waited in the sun all day for.

3) His third favorite topic of discussion was the mysterious 1958 Gibson Les Paul that Rowdy Rob said was a gift from Ron Emory, guitarist for the band TSOL. Rowdy tells all and sundry that he was in charge of security for the band on their 1986 tour. And Mr Emory knighted a kneeling Rowdy Rob with this cherished instrument on the last night of the tour, inviting Rowdy up on stage for calisthenics at the end of the show. This same guitar was stolen from the backseat of Rowdy’s car before he got a chance to show it to anyone, though he had already jammed with Ron and the boys and was being considered as a new member.

4) Old School Orange County Punk Rock: a figurative cultural museum piece, and the position he liked to imagine himself occupying in the curatorial department thereof. What had gotten its start as a collection of local musicians, and the cross-pollination of ideas that became a regional sound when those musicians performed in the same night clubs and at the same college radio stations had the romantic odor of a bygone and regrettably underappreciated musical era. Rowdy longed to belong to the bad boy club. But he couldn’t play a thing. After a few botched attempts putting local concerts together in his high school gymnasium, it appeared as if he had been shunned from any dealings in the community to which he aspired to belong, and…

5) Jimmy & the Pumpboyz, an aggressively rude local blues outfit that was his favorite among these conversational subjects owing, for the most part to the band being populated by a gaggle of third-degree-grizzled Old School Orange County Punk Rockers, all of whom he looked up to, none of whom could remember his name.

“Robert, I’d be happy to call in sick if I didn’t have a landlord,” Dennis responded.

Rowdy Rob hadn’t taken notice of the old men seated under an umbrella out on the patio, and the old timers lowered the volume of their conversation, hoping the Angel of Death might pass with paper cup in hand. Like an old lawnmower engine, the conversation—this time about golf—was tough to keep going when you were shielding your face with your black poodle. The oldest fellow, the one with the poodle in his lap emitted a half-whispered expletive as the Rowdy One raised a thumb at them through the picture window and began to make his way outside.

Rowdy Rob Robertson began conversations as though he were picking up where he had left off: an important discussion suspended minutes ago, with the same level of familiarity that could suggest you had known him for years. The man with the black poodle likened him to the persistent gnats that his wife’s flowers attracted. He buttered the morning toast while she carried a tea cup full of vinegar to the sink, two or three Rowdys floating. The old guys did their best to ignore him. Without anywhere else to go, the crazy fool would place himself among them in the afternoon, hunching forward in his chair, cupping a cigarette, listening to their stories and butting in to insert commentary about things to which not a single one of them could relate.

Today he wore a dark pork pie hat and an olive green t-shirt advertising the virtues of a local drinking establishment, while a pair of black cotton twill shorts covered his shriveled, unused reproductive organs. Short white socks concealed yellow toenails as thick as the passenger windows of his car and black low top Vans sneakers adorned his crooked feet. A pair of Ray Ban sunglasses sat atop his skull, itself decorated with unwashed, uncombed and thinning grey hair. With the sunglasses on, he was a cadaver. With them off, passersby could make out what the decades of drink and tobacco had done to Rowdy Rob’s skin. Though he had just turned fifty, Mr Rosenberg was getting the senior citizen discount at the Omelet Parlor, up the street.

The sunburnt understudy was smoking at far end of the patio.

A lanky young man with a dark beard and a white t-shirt stood beside Dennis: “How did you get rid of him so fast?” he laughed, showing mouthful of straight white teeth, shaking hands across the table with Colin.

Colin told Alex that his shoe was untied, and Alex sat down beside him.

“You know, I said that once to a guy in cowboy boots.”

“Explains the scars,” Colin replied.

