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The Picklement

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on September 16, 2010

The boy’s nickname was Terry. He didn’t particularly like his name, because a lot of girls had the same one, and it sounded like a child’s name anyway.  He’d started out with Terrance, but in 1st grade the other boys called him Clarence instead.  It always got a laugh, but not from Terry.  It sounded like the name of a clown, or some snooty rich kid in a story.
After grade school, he changed his name to Bob, although Bob didn’t have much of a ring to it.  Still, it seemed a nice unambiguously masculine name, and much more adult sounding than Terry, or Terrance.
Bob, as a name, worked fairly well for Terry.  People didn’t stumble all over it, like they did with Terry, confusing his name with Gerry,  Perry, Harry, but most often, oddly enough, with Larry.  He wondered if it had to do with Larry, Moe and Curly,  since the most common misunderstanding of his name was always Larry.  He tried emphasizing the T whenever he said Terry, but it didn’t help.  People just don’t get Terry usually until the third try.  It made introductions tedious, even though people always smiled, and often apologized.
Terry went by Bob all through high school.  He liked it.  People seemed to respond better.  He was older than he’d been of course, but high school boys are not generally known for their maturity, and Terry, or even Terrance could still have been disastrous.  If there was one thing Terry hated more than anything else, it was being teased.  Still, boys will use just about anything to tease another boy.  The school insisted that everyone wear ties.
Terry had a hard time waking up in the mornings, and taking the time to tie a perfect Windsor knot every day had gotten old fast.  Terry discovered the clip-on tie: perfect knot, perfect length, and impossible to discern.  Somehow, one day, a classmate noticed, and snatched it from him.   He chased after the perp, grabbing the tie and pushing the perp onto the ground.  Generally, Terry had always been very easy-going.  His father often said Terry would let someone take the shirt off his back, but that was what “turning the other cheek” meant in the real world.  In the religious world, “turning the other cheek” meant martyrdom, and martyrdom was preferred to violence.  However, just ignoring all the  jibes and taunts was not easy, and that one time, Terry ran his attacker down and won his self-respect. Or so he thought.
Instead of congratulating him on standing up for himself, his other classmates made light of it, pointing out that the other boy, although the same age, was shorter.  This made Terry into little more than a cowardly bully.  “But, what was I to do?” he asked, “let him take it?”  No one answered that.  Whining was not allowed.  However, this incident provided the catalyst for another far more embarrassing one, since the real bullies felt Terry was an easy mark, and could only defend himself against smaller adversaries.
Terry’s family didn’t have a lot of money, and clothes were patched, sewn and worn until they fell apart.  It so happened one day, as Terry bent over to pick up a fork he dropped in the school cafeteria, that his pants split.  He was mortified, but no one had seemed to notice.  The pants were brown corduroys, with lots of vertical lines, and baggy enough that Terry thought it would pass unnoticed if he walked slowly and kept his butt cheeks pinched together.  He sat down opposite his peers, and relaxed.  He made it through lunch without a single comment.  In fact, he relaxed too much, because as he stood, the gap widened enough for someone to see.  Ellis, agent provocateur, class clown, and always an outlaw, took it upon himself to take full advantage of the situation.  He grabbed a slice of pickle off his lunch tray  and ran up to Terry, dropping the pickle in the rip as Terry stood up.  The indignity of this was just too much.
That someone would see the tear no longer mattered.  Ellis was going down.  Terry lunged for him, and Ellis, cowardly as most bullies are, took off running.  Ellis laughed at Terry,  sidestepping and ducking through the cafeteria.  Terry chased him into the hallway.  Lunch break was not yet over, so there was no one in the hallway.  Terry chased him, gaining on him, running full tilt down the hallway.  Of course, yelling and running past the principal’s office, in a school  that prided itself on self-discipline, was not a particularly bright thing to do.  They were caught.
Now, Terry was in the equally uncomfortable position of trying to explain that someone had put a pickle in his pants.  Fortunately, it had been the principal who’d caught them.  The vice-principal was in charge of discipline, and he would have come down hard on them.  As it was, the principal referred Terry to Student Court, a disciplinary board wholly run by the students.
Terry explained the pickle incident, (picklement?) and the court, laughing behind their hands, let it go.  To add to Terry’s shame, all decisions by the Student Court were published in the school paper, although the rip in someone’s pants became a rip in someone’s shirt.  In 1965, no newspaper would dare even allude to something sexual , much less the innuendo of a pickle in someone’s pants.  It wasn’t journalistic integrity, but everyone knew the real story anyway.
Terry could see, by now, that the name didn’t make any difference.  He was kind of an oddball, it seemed, and names were nowhere near as important as he’d always believed.  After high school, he kept using Bob, although his employer and coworkers were not the types to care about a name one way or the other.   By now, however, Terry noticed that Bob was an extremely common name.  In every room, it seemed, there was a Bob. In a restaurant, in a garage, on the street, or at work, Bob was as ubiquitous as Tom, Dick and Harry.  Terry, realizing that, as an adult, he could have his name changed legally, thought about changing his name to Bilbo Baggins.  It was not a bad name, far out of the ordinary.  That would have been alright, but he knew his family wouldn’t like his dropping the surname. But, what would Bilbo be without a Baggins to go with it?  He thought about just using Frodo,  but few people had read the half a million word sequel to The Hobbit, so he would have had to spend a lot of time explaining the Lord of the Rings character to every person he met.
Of course, changing one’s name is a very superfluous thing to do anyway, as Terry had found out.  And now there were far more important things to worry about in the world, like sex and war, and getting to work on time.  He took night classes at the University where he worked, but he really wanted to go to school full time.  He applied for, and was accepted at another University a few years later, still calling himself Bob.  He kept his job on a part-time basis, as a sort of contract employee.  However, those aforementioned things, sex and war, took over most of his thoughts, as he sought one but wanted to avoid the other.  That took him to rallies and demonstrations, as well as into drug and sexual experimentation, and his studies suffered.  His thoughts were always elsewhere.  Dismissed from school on probation for a year, he decided to travel.
After a few years of odd jobs and traveling, he took a job one day in a small foundry in Arizona.  The foreman must also have thought Terry an oddball when he asked him his name, because  Terry paused.  It was a normal question, but suddenly, and without having given it any thought in years, he told the foreman his name: Terry.  It was, after all, how his family had known and still knew him.  No one he had ever met was as important as family, and he never changed his name again, even though he rarely got through another introduction without having to say his name at least three times.

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Posted in 1960s, family, humor, Life, My Life | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Am I dead?

