A young man’s dreams look forward to what he imagines might become his future. He creates scenarios with equal energy and effort while he’s awake and while he sleeps. His dreams are malleable and oftentimes buoyed by a joyful sensation. His imagination knows nothing about death.
An old man’s dreams become the cherished memories of his earlier faith in infinity and eternity, a faith he lost in gradual fashion, as the wind tore off one flower at a time from his face, then bent his stem toward the soil that once fed him, and near the end began to insist that his roots must be ripped away from planet Earth.
Oblivion seems a sad place, and so we invoke fairy tales that describe an afterlife. A giant’s castle inside a cloud, atop a beanstalk. The giant falls, as fell Lucifer.
I am that old man now. I own neither future nor faith. My face no longer blooms with color and fragrance. The weight of life bends me forward; my gait is slow and hesitant. My roots begin to loosen their grip. Today I rage, along with Dylan, against the dying light. Yet, I wonder if I’ll go gentle or go gutted by a struggle against the pain of disappointment. Those who say we must surrender are hopeful fools. The truth is that we are surrendered.
I was once that young man charged with boundless dreams, most of which — as survival demands — had to be perforce abandoned. So many pleasant scripts, now no more than yellowed pages littering the archives inside my mind.
One such vision I created placed me center stage, dancing.
I owned a gift, a talent, and a flair for floating across a dance floor.
On the afternoon of Friday, July 6, 1979, I snatched my carry-on luggage from the compartment above the seat I’d occupied for six hours, walked through a snaking canvas tunnel, and met two friends inside the airport lobby.
I’d purchased a one-way ticket from Philly to LA.
My friends entertained me for a couple of hours, then drove me to the apartment where I’d sleep for the next two months, while the signed tenant traveled through parts of Europe.
I was born beside the Atlantic Ocean. I grew up with the aromas of salt and sand embedded in my nostrils. The air of land’s end filled my lungs with nourishment more important than oxygen.
So on that Friday evening, I unpacked my suitcase, found a clever place to hide most of the seven hundred dollars I owned, showered, and dressed my body in what I imagined to be LA Chic. (My polyester Guido outfit failed the laid-back LA test, but no matter.)
Splashed with an abundant amount of Polo cologne, as all East Coast Guidos are bound by unspoken oath to splash, not dab, I ran from the apartment, followed the street-sign arrow that pointed west, and walked a few miles until I reached the grand Pacific.
That night, tangerine sunset sky enriched with smog, I tapped the nearest shoulder and asked, “Where around here do people go when they feel like dancing?” In order to be understood I had to repeat my question several times. I spoke East Coast Rapid in nasal tones acquired in New Jersey.
I found the dancehall. I paid the cover charge. As was my habit back then, first I sat and watched. I searched for the best female dancer, one with whom I knew I could fly.
And yes, I flew. I twirled and I curled. I sensed and followed both the prominent and the offbeat rhythm. I lost myself in meditation, the only kind of meditation that I ever could accomplish. Today I wonder how many Buddhists know how to dance.
And yes again, the crowd backed away, formed a circle around us, cheered us on and clapped out the joy we shared.
The old man I am today dances only when he closes his eyes and entertains his memories. His legs lost their onetime flexibility. The stem leans, and the roots ache.
And yes one more time, this old man feels blue when he considers the fact that back then he lacked the confidence to pursue his dancing dream.
On a bright yellow morning in December of 1963 God taught me the reason a bald man needs a haircut, the fact that Jackie Kennedy didn’t care who shot her husband, and that I was supposed to hate niggers because I looked like one.
I was sitting inside The Buzzcut Emporium — across the parking lot from Snoozie’s Trattoria — smelling white powder puffing off the soft brush with a blond wood handle that Jimmie the barber was waving against the neck of the tall, skinny, bald man who sat in the swivel chair.
I didn’t like the way Jimmie made loud speeches while holding a straight razor close to the wiry man’s throat; and the bald man sneered and blew me a kiss. So I slumped, slouched and curled my body until I became invisible. Then I slid what was left of me back against the wall, and I leafed through a copy of Life Magazine.
I stared at the Abe Zapruder colored photos of JKF’s assassination. I stopped breathing when I reached the frame where his wife Jackie held her man still and wide open to the shot that turned one side of the president’s head into red mist.
“She was sad, but she was free,” said God. “The secret service man who climbed onto the limousine’s back bumper practiced his lines and moves ahead of time.”
I considered asking God a question about Calvin’s concept of Predestination, but the barber’s voice distracted me.
“You want I should blend the sides with the fuzz around your ears. That right?” said Jimmie.
“Yeah, that and give it a proper washing, maybe even lighten it up some for the summer months,” said the bald man. Then he pulled what at first looked like a squirmy guinea pig from the pocket of his permanent-press slacks and handed the creature to Jimmie.
Turns out the pig was his hair.
Pig, wig, what the fuck, I thought. This guy’s an independent thinker like me, or he’s a nut case like me; and in either event Johnnie Rebello was right to recommend that I write my next story about whatever might happen here on a Saturday morning.
I rubbed my hand through the mess of tight curls that sat on top of my brain, and I listened to the bell above the doorjamb jingle as a cop walked inside and approached Jimmie. That tinkling bell, I realized, appeared in far too many of the stories I wrote not to hold some mysterious significance inside my psyche. Something to do with arrival and departure.
The cop wore a hat. The kind the bread man wore in the early 1950s when I was too young by a slip to go to school. I think I was in love with the bread man. It was all about the way he smelled. Sweet and hopeful as lemon sunlight shining on baby-green grass.