Lethe’s Shore

To Lethe’s shore he came with raft in hand, and he stood upon the grey sand, watching the waters as they drug things past—things that rolled over and disappeared. Tumbling mementos. Things like the box of letters; things like the unfinished photo album: things that bobbed and others that sank. Things like the personal check for ten dollars, smuggled, without his knowing, back to Seattle. “For Sex!” it said on the memo line—her name, civilized, in the upper left-hand corner, and his name, a rowdy scrawl in block letters beneath. He found it in the pocket of a folded pair of blue jeans. The check was a single-minded tiny flying carpet, there on the river. It was from the week he spent with her—the trip down before he took the plunge. A week spent in bed. They went outside for fresh air—to a nightclub that let guests smoke on the patio. Her friends came by their table. But no one disturbed them at the apartment. Could the two of them have heard? The mutinous tremor of their own voices that rose from out of the quicksand of her bed: pleading with one another in the aching seconds before. Sleeping to wake and repeat. He remembered something from the photo album: it was a picture of her. She was wearing his red boxer shorts and his white undershirt. Short red-brown hair stuck to her forehead. He wasn’t supposed to show it to anyone. He never got the chance. The rectangular, unendorsed slip of paper slid over a rock and was gone. The photo album was already gone. A tiny box floated by, rotating in the water. Then it sank, a few inches of ribbon sinking behind it.

The Old Man and The Bridge

The road is full, especially this morning as an old brown sedan crawls across it. It’s Wednesday, eight o’clock. But the old brown sedan doesn’t appear to have any particular place to be by any particular time. The motor sputters and backfires, while the shadow of the vehicle paints the cobbled road beneath it with a thick, lingering brush. As the clock ticks, the other drivers push wet bundles of frustrated energy from their windows, and the road leading up to the old narrow bridge is suddenly packed with cars; filling with blinking red lights. Blinking in the falling snow. The old brown car rolls on ahead of them all, a person’s head barely visible over the steering wheel. It’s wearing a corduroy hat. With ear flaps. Somehow, the car slows down even more.

Incredulous at the prospect of such a simple yet absurd problem, the others smash their horns in collective protest; they shout, as if to lift the sedan from their path.  Passing drivers flow in epileptic slow motion from a coagulated oncoming lane, consulting dashboard clocks and frozen speedometers. Before the snow gets worse just get me there, is their appeal to God.

A big bearded man in a big furry hat is twisting the wheel of his tow truck the way you would open a big jar of pickles. The bearded man peels off a glove and he points his fist out the window while he steers with the other, keeping pace with the old car. He wonders what the guy in the sedan would say if he knew what the bearded man had done to another guy with that same fist only yesterday. But then he looks across at the man and pulls his foot from the pedal, twisting the wheel again.

The horns become a rising chorus of disharmony, pulsing like off-kilter bells—each pushing, each struggling to stand apart from the desperate grating din of the other horns; panicking cars weave around and hurtle past as the clot of traffic tightens and constricts upon itself at the mouth of the bridge.

A truck door slams nearby. On foot now, the bearded man waves his hands over his head as he crosses the road. The noise increases now that the bridge is entirely blocked in that direction; the occupants of the cars in the oncoming lane grit their teeth and raise their eyebrows.

The old brown sedan rolls into a shallow pothole and stops; and with a soft thud that no one hears anyway, the old man’s head lands on the steering wheel. His sedan joins the chorus of honking horns; a feathery column of smoke rises from its tailpipe.

 

Breed Standard

When I was little, I used to play at Bobby’s house. We took turns holding on to his dog’s chain, hoping to ride him when Bobby’s mother wasn’t looking. Max was a Doberman Pinscher, taller than either of us. He growled and shook his head from side to side, choke chain jingling. His ears stuck up like the ears of a bat because Bobby’s parents had them cropped. His mom and dad told Bobby the cropping procedure wouldn’t hurt Max because Max was a puppy then and puppies didn’t feel pain. With his horns for ears and his pointed snout, Max terrified the mailman; he petrified the paperboy. If someone came near their house for any reason, Max was there at the wrought iron gate, head, neck and shoulders, poking between the skinny black bars, digging a trench in the dirt with his slender feet, snapping his long sharp teeth, foaming and barking.

Then, one day, Max wasn’t there. Evidently, he hung himself with his choke chain trying to get through the bars to bite a cub scout.