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on May 4, 2010

What? where? who? slipped vaguely through my barely conscious mind as I came to. There were no answers available.  As I started to lift my head, I couldn’t imagine where I was.  I was lying down; I might be dreaming.  I saw sky above.  I was outside.  I wasn’t in my bed.  I wanted to get up, find out.  In a sudden panic, I realized I didn’t know who I was. I felt like I was still dreaming.  A name, I must have a name.  Now that was scary.  I was awake and thinking, but I didn’t know anything.  I remember telling myself: Just lay here.  Relax.  Let it come. It was like trying to remember something on the tip of my tongue: think of something else, don’t think about what it was I’d forgotten.  I closed my eyes.
I remembered the construction site, being pushed into the hole above an unfinished cellar, waking up to pain, being carried across a field, blood on my face, getting stitches above my eye.  I remembered standing outside the tree house, trying to cover a hole in the roof on a rainy day, slipping, falling, coming to with a terrible sharp pain in my arm, the visiting relatives in our house, the ride to the hospital, the plaster cast.
It came back to me.  Pumping my bicycle down that hill, hell-bent for speed.  Traffic.  Lots of traffic, rush hour traffic.  A whole lane to myself.  I had been keeping up, moving fast.  An unseen car on my left was trying to cut across traffic into a driveway I don’t know was there, just to my right.  It was practically touching me as I looked into a woman’s face: wide open eyes, slack mouth.
So, I was – in the street, still.  Somehow I’d survived.  I opened my eyes to a grey-blue sky.  I knew who I was, forgot that I’d forgotten.  I saw firemen sitting in lawn chairs outside the firehouse across the street.  They appeared to be laughing at something, but I couldn’t hear them.
But, there were vague noises and voices, somewhere else, behind me, yes, and yards away.  I was alone in an empty circle of asphalt.
“I saw the whole thing,” I heard a man say – I could hear an eager concern in his voice – “It wasn’t your fault.  I’ll testify in court for you.”  Now, why would someone say that? I wondered.  I’d had the right of way.
Someone else – I remember a deep gravelly voice – asked, “What about him?”
“Him?  He’s dead,” another voice answered, flatly and certainly.

Posted in Bicycling, Life, My Life | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Ocean City Took My Breath

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on March 26, 2010

Stopped breathing.  Just like that.  The ocean had been cold.  Much colder than I’d expected from a warm Spring day. It was early in the beach season.  The winter had been harsh. Cold currents still flowed past the Jersey shore where my parents had dragged all seven kids. Normally, in Summer, they dragged us out of our comfortable beds early on a gray Baltimore morning, drove us across the Bay Bridge and down to the Ocean City on Maryland’s coast. I had no idea there was another Ocean City in New Jersey, and I have no memory of why we went there.
Me and my brother John had run into the waves, let them knock us over, felt the water churning and rolling over our heads.  We never tried to swim in the crashing surf, just dived under the waves and tried to touch bottom. Felt the undertow trying to drag us out to sea. Tried to body surf our way back to the beach. That was our relationship with the ocean. The younger kids were still too young to play in the surf like that.  They were walking along the sand, sticking their feet in the frigid water and running away from the incoming waves.
Me and John were the oldest. We did what we wanted sometimes. We were always together:  walking to school, serving mass as altar boys in the early mornings, riding our bikes miles away from home, sledding down the steep city streets in winter, building a tree house, or carrying groceries home from the store down the road.
Sometimes, when fighting the wild bucking waves and swift undercurrent, I’d do my best to stay under water as long as possible. John and I were pretty good at holding our breath.  I always hoped to see fish, crabs or starfish on the ocean bottom.  I was always digging in it, hoping to find something.
I came up after a long dive and didn’t see John anywhere.   No big deal.  He’d probably gone in.  I was freezing anyway.  Even my frenetic play hadn’t warmed me up all that much.  I headed into the warm dry sand towards my father.   I still didn’t see John anywhere. I knew Dad would know where he was.  As I got closer to him, I felt funny.  My body had instantly started to warm under the 75 degree sun, but I felt hotter than that. My breath became ragged, uncertain. I sped up, saw my dad turn his head towards me, and that was all I saw.
I awoke on my back, but my hair was full of sand.  A crowd encircled me.  “What happened?” I heard a voice ask.  I wanted to know that myself. Another disembodied voice in the crowd answered, “I think some old man drowned.”  Old man? At 15, I could hardly look old.  My dad was there too, looking down at me.  He picked me up.  A beach jeep pulled up, and hands grabbed me, loaded me into the jeep. It flew along the sand, bouncing and twisting.  Suddenly we were off the beach, on the street. An ambulance waited.  I was hustled into it.  A mask was pushed onto my face.  Oxygen poured into my nose and mouth. It felt good.  I didn’t notice anything else, but I wondered where John was.
Next thing I knew, I was lifted onto a gurney, rolled into a curtained-off room.  “I’m cold,” I remember saying.  It was warm in the room; everyone was in swimsuits around me.  The air was humid, but I shivered in all that heat.  A thick wool blanket was dropped over me.  I shook, uncontrollably.  I just couldn’t warm up. “I’m still cold,” I said.  Another heavy, dark green blanket was draped over me.  I still shivered, amazed that I could be so cold, warm as the day was, and covered in heavy blankets.  I felt like a freak.  Well, I was, I guess.  Turns out my rare allergy to cold had been my nemesis. In recent years, after playing for hours in the snow, and coming in the house to warm up, I had developed swollen hands, fingers that wouldn’t bend, red blotches on my face.  But this was summer!  Somehow, the cold ocean currents had swollen the muscles in my throat, tightening around my windpipe, cutting off my air.  As I warmed up, my breathing slowed, and I relaxed.  My parents had my clothes. I got dressed.  I remember being back in the station wagon, surrounded by all the other kids, including John, next to me as always. Freaks need their families.

Posted in family, Life, medical, My Life, Writing | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Trippin’ Through the ’70s – Chapter Nine