The fact that the bread man’s visits interrupted the beatings my mother gave me for being a weird child who was born inside her gut and could get back inside her head anytime he wanted to go there served to deepen my affection for him.
He would knock on the door, and my mother would drop her weapon, quick stop screaming, and growl at me to suck up my tears. Then she’d start singing and smiling like a television housewife who smelled like lavender perfume even after lusty sex.
I was only four or five years old at the time, but my daily travels inside my mother’s mind led me to understand — in the vague but focused way that babies comprehend the complicated aspects of communication — the connection between the beatings and her intense sense of physical frustration. A few years later, when I learned how to make myself come, I realized what she’d been missing, and how the bread man’s visits fit into the picture.
“Come on in,” she’d say when she opened the door.
He was tall and handsome, and his fingernails were clean.
My dad was short and nondescript, and his hands were always dirty from working hard-labor jobs on the railroad. Pennsylvania Reading Seashore Line. Steam locomotives left over from World War II, dedicated to lugging tourists from Philadelphia to South Jersey and back again.
The bread man sported a fresh-pressed brown uniform and a snappy cap with a shiny black brim.
My dad wore grease-stained overalls and a pinstriped canvas hat that surrendered to his sweat.
The bread man filled the air with the aroma of sugar frosting and jelly doughnuts.
Dad stank of kerosene and coal tar.
And the cop carried no scent at all.
“Gotta stack of Wanted Dead or Alive posters here,” he said. His voice squealed past the fine hairs inside his nostrils and came out sounding like a sax gone sour. “Mind if I tape one to your window?”
“You know me, Bernie. Semper a Member of the Chamber. Here, I’ll hang one on the mirror, too. Who you lookin’ for this time?”
“Thug named Harry Felton. Guy wrote a book a few years back, then made himself drunk forever when no one but old ladies wanted to read the damned thing. Couple of months ago, he snorted down the wrong kind of cocktail and totaled a Packard automobile. Almost killed his own fat ass, and crippled his queer passenger, then escaped the hospital with the help of his agent just after we pressed him with a DWI. We suspect he went looking for an old dame named Gloria Lakeland. Seems like he had a score to settle with her.”
“Lakeland from down the road in Railsford? Did he find her?” said Jimmie.
“Yep, that’s the broad. She showed up yesterday lying in her own bed, naked, embarrassed and two days beyond dead. Her neighbors smelled her remains and called us. A note, written in red lipstick, was tacked to the headboard. Just two words: Epilogue Forthcoming. I’m not sure if I’m saying that right.”
“What’s this world coming to, Bernie?”
“I can’t answer that one. That kind of language is too twisted and high-falutin for me to want to understand.”
The cop left, and the bell tinkled.
“You’re next, kid,” said Jimmie. At first I didn’t know he was talking to me. I was too busy trying to stay invisible, and thinking about how much I hated Jackie Kennedy, to pay careful attention to the present moment.
And as far as present moments go, even back then I realized that time was a desperate concept we invented so we wouldn’t feel too dizzy and start to fall down. Being physically and emotionally tortured makes some children wither inside and turns other ones into hyper-sensitive psychics. I was a damned smart kid. Intelligence was the only thing I knew for certain that I owned, although intelligence disappointed itself by telling me that I could never be the best or the most.
“What’s wrong? Those big ears of yours not working today?” The tall bald man, who wasn’t exactly bald anymore, punched me on my shoulder and pointed to Jimmie. “Man’s talking to you, you bookworm faggot shrimp,” he said.
His trimmed and copper-toned guinea pig was sitting on top of his head. It slipped a little bit to the left as he bent down toward me. But his thin-lipped mouth tilted off to the right side of the universe, so on balance I made sense of the view.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I like your haircut.” I kept my facial muscles tight when I spoke, so as to be sure that my expression added nothing to my words.
Of course, I was being a wise-ass motherfucker by saying I admired his orange pig wig, but I’d learned from my mother’s beatings, and from the tough acting kids at school who spat on me and had wax inside their flat shiny ears, that given the choice between a subtly delivered wise-ass compliment and none at all, the insecure among us would always ignore the sarcasm and accept the compliment as a gift.
The tall, skinny man twitched his head from left to right, the way a spastic entertains an uncontrollable tic. He pushed his polyester shirt down deep into his permanent-press slacks, scratched his balls while he was down there, smelled the fingers he pulled out and turned toward the Buzzcut Emporium’s door.
And by force of habit I listened to the doorjamb bell tinkle.
“Climb aboard, kid. Mind if I call you kid?” said Jimmie the barber. He placed a padded board across the swivel chair’s arms. I shrugged my shoulders in answer to his question, wiggled my ass into position, and wished I wasn’t short like my dad.
“Please. Can you give me a flat top? Leave it longer right up front?” I said.
“Flat tops are for real hair, not for what God gave you. You got nigger’s wool. Only one way I can try to fix it,” he said. Then he grabbed the electric razor and I listened to it hum like an attacking squadron of green-head houseflies.
“My dad told me I don’t have to get a buzz cut this time.” I heard the pleading whine inside my voice and hated myself for begging this bastard.
“Your dad’s the little guy who works the switch house down the way, isn’t he?”
“He works hard,” I said.
“Not hard enough at controlling his wife. But look, kid, you don’t want to go through this life looking like a woolly headed licorice baby, so just let me do my job. The only reason I took you in here was because Johnnie called me from over at the Trattoria and said you had potential in spite of your looks.”
“You know Johnnie Rebello?” I said.
“Like a man knows his brother, cause that’s what we are. I’m Jimmie Rebello, but most guys call me Jimmie The Razor. You’re still a young punk, though, so just keep calling me sir.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Rebello,” I said as I watched my nigger’s wool fall to the black-and-white tile floor.
