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.

Book Review: I Could Pee on This, and Other Poems By Cats

Some will say that she is ignoring you for a reason. Some will tell you that there is so much more going on in her mind than simply being fed and having her water changed more often. The uncovering of several paintings by George W Bush has given the scientific community a great deal of hope for the creative capacities of those at the southern end of the food chain, which carries us upward to this. Collected for the first time in written history are the poetic thoughts of our finicky friends, as dictated to Francesco Marciuliano. Contributing writer to the Onion and the creator of Sally Forth, a widely syndicated comic strip. Marciuliano also writes for the PBS television series Seemore’s Playhouse.In this collection he assists his elegant companions through the editing process of masterpieces, like “Nudge,” “I like Your Nose,” “Self-Affirmation,” and “Some of My Best Friends Are Dogs.” Why, the feline sonnet could very easily have come straight from discarded portions of “The Deserted Village” by Oliver Goldsmith:

I would lie by your side for the rest of our lives
I think I’ll walk away right now
I should let you pet me for a hundred years
I think we need some time apart
I should be kissed a thousand thousand times
I think I need to be somewhere else
I could sit on your lap forever
Don’t you even think of trying to get up
Well, you should have gone to the bathroom beforehand
Because forever is a very, very long time

And here, in a form reminiscent of “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, comes the title piece:

Her new sweater doesn’t smell of me
I could pee on that
She’s gone and left her laptop open
I could pee on that
Her new boyfriend just pushed my head away
I could pee on him
She’s ignoring me ignoring her
I could pee everywhere
Now she has me in her lap
I could pee on this
I could pee on this

I Could Pee on This is filled to overflowing with the heretofore unwritten wants, needs and daily existential struggles of tomcats, tabbies, Angoras, grimalkins and even pusses of the Scottish Fold variety, caught in the act of clandestine creation.

In the photos included in this book, they gaze at their owners’ computers, one paw in front of the other tap-tapping the keys, deleting here, deleting there, pondering the next line, the next hairball or even the dirty look they just got from the dog. The subliminal consciousness of today’s feline is teeming with artistic workmanship of this caliber, and thanks to Chronicle Books some of the best can be yours.

“Sometimes ‘Meow’ just doesn’t get the point across”

 

(Previously published in Central Circuit magazine–Seattle, WA, 2012)

Bookshelves For Sale, Cheap

Our way of life has grown expensive—to the planet. And so, with an eye toward moving forward and wasting less paper in the process, Amazon did their part with the debut of the Kindle. The device of tomorrow, they envisioned a world without books. Wouldn’t that be so much better?

But with the maintenance of ecological balance in mind—the need for a living environment that is sustainable—comes the question: is a book made of paper more wasteful than a reading device made of plastic? A device that will never biodegrade? A device that will reside in a landfill forever as soon as the person who impulsively purchased it grows tired of its novelty and goes back to reading actual books?

A friend of mine bought a Nook. He was offended when I suggested that most people who buy e-reading devices don’t actually read. They’re simply gadgets, I told him. But I was wrong. This, he said, was the way of the future! I asked this same friend about the last book he read. He couldn’t tell me.

Trying out an e-reader myself, I was disappointed by how unwieldy, how awkward, how clunky it felt in my hands. It was nothing like a book (hardcover or paperback), which I could shove in my backpack, loan to a friend, toss, drop or use as a doorstop. I love the way each book has its own feel and smell. Books are personal, unique. But on a screen Crime and Punishment looks and feels just like everything else.

I’d sooner pull a *Raskolnikov on an e-reader than sit and try to mentally digest the thoughts of my favorite author.

Speaking of Dostoevsky, my paperback copy of The Brothers Karamazov went through the kind of hell only its author can sufficiently describe: subjected to a Seattle winter, a clumsy owner and the forces of gravity. But if you got your Nook wet it would blink twice, fizzle and die. Drop your Kindle on the kitchen floor? You’ll be on your knees scooping shards of plastic from under the refrigerator.

I asked that same friend what happened to his Nook. He lost the adaptor that recharges the battery—hasn’t touched it since.

*To learn more about pulling a Raskolnikov, read Crime and Punishment.

 

(Previously published in Central Circuit magazine–Seattle, WA, 2012)

Around The Garden Stone

He was reading from a collection of James Wright. She liked to listen. She explored the scenes he described. She constructed new ones for herself—falling backward, downward into them as wakefulness dissolved and sleep encompassed her—it felt like something was hidden deep inside of a place in her soul she never knew existed. And from that first time that she lowered her hands and allowed herself to drift into the scenes that he described, she recognized a part of herself that was changing, gradually. Urgently. How to get back to that place? Until he read the words she wondered if the words had ever existed, or had they waited for him to utter them and breathe life into their shapes: letters and then words and then ideas and images poking from the soil, unfolding and coming into flower.

“Saint Judas” was the girl’s favorite poem. By day she thought about the image in the poem of a man at the mercy of hoodlums. The person who came to rescue that man was and wasn’t the one reading the poem—was and was not the one who lay beside her.

She asked him to read it that night and the language took shape in her mind. Images fashioned by sound delivered her to the chambers of her sleeping self—and when she opened her eyes and looked over and saw the sunlight on his arm and his chest rising slowly, she knew that she loved him.

It was several months before the boy realized that his copy of Saint Judas was no longer on the shelf.