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on August 30, 2008

For all the 1970s media-hype about free love, guiltless sex, and non-nuclear families, and the ubiquitous peer pressure, the closest Sean had come to sex was a dry hump in the front seat of a borrowed car, and Sharon had only been trying to make her boyfriend jealous. He’d met her at a party with some of Kathleen’s friends in Frederick. They’d exchanged phone numbers. He’d called her, and arranged to meet her up there. He still didn’t have a car, so he took a Greyhound. The bus ride was pretty long from Baltimore to Frederick, but this woman seemed interested in Sean, and Sean was becoming increasingly frustrated by fate’s teasing. He found her house, but she had him wait outside. She said she didn’t want her father to know. She was borrowing his car. Sean drove and Sharon navigated. They drove around Frederick, Sharon had brought sodas with her. She also brought champagne glasses. She directed Sean to a closed storefront and had him park right in front, facing the street. Sean thought it strange, but here was this beautiful woman, dark-haired, brown-eyed, with a ready smile and, well, something in mind. She poured the soda into the glasses, but after a couple sips, she asked Sean if he wanted to make out. He put his glass on the dash; she did the same. They kissed. Sharon’s tongue was suddenly in Sean’s mouth and he tickled the base of it with the tip of his own. Kissing was something Sean liked. After a few minutes, his hand began roaming Sharon’s back and arms and neck. Sharon leaned into Sean, until he felt her weight on him and he leaned back against the door. He asked her if she wanted to get in the back seat, but she just pushed him all the way down and kissed him some more. Sean ran his hands under her blouse, and had both hands on her bra hooks when a flashlight beam knifed through the darkness, and the voice behind it wanted to know what they were doing. An odd question, considering that there was no mistaking what they were doing. The deputy shone his light in both faces, one at a time. Sean said, “We were just parking for a little bit, officer.” The deputy played the light around the car, taking in the glasses on the dash, but he didn’t even ask if they were drinking, or how old they were. He simply said, “Well, you’ll have to move on. You can’t park here.” So they drove away down the main street.
“What now?’ Sean asked. “I know a place we can go,” Sharon said. They drove out of town up into the hills. She had Sean stop the car in a clearing off the road in the woods. It looked like a make-out spot. “You’ve been here before?” he asked her. “Yes,” she told him, “With my boyfriend.” “You have a boyfriend? Sean asked, surprised. “Yes”, she said. “In fact,” she said, “that was him back there.” “The cop?!” he squeaked. “Well, he was my boyfriend,” she said. Sean’s mind woke up: Now I get it. The whole thing had been a plan to get caught. To make her boyfriend see her with someone else, to make him jealous. The champagne glasses, parking in plain sight of the highway. She must have known he’d be along.
They sat in silence for awhile. Sean pulled her over and kissed her some more. He opened her blouse. He kissed her shoulders and neck. This bra has to go, he thought. He popped her bra open, and pulled it down, exposing the pale flesh in the weak moonlight. He reveled in the sight and kissed her nipples. They were strangely, to Sean, stiff and hard. He ran his hand along her back into her jeans. Just then a car engine roared up the steep hill, and headlights lit up the underside of the trees around them. They froze. Sean was nervous, and Sharon sat up, clutching her chest, then pulled her bra up and closed her blouse. Sean was thinking about being arrested for public indecency or something. He had no idea what Sharon could be up to. Was this her ex-boyfriend? Was she expecting him to fight me or something? The other car turned in a small circle and left, and they sat there like that for a few moments. They drifted back down onto the seat. Sharon rubbed her crotch against Sean’s. Sean’s penis was erect alright, and Sharon pushed against it. Sean could feel her slit through his pants. He kept trying to get her blouse off, but she pushed his hands away. Sean popped the button on her jeans and started to open them, but Sharon had had enough by then. “Let’s just go home, OK? She said. She drove Sean back to the bus station in silence. Sean didn’t know what to say. He kissed her, but her lips were closed, and taut. He took the long ride home in the dark night, back to Baltimore, watching the houses slip by, with lights in the windows. Lots of activity in some of those houses, he thought, and felt more lonely than ever.

After two and a half years of taking night school classes, Sean decided that he would never finish that way. He had only now finished his freshman year. He had been saving money, but it wouldn’t be enough to live on. He applied to the state university anyway, and hoped he could find a way. When he told his boss, Dr. Lyon, he had said, “Don’t you worry about it, Sean. I know how important school is to a young man like you. But tell me, do you think that you could continue working on a part-time basis?”
“I don’t know,” Sean answered, “How many hours?”
“Well now, I think that’s up to you. Would you want to work after school, or on the weekends?”
“On the weekends, mostly.”
“Fine. If I really needed you, could you come in on a weeknight too once in a while?”
“Yeah, I mean, yes, I think I could.”
“Good, that’s fine. Let’s see – what are you making now?”
“Four dollars an hour.”
“I think six dollars an hour would be a good rate. That’s like time-and-a-half. That’s what you’re really doing when you work during non-regular hours.”
“Great,” Sean said, beaming, “Six dollars is fine,” and he knew that he could make it now. Six dollars an hour was a lot of money to a twenty-one year old in 1971. He was admitted to the University of Maryland, transferring in as a sophomore. He was elated.
The campus, however, was not close to his apartment, or his job. He commuted by bus, but he was unhappy with that. The trip took from between fifty and seventy minutes to cover a ten mile distance, and it was time wasted, he decided. I’m not getting anything done. I can’t study on the bus, and I can’t stand sitting down anymore. I need to get off my butt.
Sean had just spent two and a half years planted in a big wooden chair in the Physics lab, and studying would now mean that he’d spend all his time sitting. One day he walked to school, but that took way too long, and besides, he was exhausted by the time he got home. Then he decided to get a bicycle. It had been a long time since he’d ridden one. His previous bicycle had been stolen when he was thirteen. He took a bus to a store five miles away – bicycles were not all that popular at the time – and rode a brand new Schwinn Suburban ten-speed home to his apartment.
He wished he hadn’t. Halfway home his legs felt so weak, he had to get off and rest on the City High School lawn. He was wheezing, and his heart was pumping a little too hard, or so he thought. Before long, however, that bicycle was his constant companion. He felt more alive, using his own leg-power, and not adding to the polluted air he was breathing.
He started pedaling to the theater, to movies, or to local demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. He didn’t have much of a love life, but he sure as hell had transportation.
I can go anywhere, he thought. Just how far could I go? To California? Canada? Shit! I might still need to do that if I’m drafted. I should travel, see the country, other cities. Man! To swim in clean rivers, camp in the mountains, see the canyons and forests, that would be my version of real happiness.
However, he usually had to fight his way through herds of buses, semi’s, beetles, caddies, mustangs, and vettes on his way to and from school – in a cloud of fumes, greasy air and soot. He was not happy about that, but he had other things to worry about over the next couple of years.
The war was not over yet. He could still be drafted. People were still being killed wholesale. He wanted to do more than walk in demonstrations and yell at the President. In the previous decade, Universities had been the scene of violent protests and strikes against the military and war profiteers. He’d only read about it, and seen it on the news. He wanted to do something before people forgot that the war wasn’t over yet, even though the President kept repeating his four-year-old promises to end it soon.
He talked to other students about the war. Some of them felt the way he did. He decided to organize a teach-in. He’d been to plenty of them at the University where he worked, and he thought it was still a good idea.
He wrote a short article for the school paper calling for a meeting to make plans, but only six people showed up. It’s enough, he decided. “Let’s do something,” he told them.
The others were new to this kind of activity, having just left high school. But, they all wanted to get in on the protests they’d missed in the Sixties. “I think we should call for a boycott of classes,” Lynn suggested.
“We need leaflets,” Michael said.
“And movies, and speakers,” Sean suggested.
Sean went to teachers he knew would be sympathetic and asked them to print up the leaflets. He called the American Friends Service Committee and asked them for movies about the war. The others posted the leaflets and talked to their friends. Mike arranged space to show the movies, and Lynn got approval to use the central mall for speeches. An English teacher brought a lectern and a microphone – Sean knew she would help, she didn’t use The Prison Letters of George Jackson in her classes for nothing.
Sean went to class as usual on the morning of the teach-in. The activities wouldn’t start until noon, and he had a Genetics lab to do first.
The lab assistant, a Biology grad student, came over to Sean while he was finishing up. He knew what was being planned, and he knew who had started the whole thing. “So, are you still going on with it?”
“Yeah,” Sean said, “Of course.”
“Do you really think it will do any good?”
“I don’t know, I certainly hope so. I have to do something.”
“You know, you really should decide what’s important.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, are you going to run around yelling and screaming about something you can’t do anything about, or are you going to study Genetics?”