“Johnnie says you’re an author. That the way it is?”
“I write stories, but so far no one wants to publish them.”
“Well, what do you write about, kid?”
“Melancholy dead guys who live in Happyland. About them and about everything else.”
I thought about how if I ever wrote this barber shop into a story I’d have to change all the characters’ names, because no one would believe that they all ended with the same sound. Johnnie, Jimmie, Bernie, Harry. Then again, I thought, life was odd and so were my stories, so maybe I’d leave well enough alone.
“That might be your problem, kid. Trust me on this. Dead guys can be melancholy, but not here in Happyland.”
“Your brother, Mr. Johnnie, told me the same thing.”
“Must have heard it from me. We talk a lot. On the telephone, that is. I can’t convince him he should leave his favorite corner booth, walk across the parking lot and visit me here. He tells me that exercise is for fools who think they’ll live forever. Sometimes I think he’s got a point.”
“Mr. Johnnie is a wise man.”
“So I eat free of charge at the Trattoria once a month, and in return I give him a haircut to match his restaurant’s decor.”
“Like I said, Mr. Johnnie is a –”
“Quit while you’re ahead, kid. I don’t need you to praise my brother.” Jimmie swung me around in the chair. “You see the mug hanging on my mirror over there? Guy’s name is Harry Felton. He’s an author, too. Old, drunk and on the run from the law. He let a temporary need for love ruin his life. Happens to all you brooding artist types. I’d be careful if I was you.”
I stared at Harry Felton’s photograph, and then at my own reflection in the mirror. Harry had nigger’s wool, too. Gray to my brown, but his curls were just as tight. True enough, he looked lonely and just about dead. But he held his head high and winked at me.
I climbed down off the board and out of the swivel chair. I pulled two quarters out my pants pocket and handed them to Jimmie.
“Glad I met you, Mr. Rebello, sir” I said. “But I don’t need love. I need success. And the next time I want a haircut, I’ll look for Harry Felton’s barber.”
I remember leaving the Buzzcut Emporium, but I can’t be sure that the doorjamb bell tinkled on my way out.
When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.
It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.
I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.
I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.
These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.
My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.
And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.
I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.
A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.
“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”
I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.
“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.
“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”
“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.
I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.
“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”
“I never really liked airplanes.”
“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”
With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.
“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.
I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.
“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to become you,” I said.
“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”
“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”
“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.
“I don’t understand you,” I said.
“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”
And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.
Readers, This is Part III of Harry Felton’s story.See Part Ihere. See Part IIhere.See the ENTIRE TALE as it unfolds, from the beginning, here.
A necklace of sharp needles tightened, pierced, and then sank deep into his flesh. Next a scalpel’s blade slid between two upper vertebrae and severed his spinal cord, interrupting the initial blast of pain. A neat, clean, indifferent incision that ran from left to right beneath his hairline and then around and through his throat. He swallowed molten copper and listened to the echo of a gurgling wave that filled his lungs.
His body shot forward and joined a galaxy of sparkling diamonds. Each jewel reflected a separate aspect of his face. His mind reconstructed the torn flesh and shattered bone, pulled the puzzle pieces back together, until he saw himself. One eye swollen to the size and texture of an overripe plum, red-veined and leaking sticky tears. Hair ripped away from his scalp, leaving here and there a pond of purple blood and pus. Ear lobes, drooping with the weight of old age, now resembled sliced and trimmed cuts of meat upon a butcher’s block.
He choked on the odors of gasoline, urine and human feces. Gravity yanked him down into a ready grave. Black space closed in, blinded him and spun him fast, until dizziness dragged him toward unconsciousness.
Yet floating somewhere inside the unforgiving darkness he heard the familiar tap . . . tap . . . tapping of his keyboard. A repetitive and steady rhythm, perhaps too steady to suit the habitual hesitation of its master. Rather more like the staccato snap a pinwheel whispers when an unceasing wind whips it round in rapid circles. Or the incessant flutter of a hummingbird’s wings.
No matter that his ruined eyes squeezed tight against a sudden invasion of light, a harsh fluorescent beam insinuated and insisted, until the needle-studded necklace became a flexible but confining brace, and the clean incision revealed itself as a seeping wound. He realized that the odor, the blood and the shattered bone belonged to the stranger who was now trapped inside his mind, planning his escape, covered in a shroud and begging for absolution.
Gradually the whirring pinwheel came into focus as his friend’s familiar pencil. She held it laced between her fingers, waved it back and forth, struck an edgy drumbeat on her pad of paper with the pencil’s point.
“I’m here,” she said. “It’s been a while.”
“I’m . . . I’m . . . I’m not here. Where? This place? What is it? Gertie, what is this place? I can’t move my arms. Gertie, I’m paralyzed. I’m dying.”
“It’s all right, Harry.” She stood up and hovered over him. He noticed worry swimming in the water of her pale-blue eyes. “No, I take that back,” she said. “Truth is, you’re lying in a hospital bed. You’re busted up, but you’re alive. Your arms are clamped to the bed frame. Be quiet and look around. Focus on one object. That’s right. Just take it slow and gain your sense of balance.”
Harry glanced upward toward the plastic bags of liquid, some cloudy-white, others clear as water, then traced a tangle of plastic tubes that led back to his arms.
“I can’t feel . . . ” His words caught in his throat.
“You’re parched. Here, take this. And take your time.” Gertie placed an ice cube on Harry’s tongue. He swirled it around and let it melt.
“I can’t feel anything.”
“Fentanyl. The murky liquid inside this bag.” Gertie touched the plastic bag as if to confirm its presence. “You were in a lot of pain after the accident. Fentanyl’s a strong pain reliever and an anesthetic. You’re just now coming off the stuff.”