In Max’s place came a duo of Chow Chows—dogs that looked like overstuffed bears with purple tongues and curly tails. Big boxes of hair with legs. Nora (that’s Bobby’s mother) warned us that Chows didn’t like children. We should try not to invade their personal space. Still, we trailed after the Chow Chows, at a distance. And wherever they went, the Chows left enormous clumps of dense fur behind them, like the billowing exhaust from a diesel in a cartoon. It was a copper colored cotton candy fur—a quantity that hung on everything like a window dressing of cobwebs. His parents rubbed their clothing constantly with Scotch tape. Roll after roll. Day after day.

Later, I heard his parents discussing one of the dog’s unfortunate disqualifying traits. Whatever that was. I can’t recall which dog. Tyrone. That was the name of the male. He seemed to be attached to Bobby’s dad, following him everywhere. His dad even took the dog running with him. Then, one day, he died. Tyrone did. I guess he had a heart attack. I didn’t know a dog could have a heart attack. I don’t know what happened to the female.

Me and Bobby were in middle school when his parents got interested in cats. Otis, a metallic grey Persian joined the family. Bobby’s dad corrected me and said it was a blue cat. He said that what they really wanted was a blue chinchilla silver—Otis was all the pet shop had. I remember Bobby’s mother holding Otis; he growled and hissed at her. I was watching television with Bobby and we had to turn the TV up. Nora pushed down on the back of the cat’s neck, kneeling across from us, while she tried to pull an old hair brush through the cat’s matted fur, cursing and shoving discarded fuzz into a sack. Biting Bobby’s mother was the only way that Otis might have gotten her to leave him alone. He’d been declawed. When she stopped brushing him, Otis ran away and hid under Bobby’s bed for the rest of the day, hissing and batting at you with his soft clawless paws if you tried to pet him.

When Otis passed away—and the death of Bobby’s parent’s pets was always followed by a period of solemnity—a pair of Scottish Folds appeared, quietly investigating the rooms of the house and sleeping on the furniture. The intention was to breed them and sell the valuable kittens. Scottish Folds are the ones with the gene mutation that makes them look like owls. Their ears are folded down; their head looks quite round, and their eyes seem bigger than a normal cat’s. Even the perk-eared Scottish Fold that they had had silver dollars for eyes. You had to breed a ‘perk’ to a ‘fold’ if you didn’t want a deformed litter or cats with extra thick tails, his mother said.

Bobby’s parents had neutered Otis, but their new male, Woody with the long sleek orange body, white belly and folded ears, was meant for a type of fatherhood out of proportion with that of the domesticated feline population that already existed in our little town: he and the other cat were meant to be a kind of kitten-producing machinery. The names of potential kitten buyers were stored in a computer, and Bobby’s dad warned that the blood curdling screams of the two cats making love was to be ignored. I think Bobby and I were sophomores by then. We never heard anything.

After the cats died, his parents began to talk about getting a dog again: specifically, a wire hair fox terrier. This was a breed of dog with fur like steel wool; a dog that used to travel with the fox hunters in England and burrow into the ground in pursuit of a fugitive fox. They could be hauled up out of the tunnels by their tails.

Nora and Bobby’s dad grabbed a pair of them from a puppy mill, put them through obedience school and had microchips surgically implanted into the dogs in case anybody tried to steal them. The terriers, like Max the Doberman, had stubby tails, a little bit longer than a cigar butt—the rest of their tails had been docked, or cut off with surgical scissors. (They were puppies then.) The terriers were show dogs too: it was important to maintain what Bobby’s folks called a breed standard. And they paid a bundle to have them groomed to make them look like reindeer. Bobby told me that that was their ideal look.

I heard about the exciting lives they led as show-quality dogs: Nigel (the male) riding in the passenger seat of the car with his face poking out the window. I finally met Nigel when I was home on leave from the Army. He shook my hand, like a polite English dog.

Yeah, Bobby’s folks sure seemed to love that dog. So much so, that when Nigel died they put his ashes in a vase on top of the stereo. The other terrier was confused and upset and wouldn’t enter the room. But she died a couple of months later and I hear his parents have new pets now.