Sean looked at him for a minute. What is he telling me? he wondered. And why? “I have to do both,” he finally said, and he left to go join the students already gathered on the mall.
“Nixon said he had a secret plan to end this war,” the first speaker said, “and he was elected twice now. The war is not over. He says he’ll bring the troops home, but every time he does, he sends over another warship with twice as many men. His “secret plan” was the carpet bombing of Hanoi, and the mining of Haiphong harbor. He used his end-the-war promise just to get elected, and then he used it again. He’s a liar.” The small crowd cheered. Sean went inside to check on the movies.
“Hey Sean,” Michael asked, “Can you run the projector for awhile? This movie’s about over, and I’ve got some other things to do.”
Few people stayed for the next movie. By the time Sean rewound the first one, and got another one loaded in the projector, only four people were left.
He stopped one of the people as he was walking out the door. “How come you’re leaving?” he asked him.
“Aw, hell, we’ve seen all this before.”
“But,” Sean insisted, “that’s the whole point. It’s still going on.
“Well, I’m not going to have to go there.”
“Our tax money is being used to keep a corrupt dictatorship in power. We’re paying for the weapons, the tanks, the helicopters, the napalm. Don’t you think that’s important?” Sean asked, but the guy just turned and walked away.
The crowd thinned out at the rally by the time Sean shut the projector down. An Anthropology professor was calmly discussing the effects of war on society when Sean went outside. Most people weren’t listening. I thought he would be great, Sean thought, He sounded so enthusiastic in class. Thank God it’s almost time for this to be over.
Sean gathered his books, and started his long ride home through traffic. Maybe that guy was right. Maybe it was all a waste of time, a waste of energy. He brooded about the teach-in for a few minutes, but the effort of pushing the pedals and straining his thighs to keep his speed up with traffic brought his mind back to the joy of physical exertion. There was clear road ahead of him.  Cool air caressed his sweaty forehead as he leaned into his bike, becoming one with it, pushing it harder, faster.

Posted in 1970s, Life, madness, My Life, relationships, sex, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Trippin’ through the ’70s – Chapter Five

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on May 20, 2008

Sean was in love – not, however, with Lenny, but with Lenny’s friends, especially Kathleen. He knew now that Lenny was gay, and that he wanted to share more than an apartment, yet he didn’t feel threatened by that. Life had suddenly become an adventure, a big party-cum-camping trip for Sean. Never having had friends who weren’t brothers or sisters or cousins, Sean was having the time of his life. There were parties and trips to the beach with Lenny’s college buddies, who seemed to accept Sean right away. The beach was suddenly a lot more fun. There were Frisbees to catch, and balls to bounce back and forth over nets and rock ‘n roll: funky, loud, and full of sexual rhythm. Sean loved it all.
There was Scott, who played the best Scrabble games Sean had ever seen. He missed the games he had played for so many years with his brother John. Scott, a grad student in economics, took the game seriously, plunking down seven-letter words several times a game, and teaching Sean how to go for the big scores.
Bill and Lucy were married, but they threw the best damn parties Sean had ever been to. Bill, a phone company engineer, played Alice’s Restaurant on his guitar, and everybody sang. Sean didn’t go home for Christmas that year, he went to Bill and Lucy’s, learned how to string popcorn and cranberries, and helped un-trim the tree of miniature bottles of Chianti, Seagrams-7, or Jack Daniels.
Jim was the strangest of the group. He was in the Air force, and had flown helicopters in Nam. The stories he told convinced Sean never to go there. Jim would show up at most parties with a supply of Jimi Hendricks’ albums – ‘Scuse me while I curse the sky – get as stoned as possible, and just sit in a corner playing air guitar. Sean wanted to know about Vietnam.
“You know how they interrogate prisoners?” Jim would start off with, “We would take suspected VC…”
“What’s a VC?”
“Vietcong. The communists, ya’ know? Well, the Lieutenant would have us take villagers up, and hang ’em out the door until they talked. You should have seen ’em squirm, and beg, and pee themselves.”
“And what if they didn’t talk?” Sean asked.
“Then he would kick ’em off anyway. Some of the guys just loved to watch the gooks go splat.”
“But what,” Sean asked, “if he or she weren’t VC? or if they didn’t know anything?”
“Then they got dropped anyway. The next guy we took up would usually talk.”
Jim said he’d never go back there again, and he wanted to get out, but “the Air Force still has my ass for a while.”
There was no escaping the war those days, and Sean knew he could still be drafted. He was going to have to decide what to do pretty damn soon.
But right now, what Sean really loved to do was go to Kathleen’s parties. She was brash and beautiful, with long brown hair flowing over a lean sensual body. Sean loved to watch her dance. She was a librarian. She wrote poetry. Her favorite musical groups were the Doors, and Simon and Garfunkel, so Sean bought their music and became a fan. She was a reader too, and he read the books she read. At a party one night, she exhaled a lungful of smoke from the joint passing around and told Sean: “Hey man, I’ve got a book you should read.” It was Atlas Shrugged, and he immediately became a fan of Ayn Rand: champion of absolute individual freedom. He visited Kathy, discussing individualism, and Capitalism, and the war in Vietnam, but she didn’t take Sean’s attentions very seriously. She considered him “still wet behind the ears,” and besides, she was in love with Brian. Brain, a teacher, was engaged to be married to Margaret. Kathy didn’t like that much, but she lived in a fantasy world where she was Scarlett O’Hara, and Brian was Ashley, who really loved her, not the woman he was marrying.
Sean was part of this family now.
“What’s wrong with you Sean? Don’t you know Kathy’s in love with Brian?” Lenny was fond of reminding Sean.
“Yeah, but I think she’s great.”
“Why?”
“Um, well, maybe because she’s a beautiful, long-legged, college-educated, beer-drinking poet.”
“You’re a hopeless case.”
“Maybe. Are you any better?”
“Oooh, you’re a nasty one, aren’t you?”
“You’re strange, Lenny.”
“I’m strange? And just who are you? You don’t even know what your future is, much less care.”
“I’m know I’m not going to Vietnam.”
“Why don’t you get out of it? Couldn’t you get a letter from your doctor or something?”
“Maybe. But I don’t think that’s the way to do it.”
“Then what is?”
“I don’t know. Revolution maybe.”
“Revolution? You shouldn’t talk that way, the walls have ears. You want to overthrow the government?”
“Why not? It sucks. The air’s polluted, rivers and lakes are dying – hell, the Patapsco River is dead – and the land is being sterilized by chemical fertilizers. Our food is not even safe to eat anymore.”
“That’s no reason to overthrow the government.”
“It’s not? You want more? Look at all the people dying in Vietnam. What about racism, and poverty? Our own government’s part of the problem.”
“Jesus Christ! You’re a nihilist!” Lenny’s face was turning red.
“What’s that?” Sean asked.
“What?” Lenny was pacing the room, but he turned to Sean and said: “You mean you haven’t read Nietzsche?”
“No, I haven’t. Who’s that? Somebody you read about in college? And I’m supposed to be all impressed?”
Lenny pointed a finger at Sean, “He’s one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived, and you never heard of him?” He started waving his hands in the air and shouting. “You don’t know anything about the world. You don’t know who runs things, or the power they have. You’re going to change the world, and you can’t even get laid.” He started pounding his fists on the table for emphasis. “You’re so incredibly naïve.”
“And you’re psychotic.”
Lenny reached over and grabbed Sean, and they rolled onto the floor and wrestled for a few minutes. They started laughing, but Sean suddenly realized that Lenny wasn’t just playing around. He was using the wrestling as an excuse to get his hands on Sean, and Sean pushed him off.
Sure I’m a virgin, Sean thought, but I’m not desperate. He was getting nervous living with Lenny. He wasn’t sure if he could trust him any more.
Sean finally met someone at a mixer. His job, in a research lab, was at a rich private university, Johns Hopkins University, and the mixer was for its freshman students and the students of an exclusive women’s college, Goucher. Sean took a bus out to the dance, which was at the women’s school. He was anxious to meet someone by now, and he was hoping that he could overcome his shyness. When he arrived, however, he saw that people had formed into cliques, and none of the women wanted to dance or talk with him. He was about to despair, feeling out-of-place and stupid amongst these rich-kid elites, when he noticed the girl playing the records. She kept changing the music, and urging people to dance. Sean watched her ponytail bobbing as she bounced around the room. She didn’t appear to be with anyone.
He forced his legs into action, and went over to her. “I like the music you’re playing,” was all he could think to say.
“Let’s dance,” she urged, smiling. Her name was Sue Plaskowitz, and she wore a Russian peasant blouse over faded blue jeans. “Call me Plask,” she said, “Everyone does.”
Sean was fascinated. She played great rock and roll, and she danced with a fervor that exited Sean as much as her erect nipples showing through her blouse. After awhile someone else took over as DJ, so he and Plask took a break for air. They walked along the grounds and Sean tried to think of something to say. Nice moon, he thought of saying, and, I like the way it shines on your face. But he didn’t say it. Too corny, he told himself.
Plask helped him out: “Hey, have you ever seen Hair?”
“No, I never did. I wanted to, but it’s kind of hard to get away to New York just to see a play.”
“Well, you know what? I’ve got the ‘pink’ album.”
“Pink?”
“Everybody calls it the pink album. It’s the original cast recording.”
“Do you have it here?”
“No, but I have it in my room.”
“Well, let’s go listen to it.”
“Oh, no, we’re not allowed to take men to our rooms,” she whispered conspiratorially, “Why don’t we go to your place?”
Sean was surprised, more like shocked. He never would have thought to even ask her. He had, after all, come on a bus. “Sure,” he said, “But you know, I took the bus out here.”
“That’s OK, I have a car.”
Again, Sean was taken aback. She’s beautiful, sexy, and she has a car! I would have been happy if she’d just agreed to date. I hope Lenny stays out late like he usually does.
They put the record on as soon as they got to the apartment, and sat down on opposite ends of the couch.
“I like the songs,” Sean said, “They’re not the same as the one’s I’ve heard.”
“That’s because it’s the original cast, before it went on Broadway. The songs changed after that.”