“Accident? You said accident. No. Someone tried to murder me. My neck . . . my throat. He cut my throat.” Harry heard his voice rising to the level of hysteria. His body shook and shivered. An army of people dressed in blue uniforms came running toward his bed. They surrounded him, leaned in close, grabbed him and held him down. His screaming grew louder. In place of words he howled the midnight melody of a desperate beast.
“Mr. Felton,” said an old man’s wrinkled face that almost touched his own. The old man’s breath, sour as it smelled, seemed fresh as new-cut springtime grass compared with the air Harry lately had been drawing in. “Mr. Felton, my name’s Dr. Webster. No one tried to murder you. That’s the medication talking. Sometimes Fentanyl causes hallucinations. We turned off the medication early this morning, and you’re waking up. Just try a deep breath or two.” Harry watched the doctor motion to the other blue uniforms. They let go of him and left the room.
Harry felt the doctor’s stethoscope laid flat and cold upon his chest. “That’s good,” said Dr. Webster. “Inhale. Hold it. Now exhale. Good, your heartbeat’s slowing down to normal.”
“I’m still alive? I drank my own blood and I’m alive?”
“You’re very much alive, Mr. Felton, but you need time to recuperate. Maybe a lot of time. I’ll be back soon to see you. I’ll tell the nurse who’s monitoring your vital signs to bring you something mild to relieve your anxiety once your blood pressure and heart rate stabilize. In the meantime, I’ll leave you to talk with your friend. You’re a lucky man, Mr. Felton. She’s been by your side since you were admitted.”
“She’s here to nag me. She always nags me.”
“That’s right, F. Scott Fitzfelton, you need me,” said Gertie.
Dr. Webster smiled, then clicked his heels on the tile floor as he walked out of the room.
“Gertie?” said Harry.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Gertie, you said accident. What did you mean?”
“The nurses call that milky goop they’ve been pumping into your veins Milk of Amnesia. Between that and the fact that you’re in shock, you probably don’t remember the details.”
“So remind me, why don’t you, go ahead, remind me.”
“You sure you want to hear this right now? Aren’t you tired? You look bone tired. Matter of fact, you look like shit.” Harry opened his mouth and tried to protest, but Gertie slipped another ice cube between his lips.
“Thanks for the compliment. If I can’t handle whatever you have to tell me, I’ll just ask Dr. Dictionary for another pill. So go ahead, remind me why don’t you. Go ahead.”
“You got behind the wheel of a car when maybe you should have known better. What the hell got into you, anyway? You hate driving. Must have been the drug convinced you otherwise.”
Harry turned his glance toward the ceiling and tried to turn a plaster patch into a map. On that map he identified a time and a place.
“The Packard. John’s Packard automobile. That the one?”
“Now you’re coming back home, Harry. You ran that baby right into a telephone pole. You flew through the windshield, and your passenger –”
“Piercehall. John Piercehall. Is he . . .”
“He’s a mess, but he’s alive and renting the Presidential Suite just down the hall.”
“Oh my God.”
“You can talk to God later, Harry. Next person you’ll talk to after me and the nurse will be a cop.”
“Harry struggled again to move his arms. The bed frame rattled and he began to growl.”
“You gotta calm down, show them that you’re calm and in control before they’ll remove the wrist clamps.”
“Are these damned things handcuffs, Gertie? Am I under arrest? You said cop. Did they arrest me? Tell me, please go ahead and tell me.”
“The doctor needed to stop you from digging at your wounds while you were under. Like I said, when you look more like your serene self, they’ll remove the clamps. Think you can act serene?”
“Cut to the chase. Did the cops arrest me?”
“Since when does Harry Felton use cliches like cut to the chase? No, not yet. Only one thing stopping them from locking you up. Well, maybe two things.”
“Please, fer chrissake, cut to the fucking chase.”
“So long as you floated in and out of consciousness, the police chose not to read you your rights. You have to show them you can understand what they’re saying to you first. Or not.”
“And the second thing?”
“The drug I mentioned.”
“I didn’t drink that much.”
“Not the booze. You were well below the legal limit. This time, that is. No, not the cocktail. Your blood test after the accident revealed the presence of another drug. Rohypnol.”
“A roofie, Harry. On the street they call it a roofie. It’s not legal, not even as a prescribed drug, not in this country. In the good ole USA kids use it to help them escape the prison cells we senile control commanders use as traps when we hunt them down.”
“I’m not a kid, Gertie. Look at me. I’m no kid. Please, go ahead and look at me.”
“That’s true. You’re no kid. You’re a foolish, self-pitying, old fart. And although you’re as banana yellow as the next alcoholic who lugs around a dead liver, I know you didn’t pop that roofie into your mouth. But someone fed it to you, someone you might know better than you’re letting on.”
“Look, Gertie, you were right to begin with. I can’t handle this bullshit. So just reopen the valve and let that milky medicine flow into me again. I don’t know what the fuck you’re saying to me.”
“You want more Milk of Amnesia? Tell Dr. Dictionary. But before you do, and before you have to talk to the cops, why don’t you tell me about Railford, Pennsylvania and the lovely lady Gloria Lakeland?”
“It was part of my book promotion tour. I delivered my standard speech.”
“Promotion tour, now that’s funny. That book you say you’re promoting, you published it several decades ago, and it’s been out of print for at least as long as the hair under my arms has been gray.
“But not that Railford, PA, Harry, and not the twenty-first-century model of Gloria Lakeland. The police detectives did some research while you were dreaming. The questions they asked me about Miss Lakeland and you left me puzzled and curious.”
“Questions? Why would the cops ask you? What questions?”
“Look, Harry, adorable as you are, you don’t have any next of kin. I had to beg the doctors and nurses to let me visit you in the ICU. I gave them the old ‘We have a long history’ line. I wasn’t lying, right? The cops became curious, so they tickled me for some information about you. Nothing formal, and nothing — so they told me — on the record.”
“You didn’t answer me.” Harry listened as his voice became a croak and then a gurgle. He began to cough up phlegm. His neck began to ache, and his thoughts traveled backward in time. Gertie grabbed a washcloth from the metal bedside tray, poured some water from a pitcher onto it and cleaned up his face. He leaned back against the pillows and tried to recapture the present moment.
“You want I should leave you alone for a while? Let you sleep? Maybe that’s best.” said Gertie.
“No. You got me all worked up and worried, and now you’re going to leave me here to suffer?”
“That’s right, Harry. Blame me for your sins against yourself. You must be feeling better.”
“Oh, shit. Why did I take that drink?”
“Quit the woe is me nonsense. I told you it wasn’t the booze. And if you don’t want me to leave, then tell me more about Gloria.”
“She’s a rich old lady with bad breath. She wears a lot of gaudy jewelry. Her house looks like a modern art museum.”
“Uh huh. Well, the detectives seem to think you knew gaudy Gloria back in the day when your testosterone level ran high. So now it’s your turn. You tell me, go ahead, tell me. Was it your memories of Gloria Lakeland that drew you back to Railford? Did she recommend you to John Piercehall, or did you recommend yourself?”
“You’re stepping in quicksand when you ask me these questions.”
“Yeah, well that’s pure poetry. But just why did you go back there? It was back there, wasn’t it? You bought a one-way ticket. Remember that? Was Gloria Lakeland the reason you returned? And who might have wanted you drugged and incapacitated?”
Harry stared, but not at Gertie. Gertie’s face he tried to avoid. Instead he returned his gaze to the map on the ceiling. And on that map, just a short distance from a certain bookshop, he watched a younger version of himself lying in a different bed, a different stranger snuggled up beside him, the aroma of her perfume and sex enticing him to float inside a galaxy of sparkling diamonds.
Readers, This is Part II of Harry Felton’s story. See Part Ihere. See Part III here. See the ENTIRE TALE as it unfolds, from the beginning,here.
Had he known ahead of time what the day in Railsford, PA held in store for him, Harry might never have boarded the train in Philadelphia. He might instead have remained in his seat until the conductor announced the end of the line.
As it turned out, the end of one line and the beginning of another is what Harry Felton faced after his final appearance as an obscure author of out-of-print books.
John Piercehall’s used-book store, Yellowed Pages, looked like a stage set arranged with antique images that defied the modern, fiber-optic world that Harry feared and so avoided as much as possible. An old, comfortable, cool and shadowed shop. Mahogany bookshelves upstairs and down. A winding staircase that Harry found difficult to negotiate because of his weight and width and an ever-tightening sensation that began somewhere under his armpits, raced up into the back of his neck and settled deep inside the fat of his jowls.
The shop’s owner, who called down to Harry when the bell above the doorjamb jingled, sat behind a cluttered desk in an alcove on the second floor. He was a short, skinny man, dressed in a collarless pinstriped shirt tucked into creased flannel slacks held floating on his frame by a pair of narrow suspenders. When he glanced up from the book into which he’d been jotting notes, Harry noticed a fog of greasy fingerprints on the thick lenses of the man’s wire-framed eyeglasses.
“Name’s Harry Felton. Just got in on the 8:43 from Philadelphia. We spoke on the phone a couple of times. I’m here to talk about my books. You have a place ready for me? Somewhere I can lay down my stuff? Maybe a bathroom where I can wash off the dust before the audience arrives?” Harry spoke through the handkerchief that he’d pulled from his pocket and held up to his mouth. Piercehall cocked his head sideways and hesitated. Harry realized that his voice must have sounded muffled, so he repeated what he’d said.
“First of all, welcome to Railford, Mr. Felton. I hope your trip here wasn’t too tiring. You can sit down and relax a while if you want. There’s plenty of time between now and your presentation.”
“Plenty of time? Maybe for you.” Harry watched a pair of wrinkles twitching paths along the flesh of Piercehall’s forehead. “I’m sorry, Mr. Piercehall. Force of habit, I guess. Just speaking my characters’ parts out loud. I do that a lot when I’m alone. Didn’t mean to be abrupt. But you were about to tell me where to put my books and papers, yes?”
“Well . . . maybe I didn’t make it clear in my letter, but you’ll be delivering your talk at Gloria Lakeland’s home. Not enough room here in the shop to contain the fine ladies of the Railford Readers Association. Miss Gloria’s our township’s librarian, the president of our local historical association and the last heir apparent to the Lakeland family fortune. The restroom is downstairs. Pass through the middle stacks and then turn off to your right till you reach the far back corner. Maybe you’ll share a drink with me before we make our way to Miss Gloria’s?” Piercehall opened a desk drawer and pulled out a crystal flask with a silver cap.
Harry thought, “This guy’s all phony affectation,” but what Harry said was, “I don’t drink, not anymore. Doctor’s orders. I’ve reached the time of life when doctors become a writer’s best and worst source of inspiration.” Harry tried to force a smile, although he realized that his strained attempt to seem lighthearted about the medical profession had most likely failed. Harry despised the fact that he needed continually to visit doctors’ offices. Hospitals, he thought, were these days designed to look like ridiculous blends of luxury hotels and art museums. Not good places for a writer to surrender his pen to the ultimate bard.