Exanaplanatooch…

“I never heard this one,” Sean began.
“Shush!”

…a planet where the air is pure, the river water’s crystal bright…

“Doesn’t sound like this planet.”
“Wait, Sean.”

…total beauty, total health. No government, no police, no wars, no crime, no hate.

“Sounds nice,” Sean said, “I wish it could be true.”
“Why?”
“Well, there’s all this pollution, racism, and this damn war the government keeps throwing money and bodies away on.”
“Will you be drafted, Sean?”
“Of corpse,” Sean said, but Plask didn’t laugh. “They’ve got me down as 1-A: grade A US-prime cannon fodder.”
“Can’t you get a deferment?”
“How? I only take a couple night classes, I can’t afford to go full-time. Even if I could, I hear the government’s going to start drafting students.”
“Will you go if they draft you?” Plask looked concerned. Sean felt like he was getting somewhere, she had moved a little closer.
“No way. I don’t think the government has the right to be fighting this war, or even drafting me.”
“Couldn’t you be a conscientious objector?”
“Nah, that’s only for religious people. You’ve got to be Quaker, or something like that. Seems like most religions support the war anyway, you know, ‘God is on our side’, and all that crap.”
“Sean, what will you do?”
“God, I don’t know.” Sean moved closer to Plask. She was leaning closer, and Sean’s arm was on the couch behind her. The record finished, and the stereo clicked off. Sean put his arm around her and pulled her close, but she pulled away and sat up.
“Uh, not so fast, Sean.”
“I’ll put another record on, OK?” Sean asked.
“I have to go soon.”
“This is a record I like a lot. Surrealistic Pillow.”
“Jefferson Airplane?”
“Yeah. It’s great. I’m gonna turn the sound up.” He turned the lights way down and sat as close to Plask as he could. He put his arm around her, and leaned back. She relaxed as well, and the Airplane sang: Don’t you want Somebody to love?
“So what if they draft you?”
Sean put his head back. “Do you think I should go to Canada?”
“What choice would you have?”
“I could go to jail.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“I wouldn’t, believe me. Did you hear about those priests?”
“Yeah. The ones that poured blood on draft files?”
“More than that. They made napalm from a recipe in a government handbook, and then they burned draft files with it. I liked that, it was real symbolic, you know, it’s the same stuff our troops are burning people with.”
“Well, it does seem like a better use for it.”

“Sure does. Anyway, I think if they could be prepared to go to jail for their beliefs, then so could I.”

“I hope they never call you to go,” Plask said, and she leaned against Sean. The album got softer and slower, as the Airplane played a love ballad.

Today, I feel like pleasing you, more than before.
Today, I know what I want to do, but I don’t know what for.
To be living for you, is all I want to do.
To be loving you, it’ll all be there when my dreams come true.

Sean brought his hand close to Plask’s face. Her hair seemed erotic between his fingers. He stroked her cheek and felt heat on his hand. Plask felt her face flush. Sean kissed her.
“Oh, hi!” Lenny said, as he flipped on the lights. He took in the scene on the couch and grinned. “Well, who’s this?” Plask pulled away and sat up as if she’d had an ice-cube down her blouse.
“This is, uh,  Susan,” Sean said, “Sue, my roommate, Lenny.”
“Nice to meet you,” Plask said, “Sean, I really have to go now.” She grabbed her album and headed for the door.
“Wait. I’ll walk down with you. Let’s go this way.” They walked down the back stairs, which was really just the fire escape. “Private entrance,” Sean said, and, “Do you have to go right away?”
“Well, no, I suppose I could stay a few minutes.” They got in her white Dodge Valiant. Sean noticed a peace symbol in her rear window. He reached over and kissed her again. This time they didn’t stop until they had to breathe. Sean pulled Plask over onto his lap.
“Why do boys always want girls to sit on them?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Doesn’t it feel good?”
“Well, it’s alright.” She put her arms around him. They kissed again, and again. Sean closed his eyes, and felt his body warming. Plask’s body felt so good against him. He felt comforted and loved, and alive. But Plask did have to go home, and they kissed one more time, and once again and said good night. Sean got out of the car and came around to the driver’s side. He said good night and kissed Plask again.
As he climbed the stairs, Sean found the answer to Plask’s question. My pants are wet. Jesus Christ! I creamed in my jeans! Lenny was waiting for him in the kitchen.
“What happened, Sean? Did I scare cutie-pie away?”
“Jesus! What did you have to turn the lights on for?”
“Did I interrupt something, Sean? I’m so sorry.”
“You know you did, and you’re not.”
“Aw, that’s too bad, Sean. Did your little girl leave you all horny? I can take care of that.”
“Fuck you, asshole.”
“Ooh, I’d like that. I like assholes, don’t you? Does your little girl like it in the ass?”
“Shut up, damn you!” Sean shouted, and went to bed. It wasn’t the last time they would fight.
Sean and Plask continued to see each other. She invited him to have Thanksgiving dinner with her family, and drove him to her parent’s suburban home.
“How come you aren’t having dinner with your parents, Sean?”
“Shit. Why would I do that? I’m glad to be out of there.”
“I don’t understand that. I’d always want to be with my family on holidays. The only reason I moved in with my grandma is because it’s closer to school.”
Sean was impressed by dinner. He’d never had champagne before, and he was surprised that everyone drank, even Plask’s younger brother. As he expected, Plask’s father asked him about his job, and his studies.
“I’m interested in chemistry. It may take a while,” he told Mr. Plaskowitz, “but I intend to go to night school until I can afford to go full-time.”
“But you do intend to get your degree?”
“Of course,” Sean said, and something about the way Plask’s dad asked questions suddenly made him aware that he was being sized up as a potential son-in-law. I haven’t even known Plask that long. I wonder what she’s said about me?”
Plask drove Sean home after a couple helpings of pumpkin pie. She told her parents that they were going to see a play. They went to Sean’s apartment, to his room. He shut the door, and put a Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash record on:

Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed
Stay lady stay, stay with your man awhile
You can have your cake and eat it too
Why wait any longer for the one you love
When he’s standing in front of you.

They were sitting on the bed, and it didn’t take long for them to ease down into horizontal hold. They’d never had so much time alone before, and the champagne was helping to overcome their nervousness. Sean’s hands roamed over Plask’s supple body and she pressed herself closer to him. Their lips were squeezed together, and they tickled each other’s tongues, slowly probing and searching and experimenting with sensations.
“Hi guys! What’s happening?” It was Lenny, who knew exactly what was happening, since he’d been standing outside the door, and had thrown it open, pretending nonchalance. Plask stiffened in Sean’s arms and pulled away. Again! Sean thought. Lenny stood in the doorway. “Did you guys have a nice dinner?” he asked, and he kept on talking, as if everyone were just having a friendly little chat. Plask made her excuses and left. Sean was pissed.
“Why did you do that?”
“Do what? I was just trying to be polite. Didn’t you want me to talk to your honey?”
“Look, you stay the hell out of my life. Don’t you ever come into my room like that again.”
“No. This is my place. I found it, I paid the damage deposit, and I invited you here. I’ll come into this room anytime I want, in fact, I think I’ll come in now.” Lenny reached for Sean, and tried to put his arms around him. He was feeling horny now, after having eavesdropped on Sean and Plask. Sean pushed him off and punched him. Lenny put his arm up and Sean hit him again, and again, and even as Lenny backed off into his own room, Sean hit him, and was about to hit him again when he noticed that Lenny wasn’t even trying to defend himself. Lenny’s arms were over his face. He was whimpering, mumbling something that sounded like “mommy” to Sean, so he stopped and looked down at this huge bulk of a man huddled into a corner. He pitied him, and dropped his arms, gradually unclenching his fists.
“You just stay the hell away from me,” Sean yelled back at him as he turned away. He slammed the door to his room and locked it.
“I’m going for the police,” Lenny said a few minutes later, and he slammed the front door of the apartment on his way out. Some time later he came back in. He knocked on Sean’s open door.
“Sean. Sean. Hey, I’m sorry. You’re not mad at me, are you?”
Sean decided not to answer that one, so he asked: “So where’d you go to anyway?” Lenny looked at Sean and smiled.
“Oh, I just drove around. And I met somebody. Ooh, he was so nice. I like those young boys with their long blonde hair.”
“Where’d you find him?”
“Just cruising.”
“You picked him up off the street?”
“Sure. I always do. We had a great time.”
“Where? In your car?”
“Why do you think I have such a big car? Eh, little one?”
“I thought your parents gave it to you?”
“Yeah, but they drove me down to the lot, and I got to pick out the one I liked.” Lenny turned and looked out the window, pointing out the car.
“Nice,” Sean said.  The car was big, but hideous.
“Why didn’t your parents give you one, huh? Huh?”
“Because they have six other kids and hardly enough money as it is. That’s why.”
Lenny left the window, and walked over to Sean. “You need money? I’ve got money. I’ll give you the same I gave him, more, if you want.”
Sean stared. “You paid him?”
“Of course.”
“You’re strange,” Sean said, “But to each his own, huh?”
I’m looking for another place, tomorrow, he thought.

Posted in 1970s, fiction, humor, Life, love, madness, My Life, relationships, sex, Writing | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Pool Game – Your Shot

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on February 10, 2008

m113apc.jpg Armored troop carriers rolled down the streets over deep tread marks in the soft blacktop. tankm48.jpg Tanks had preceded them. There were troops already bivouaced in Druid Hill Park. It wasn’t a town in Czechoslovakia, or Poland, or Afghanistan. It was Crabtown, grave-site of Edgar Allen Poe, birthplace of the United States’ national anthem, and headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church catholicchurch.jpg in the United States. It was Bal’more, Mar’lan’. It was the time we call 1968. GreenmountAve1968.jpg Martin Luther King had just been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and city officials had persuaded Governor Spiro Theodore Agnew to send in the National Guard. Houses and businesses had burned before, riots2.jpg and fireman had been shot at before in the inner city, riots1.jpg but troops occupying the city – this was new. riots3.jpg
I thought Agnew was a good man, Mike was thinking while he rode the bus past his old high school, I never expected him to put Baltimore under martial law. The bus went east on North Avenue past Gay Street, where his parents had once lived, past boarded-up storefronts and burned-out buildings, riots4.jpg where it connected to Belair Road, and a transfer took him to the hamburger place where he worked after school, near his parent’s home in the whiter northeast section.
I would’ve voted for him if I could’ve, he thought, seeing a billboard with the Governor’s bulldog face. spirowatch.jpg Agnew had run against a man who wanted to keep black people out of white neighborhoods.house-w-sign.gif Mike knew that wasn’t right. He was almost eighteen, but the voting age was twenty-one, and he didn’t like that. At least that racist Mahoney creep didn’t get elected. George P. was an Irish Catholic, the Democratic Party nominee for Governor in 1966. His campaign slogan was, “Your Home Is Your Castle; Protect It”. Mike went to school with blacks. Daniel had told Mike how hard it was for his parents to move into a white neighborhood. Mike had asked Daniel why so many blacks lived in slum neighborhoods if they could afford Cadillacs and Continentals.
“You don’t understand, Mike,” Daniel told him, “We’ve got no place to move to.”
“Can’t you just move? I mean, isn’t discrimination illegal?”
“Mike, Mike, Mike. What do you think happens when a colored family looks at a house? The real estate man smiles, and the owner smiles, but nobody can be forced to sell their house. Don’t you see how it works?
cookskin-hat.jpg “Yeah, Coonskin, I think I see. I never knew that was going on.”
“Damn it, I told you never to call me that.”
“I was just kidding, Daniel. It’s just your name that gets me. I watch Daniel Boone on TV, and that’s what Mingo calls him all the time.”
“It’s not funny.” boone2.jpg
“I guess not. Sorry. It is kind of stupid. So that guy running for governor wants to keep things the way they are, huh?”
“Now you’re getting it. He says people should be able to sell their home to whoever they want. He’s talking about white people not having to sell their homes to black people.”
When Mike got home he watched the news. Governor Agnew said the troops would keep order. There was a curfew, and all citizens were “strongly urged” to stay home. Arsonists and looters would be shot on sight. looter.jpg By the time the ’68 Baltimore riots died down, six people had been killed, about 5,300 arrested and more than 5,500 armed troops were on patrol throughout the city.