“Oh, yes, yes, of course . . . I see your point about taking good care of one’s health. . . yes . . . okay. I’ll just pull down the shades and close the shutters while you’re washing up. My car’s parked round back. Shout out whenever you’re ready.”
The restroom, as Piercehall had named it, was a closet. Rust stains around the sink’s drain. One frosted window at ceiling level, closed tight so as to keep the stink of urine hanging humid, heavy and ripe inside. Harry felt the now familiar trickle of blood running from his nostrils and onto his upper lip, where he caught it with a flick of his tongue and then swallowed. His physicians had tried to explain to him in greater detail than he wanted to comprehend such terms as coagulation, fibrinogen, low platelet count and clotting factor. All Harry knew was that the years of guzzling liquor were catching up to him. Simply put, his nose bled easily and often; and Harry did his best to hide the truth of his condition from himself and from his readers.
The only person with whom he’d been open and honest regarding the subject of what he knew to be the inevitable end of his life was his agent Gertrude Benton. He’d known Gertie for almost half a century, and secrets cannot hide that long flying through the air between two friends. Of course, she nagged him. Gertie had a way of nagging with a squint of her eyes and a snap of her ever-present pencil that made her words seem like afterthoughts.
“You’re not the youngest salmon in the stream anymore, Harry,” she told him just before he left her office three days before. “In fact, these days you look more and more like a pickled herring. If you don’t start taking care of yourself, and soon, it’ll be a lot more than your books that go out of print. How hard have you thought about that, Harry? Have you made a decision one way or another? Let me know if you’re going to yank yourself up by the balls or not, because I haven’t time to waste trying to sell a dead man’s manuscript. I’d rather spend what’s left of my life among the living.”
“Please, Gertie, lower your voice.”
“Afraid someone else will find out you’re a fool and a coward?”
Harry leaned over the dirty bookstore sink, held his breath, squeezed his eyes shut and splashed water onto his face. No towels hung on the rack, so he quick opened the door, buried his nose in his shirtsleeve, breathed again and wiped away most of the water, along with a smear of blood. He pulled his suit jacket back on and walked fast back through the aisles, dodging here and there a pile of books haphazardly stacked on the floor. He met Piercehall at the shop’s front door and followed him outside. They walked down a side alley to where an automobile from a earlier era sat parked on a patch of orange gravel.
“Do you fancy classic cars, Mr. Felton?”
“Harry will do just fine.”
“She’s a 1946 Packard. They called her a bathtub model. But her seats feel more like living-room couches,” said John Piercehall.
“I sometimes watch old black-and-white movies just to remember what the world looked like when I was a kid. No, I don’t know much, but I admire good craftsmanship of any kind.”
“Care to admire her from behind the wheel?”
“I’m not much of a driver, but thanks anyway.”
The ride down Interstate 80 lasted maybe fifteen minutes. John steered the Packard close in toward the curb, where a valet took charge of her. The party was in full swing.
It was only one drink. That’s what he told himself. That’s what he told himself the last time and the time before that, too. But Harry hadn’t yet taught himself how to handle stress a better way. Stress; he could feel the panic coming on, measure his level of discomfort by the pulse of blood behind his eyes and the taught grip of fear inside his throat.
This place. Miss Gloria Lakeland’s home. This place sickened him. One great hollow room cut into smaller chambers by curved archways. Hired help dressed in tuxedos, tapping their heels on polished hardwood floors, balancing trays of cocktails on their splayed fingertips. High ceilings holding captive air that seemed to spin in dizzy, rapid circles. The tinkle of crystal chandeliers holding flickered rainbows inside each prism. Here and there a framed splash of colors hanging in the center of an otherwise unadorned wall, the brushstroke patterns too abstract for Harry to comprehend. The peppered chatter of polite people mingling, whispering the hushed language that haunts a funeral parlor.
And then there was Miss Gloria. A weak impersonation of a worn out Southern Belle posing in the middle of Pennsylvania. Miss Gloria greeted him; this much he knew because he watched her lips moving and her smile lines crinkling near the corners of her mouth. But all he heard was the rattle of her bracelets. All he smelled was the stale, dead odor of her breath. All he felt was the pinch of her painted fingernails on his wrist. And afterward what he remembered most was the sadness settled deep inside her stare.
This place, so foreign to Harry that he lost his sense of balance, became his next reason, his next tired excuse. The wandering people who inhabited these rooms encircled him, pulled in close to him and then closer still, until he could no longer breathe. And so he said yes to the next empty tuxedo that passed close by him, and from that ancient soldier’s tray he snatched a goblet filled with liquid pain killer.
Harry heard the crowd’s voices, but he couldn’t make out their words. He watched tipsy women seat themselves on furniture made of chrome and glass. He inhaled the perfumed and powdered clouds that surrounded them. And he tasted the bile and the booze inside his mouth.
Later, as he lay strapped down to a bed, suddenly sober and listening to his heart beating fire, Harry imagined that he must have delivered his standard speech from behind the lectern. As well, he no doubt sprinkled his delivery with favorite quotations from his book. Perhaps he pretended to invite and answer a few vain questions about an author’s love affair with language. He figured that he must have done all of that and maybe more. Yet his only sure and vivid memory of the occasion was of walking beside John Piercehall as they returned to the Packard, there to meet the same valet who’d earlier welcomed them.
“Is that invitation to sit behind the wheel still on?” Harry heard himself say.
And Piercehall must have said yes, because when soon afterward Harry heard the cruel crack, crease and shriek of metal, he surrendered perforce to his slow but insistent reflexes and he jammed his foot down hard against the brake pedal. He felt the car’s front end dip forward and down. A sparkled cobweb grew before his eyes as the divided windshield splintered and reformed itself into knives, glass blades that sliced his flesh as his body flew forward past his mind. Lightning flashed in shades of blue and red and white. And at the last, an ear-splitting explosion filled his skull, and Harry felt and heard the long rush and hiss of air abandoning his lungs.
Readers, This is Part I of Harry Felton’s story. See Part IIhere. See Part IIIhere. See the ENTIRE TALE as it unfolds, from the beginning, here.
Harry Felton was nobody if he wasn’t a writer. He wasn’t what most people would name a handsome man, what with his long, hooked nose, the tip of which almost touched his upper lip, the tangle of thinning curls the color of a walnut long ago dropped from the tree that graced his sweaty scalp, the rolls of fat that folded over the leather belt he wore for no more than decoration and the liquid look inside his tired eyes.
Still, he attracted small crowds of retired old ladies who were wheeled by their hopeless husbands or hired nurses up shaky ramps that led to side entrances and into the few dusty bookstores that still existed inside the undiscovered recesses of America’s past.
“You’ll see the end of war when you die, this I guarantee.” Harry read aloud from the tattered copy of his most popular book, A Tree Dies in South Philadelphia, that he carried inside his leather attache case from one town to another.
If at all possible, Harry Felton took a bus when he toured to pimp his books. His second choice was a train. He liked the pungent smell of smokey exhaust and bemoaned the day when the fruitcake-minded eco-fascistic Save The Earth fanatics prompted Trailways and Greyhound to move the coaches’ tailpipes from ground level to rooftop height, where the black dust joined the clouds sooner than before, though with just as much determination.
Trains, of course, featured a picture-window view of the passage of a lifetime. Harry liked to think that he wrote inside his head many of his finest works while riding a train. And it wasn’t only the fields of grain, nor simply the purple mountains’ majesty that inspired Harry Felton. The coal-dusted spur lines that traced pathways to repair shacks and lay strewn with greasy engine parts attracted Harry’s stare, as well. Inspiration, Harry told himself, came from sometimes dreary sources.
If pinched for time, Harry would hop an airplane in order to make a speaking engagement, although nowadays he hobbled more than hopped from one gate to another.
But automobiles were out of the question for Harry Felton. He feared steering along a highway, or God forbid, across a bridge, a box of metal set upon two axles and four wheels. The way Harry Felton figured things, when riding as a passenger in a bus or on a train, a man had to place trust in just one driver; but on a freeway that same man had to trust the witless judgment of a thousand inept individuals, tired of changing their children’s soiled diapers, gritting their teeth together as they pretended happy attitudes toward their jobs, or rocking to the sound of raucous tunes so as to obliterate the noise inside their heads.
Somewhere deep within his mind, Harry sensed the fault that wrecked his logical explanation for the path he’d chosen, but he considered consistency more important than self-analysis as he approached his own death.
“If ever a boy was deprived of childhood, then I am that kid, I kid you not.” Harry always paused after he read that line, as if to allow his audience to mull over the significance of the remark, which significance Harry Felton had forgotten many years ago. He grabbed for the dirty handkerchief that lived inside his tweed jacket pocket, rubbed it back and forth across the yanked curve of his vein-scarred nose, made as if to blow and cry at the same time, then tucked the wrinkled rag back into his pocket and stared hard toward the ceiling. He noticed a web of rust-colored leak lines that spread their way across the soundproof tiles.
Harry felt that he had one more book left in him, but his agent complained that the manuscript he’d just submitted to her wasn’t good enough.
“How else shall I say this to you, Harry?” said Gertrude Benton. “I’ve stood by your books for more than forty years now, but I tell you that this one will not sell.”
“Well, I guess you said it the only way you know how, Gertie, but I don’t care anymore about selling my work. I only want to hold a hardbound copy of the thing as I lie dying.”
“Always, Harry, always you’ve owned a flair for the melodramatic. But another writer already wrote that book, and he wrote it better than you could ever manage.” Gertrude flicked her ballpoint pen against the top of her desk as she spoke. Harry long ago became accustomed to the sound of this nervous tap dance rhythm; he knew it as the background chorus to Gertie’s solo performances.
“So sue me for my associations with the greats. So sue me. Go ahead, sue me.”
“For what amount? You haven’t earned more than a dollar and change for this house in so many years that we’ve both lost count.” The soft flesh of her upper arm swayed back and forth as she pointed her pen at Harry and shook it as if to emphasize the importance of the business end of the creative arts.
“So sue me anyway. So sue me. Then get the damned book published. Leave me a pauper. I’ll even agree to let you write my obituary. Just see the book into print and hand me a copy when I’m resting in my deathbed. And pull the fucking tubes and needles out of me when I ask you to.” Harry reached for his handkerchief.
“You know what your problem is, Harry?”
“So tell me. Other than the fact that I’m old and dying and almost forgotten, what’s my problem? So tell me. Go ahead, tell me. I’m not afraid of you, Gertie.”
“You’re fixated on angst. And nowadays angst won’t sell. That and you’re stuck on literature.”
“So what’s literature? What is it? Tell me.”
“Look, when you and I started out, memoir wasn’t a word that most readers recognized. Back then they called them confessions. Women who stayed home after seeing their husbands off to work and their kids off to school tiptoed to the local deli’s magazine rack and snatched a few pages’ worth of titillation. But your titillating years are gone, Harry Felton. And these days confessions are played out on television screens and computer monitors.”
“So let me die a lonely man, then. Go ahead, let me die. And by the way, can you lend me a few bucks for a bus ticket to Railford, Pennsylvania? There’s a used-book store there called Yellowed Pages. Owner’s name is John, and he specializes in books written about angst by fixated depressives. He tells me his business is booming and he’d love to have me speak to his Tuesday morning readers club.”