A year later, Mike graduated, and moved into the inner city. GreenMountAve1970.jpg He had a new job, one that he had seen posted on a bulletin board outside the guidance counselor’s office. He’d been so glad to get away from the hamburger stand, with their miserly wages and short hours, that he’d have done almost anything. As it was, he’d been hired by an old Physics professor at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, to run some old research equipment that used x-rays to measure molecular spacing in crystals.
jhuphysicslab.jpg Mike couldn’t get over how lucky he was, and Dr. Pshaw treated him like a grandson. Eventually, however, Mike came to believe that Pshaw was not quite the kindly old man he seemed. Pshaw was always coming up with strange ideas, like the time he said, “Mike, I think I know what to do about juvenile delinquency,” which intrigued Mike.
“What’s that, Dr. Pshaw?”
“It’s like this, I don’t think that young people should be treated like hardened criminals, and put in prison to learn, well, the sort of stuff they learn there from the other inmates.”
“Sure, I agree with you there. But what’s the alternative?”
“Well, this is my idea. It may not be a good one, but I think it would work.”
“Yeah?”
“I think that all offenders should be made to wear a jacket with the name of their crime on it. That way they would be recognized easily, and, more importantly, they wouldn’t be able to commit the same crime again.”
“But, wouldn’t they just take their jackets off?” yard_jacket.gif
“No, that’s the beauty of it. If they don’t wear their jackets, they have to go to jail, so they’ll wear them.
Mike thought about it for a long time, hoping that Pshaw could be right, that there could be such simple answers. Of course, once someone took the jacket off, who would know? However, he respected Pshaw. He was the only role model in his life since he’d left home. But, Pshaw finally blew the kindly-old-man image one day, when Mike asked him, out of curiosity, about the other applicants for his job.
“Well, Mike,” he explained, in a grandfatherly voice, “there were a few others, as I believe I told you. But they were colored, you know?”
Mike just stared at him.
“It’s not that I’m prejudiced,” Pshaw elaborated,” it’s just that I grew up in the countryside, and well, there just weren’t any of them around when I was growing up.”
Mike was still staring, not sure that he was really hearing this. Dr. Pshaw seemed to be so honest, and fair, and, after all, a “scientist.” It had never occurred to Mike that a seeker of knowledge and truth could be biased. Mike was a little naive.
Pshaw continued: “I don’t know what it is, but I’m just too uncomfortable around those people.”
That was the most racist thing I ever heard, Mike thought, but he didn’t say anything. Now, he felt the guilt of the privileged. I thought I’d gotten this job on my own merits. Now it’s ruined, he complained silently.

cover.gif Mike was sure that he, of course, was not racist, and he continued in that belief for several years, until now, until he found himself playing pool in a part of town where he was the only white guy around. Doesn’t bother me, he told himself, but he felt uncomfortable when he saw the bartender come out of the back room. The bartender owned the place. He was white.
Figures, Mike thought, that’s what Daniel used to tell me. He said that the reason people burned their own houses and looted the downtown stores was that the whites owned everything there. “The Whites,” he remembered him saying, “charge the people outrageous prices for things, and then they go home to their white suburbs, and take the money out of the community. The worst slums are owned by white slumlords, who don’t bother to fix anything.” Mike believed him, but he didn’t know what he could do about it.
“Anyone want to play?” he asked, glancing around the room at several people who weren’t.
“Sure. I’ll play. Rotation alright with you?” asked a middle aged man. Mike nodded, “I get so tired of playing Eight Ball, it’s too damn easy, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, you’re right, it’s too easy,” Mike said, but he thought, Oh shit, so he added, “but I don’t want to play for money, I just like to play, you know?”
“Yeah, OK. We’ll just play for the table.”
The older man moved around to shoot, and two balls fell in. “Your shot,” he said.
“Why’s that?” Mike asked.
“Because they were out of order.”
Oh, we’re playing serious, huh? Mike thought. He didn’t do too bad on that first game, but he still lost, and kept losing. He put a quarter in the slot. Bang, the balls fell into the hole when Mike pulled the slot back. He was filling up the rack, one ball here, two ball here, three ball here, when, Bang, there was a sound like a truck backfiring outside the pool hall. Heads lifted up from the tables.
Mike filled the rest of the rack quickly. Bang. Someone yelled, “There’s a shooting!” and everybody ran out of the hall, dropping cue sticks as they went. Mike watched everyone scramble outside in the seconds it took him to move his own feet. He left an empty building.

He stopped when he saw the gun directly in front of him. Bang. It fired again, at the ground. Mike looked down. He saw a young black guy, well dressed, bleeding. Bang. The body jerked. Mike saw his chest moving spasmodically. “He’s still alive!” Mike shouted. He looked at the man doing the shooting. The shooter, another black man, looked about fifty years old, and his face was contorted with hate. The man looked at Mike, seeing him for the first time.
“He deserved it,” he shouted at Mike.
People die that deserve to live, Mike wanted to say. Can you bring them back? he wanted to ask this guy with a gun. But he just stood there, watching the man’s face. Maybe it was Mike’s look, maybe it was the surprise of seeing him standing there, but the man suddenly lowered his gun, lowered his eyes, and turned and walked away, slowly.
People gathered around the wounded man. Mike stood apart, separate, but unequal. In a few minutes an ambulance silently turned the corner, followed by another police vehicle. 1968international.jpg Paramedics lifted the man onto a stretcher while the police stood by. They’ll probably question me, Mike thought, and want witnesses. What do I say? He looked at the crowd, at all the black faces, conscious of his own white skin. He couldn’t read their expressions. It looked more like no expressions at all to Mike. This is their neighborhood, what right do I have to be here? he thought. Do I tell the police what I saw? or is this none of my business? But he knew that he would never have hesitated anywhere else. He felt that the people standing there in that large crowd were different. He felt that their thoughts were alien to his way of thinking. No one looked at him, or entered the large open space around him. The ambulance door closed. The cops were writing something, but no one had spoken.
Maybe they already know all about it, Mike thought. Maybe the guy is going to be alright. Mike waited for them to come over, still unsure what to say. The cops walked around the ambulance, got back in their car, and escorted it away. Mike went back into the pool hall. What should I have done? he wondered. What should I have said? Why couldn’t I talk to that guy with the gun?
The hall was silent, but then small groups of men started quiet conversations along the walls. A ball cracked! against another.
“Do you want to finish the game?” Mike asked his partner.
“Uh, yeah. Might as well.”
pool.jpg They started playing, Mike’s partner sinking ball after ball, until he couldn’t find a shot. The remaining balls were crowded together on one side of the table, and he had tapped the cue ball lightly, so it banked off the side, but it rolled softly into a corner pocket. Mike retrieved it, lined it up on the center of the crowded balls, and shot. The crowded balls scattered, but the ivory cue ball leaped off the dark green table like it’d been shot. The other man laughed, retrieved the ball, and finished the game.
“Might as well call it a night,” Mike said, “Thanks for the games.” On the corner, the North Avenue bus hissed to a stop in front of him. The black driver stared at him, silently, as he dropped his coins into the box. He walked down the empty bus to a rear seat.