“One-way or two?”
“Just the one way there. I might not return. Not unless I lose this cold and gather courage.”
Two films with writers as central characters, same silly story.
Finding Forrester, 2000
Sean Connery plays brilliant, Pulitzer-Prize-winning, washed-up author William Forrester. Featuring yet another great hairpiece for Sean, that and his ever sexy lishp.
Rob Brown plays God-given talent Jamal Wallace, kid from the streets of New York who dribbles a mean basketball and rat-a-tat-tats an even meaner set of typewriter keys. Of course, no one knows the answer to the age-old question, “Are writers born inside a bubble made of miracles?” But after watching this film, your insides are sure to swell with the resounding answer “Yes! By God, yes!”
Conflict point numero uno (all good stories require seemingly insurmountable conflict points, right?): Sean Connery Forrester — and let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this production could have earned much cash if say, Mel Gibson or Alec Baldwin played our aging author — and Jamal, oh what a perfect up and coming name made in Liberal Heaven, Wallace meet by chance. If memory serves me well, Mr. Pulitzer finds himself in possession of the kid’s backpack, and the kid wants the backpack back.
Jamal requests Forrester’s help, although his strong sense of dignity forbids the possibility that he beg for such assistance. Mr. Hairpiece resists. We the audience, especially we writers in desperate search of inspiration, know that Sean William Forrester suffers the dread disease known to authors from F. Scott to Capote to Lil’ Ole Us as Writers’ Constipation.
Forrester has for so long born this backup that he’s become a recluse (another oh-so-original idea regarding burned-out and all-but-forgotten scribes).
I refuse to include a spoiler here, but one pivotal scene requires, yes requires that I comment. Sean Pulitzer sits before his typewriter. Jamal Meanstreets sits at his typewriter. The two stunning authors face each other. Sean begins to tap tap tap. Jamal hesitates. Sean asks Jamal, “Whatshthematter?” He goes on to tell Jamal, “The firsht rule for a writer is that a writer writesh!”
Oh, woe is I? That before watching this film I wasted so much of what might have otherwise become my stellar career seems an unintentional mortal sin! After all, I coulda’ been a contenda’.
Starting Out in the Evening, 2007
Frank Langella plays brilliant, washed-up author Leonard Schiller whose books are out-of-print. No fine hairpiece or sexy lishp featured in this one, just a flabby old man who still owns a well-toned mind, but we are treated to a hidden away photograph of Frankie, aka Leonard, when he was young and irresistibly hunky.
Lauren Ambrose plays God-given talent Heather Wolfe, rich, cute and erotically inspirational child (as in makes even an old man want to bed her for sake of the afterward intellectual conversation) from the mean quadrangle of your typical Ivy League University who hugs you because she loves your intellect and records the depth of a washed-up author’s personality in one helluva Masters Thesis. Of course, no one knows the answer to the age-old question, “Are writers born inside a bubble made of miracles?” But after watching this film and juicing up over Heather’s sensitive flesh, your insides are sure to swell with the resounding answer “Yes! By God, yes! I think I’m coming!”
Conflict point numero uno (all good stories require seemingly insurmountable conflict points, right?): Frank Langella Schiller — and let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this production could have earned much cash if say, Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman played our aging author — and Heather, oh what a perfectly delicate name made in Hubba Hubba Heaven, Wolfe meet by less than chance. If memory serves me well, Heather Hubba Hubba pursues Frankie, slithers first into his confidence and then into his bed (just to stare, not to touch, mind you) in order to commit research for her thesis.
Heather requests Schiller’s help, although her strong sense of dignity almost forbids the possibility that she beg for such assistance. Mr. Flabby resists. We the audience, especially we writers in desperate search of inspiration, know that Frank Leonard Schiller suffers the dread disease known to authors from Hemingway to Hellman to Lil’ Ole Us as Writers’ Constipation.
And of course, Schiller has for so long born this backup that he’s become a recluse (another oh-so-original idea regarding burned-out and all-but-forgotten scribes).
I refuse to include a spoiler here, but one pivotal scene requires, yes requires that I comment. Leonard Langella sits before his typewriter. Heather Hubba Hubba sits in the next room over, yet engaged in intimate contact with her mentor’s soul, pad of paper and magic pen in hand. The two stunning authors face each other through the ether. Leonard begins to tap tap tap. Heather hesitates. Leonard asks Heather, “What? You want to go to bed with me? Flabby old brilliant moi?” He goes on to tell Heather (with his soulful stare and not with words, mind you), “Well, all right, but remember that you cannot always interrupt me this way, because the first rule for a writer is that a writer writes!”
Oh, woe is I? That before watching this film I wasted so much of what might have otherwise become my stellar career seems an unintentional mortal sin! After all, I coulda’ been a contenda’.
So why do I call these stories silly? And why if I thought them silly did I watch them?
Second question answered first (this is a favorite trick that we writers born carrying the burden of God-given talent employ; it’s called Reverse Agitation).
I’m a sucker for a story about writers, even writers whose sexy lishps, Hollywood hairpieces and flabby bellies belie the reality of a writer’s boring life. After all, and as I already said, I coulda’ been a contenda’. And yet I’m not.
First question answered next.
In neither of these two films are we allowed to see or read the supposedly exquisite, award-winning and poetic prose that any of the four main characters wrote. I oftentimes tap away, or scratch pen point onto pad of paper, but somehow my writing isn’t award-winning material.
Oh woe is I! Maybe I should have been born tall and quick enough to dribble a basketball, or sexy enough to bring brain-dead authors back to life just by suggesting that they go to bed with me.