Posted in crime, fiction, Life, My Life, race, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Cops, Priests, and Altar Boy Scouts

Posted by O'Maolchaithaigh on January 29, 2008

badpriest.jpg (me in costume, years ago)

I wanted to be a priest. Yeah, a god-damned priest. Why? Well, for one thing, they have a good break in life. They don’t pay taxes, and they have an easy life. All they do is give sermons and repeat the same old shit all the time.

Just because I said that, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t religious. You couldn’t have paid me enough to miss Mass on Sunday – a mortal sin. I didn’t want to go to hell. elevationofhost.jpg I was an altar boy too, serving God in the cold, damp fucking early mornings before school. I should have become a priest. I was primed for it. After eight years of Catholic schools I was ready to believe that God saw everything I did, knew everything I thought. I didn’t dare hurt Him by sinning. My classmates didn’t like my attitude. I was a true believer, and they weren’t. Of course, much of that was my reaction to their thinking of me as an idiot, so I had to have something that made me better than them, if I wasn’t ever going to be their equal.

I could see them laughing at my perfect, good-little-Catholic-boy responses to the nuns’ prompts in class. A good example is the story I wrote in fifth or sixth grade. We’d been told to write something about winter. Could have been about snow, and sledding, and snowball fights, and snowmen, and fun. Instead, I wrote a sermon. It was only a paper to be turned in, but I wrote a reminder to everyone to think of Jesus being born into that cold winter snow, much like the storms that were so terrible we couldn’t even go outside in them. I was proud of it. I was a religious Sambo, grinning and jiving that Jesus stuff, hoping to impress people with my virtuous love of God. A goody two-shoes in the extreme. Better than other people, with the correct relationship with God. Hah! It worked too well. The nun read it to the entire class. I’ve always been an idiot.

Father Kirsch didn’t think I was perfect. He kicked me out of “the altar boys” for talking and clowning around in line while we waited for his sorry late ass to show up at May Day procession rehearsal. talking-in-line.jpg He made us line up in twos, and stand that way until he got there. Since he was late, I was bored. When authority figures weren’t actually in the room, my virtue seemed to evaporate. Kirsch outdid everyone in the self-righteous department. He stormed and fumed about our performance, whether by the altar or on the street. He fired me right then and there, the moment he walked in, since I wasn’t standing there perfectly quiet and still. I was horrified. I cried on my way home. I couldn’t tell my parents about it. My dad had been a deacon himself for years, and had taught altars boys himself at a different church before we had moved, before we were old enough to be in ‘it’. Serving Mass was a kind of calling, akin to being called to the priesthood. You took it seriously, and, like everything else my parents told me to do, there was no such thing as refusing. For weeks I pretended to go to rehearsals. I walked down to the church and even looked in. I hung around the shrubbery until they were almost through and went home. My parents didn’t ask me where I’d been. Why would I lie about that? Eventually someone told them, and I was back serving Mass again, for awhile. Serving Mass under Kirsch was stressful however. Once I missed my cue to ring the bells, without which no one in the pews knew when to stand or kneel. Horrified, I missed the next one too. One rings them three times during the raising of the host, three times during the raising of the wine. That day it was once, then three. I could hear the confusion in the pews, but I never heard a word about that one.

I was also a boy scout – uniform and all. boy_scout_with_oath.jpg Weird that that organization finds so many ways to get money from parents, money mine could ill afford to part with when six other kids needed basic necessities too. Poorer kids didn’t join at all. All that crap: manual, merit badge books, field trips, uniform, compass, knife, and camping fees and gear too. There were times when I had to wear my uniform to class. Green was at least different than the tan shirt and brown pants I had to wear every other day of the school year, with the iron-on patches on my elbows and knees. I wore my knife on my belt. That was a odd thing to get away with, but when you’re a “boy scout” you are also close to perfect: trustworthy (people depend on you), loyal (to family, leaders, school and nation), helpful (without pay or reward), friendly (a friend to all), courteous (good manners), kind (strength in gentleness), obedient (obeys the law), cheerful (whistle while you work), thrifty (save), brave (can face danger), clean (in body and mind), and reverent (to God, and faithfully). So, there I was, on my way home one day, all gussied up in my starched shirt and badly creased pants (I had to iron my own clothes). I stopped by the drugstore where I read comics. Some of my classmates were hanging out there.

“Hey, pretty boy.” “Are you a good little scout?” “That’s a nice bandanna you’ve got there.” “Can I try it on? I want to tie my hair up.” Rough crowd. Even white Catholic boys have gangs, toughs and petty thieves. These guys regularly stole from the store. I was told a story once about being chased by cops down the alley, with gunshot warnings. These guys were 13 and 14. Like I said, tough neighborhood, of sorts. However, enough was enough. I saw red. boy-scouts-bigotry-e.jpg I was a boy scout, brave and all that, so I pulled my knife out and waved it at them. “Come on,” I told ’em, come and get me. Here I am. ” Of course, they backed away. They laughed too, but they weren’t smiling as I moved toward them. No one else in that school could possibly have carried a knife. I’m surprised they even let the Scouts carry one. I was insane, and waving a knife. And it was sharp too – I always made sure of that. I probably had a whetstone in my pocket. Even Maranelli backed off.

Maranelli was one of the tough ones. One time, a couple years later, walking home late one night, I got jumped. Two guys grabbed me from behind. I was surprised how strong they were, and how firmly I was held. I wasn’t optimistic until the third guy came around in front, saying, “Got any money?’ I recognized Maranelli. He recognized me too. “Hi Frank,” I said. He told the other two to let me go. “He’s OK,” he said. We didn’t say much else. Didn’t really know each other outside of grade school, and I was already in high school by then, downtown, away from there.

It’s a good thing I didn’t stick around that neighborhood, considering those kind of career choices. I was, as I said, a good boy – oldest of seven, responsible, the ‘good’ example. Washed dishes, mowed the lawn, picked weeds, scrubbed floors, babysat. Didn’t talk back. Studied. Went to Church on Sundays. Went to Monday night religion classes after eighth grade since I was in a public school then. Still. Still, I had been in trouble enough. Used to swipe candy bars on a regular basis, especially Kit Kats. kitkat.jpg Mmm, chocolate. My parents weren’t about to buy crap like that except at Easter. Since I’d read the whole Science Fiction and fantasy section of the local library, I took paperbacks from the same store too. I had a whole library of purloined paperbacks at home. A nearby toy store had lost several model cars to me and my brother. Somehow, I always forgot to confess such things on Saturday. Really. Never entered my mind while I was in the confessional. I had a routine, and I followed it. It was supposed to be instructional, but I used my littlest boy voice, and the priests rarely asked questions.

Got caught stealing a couple times only. The first time, the toy store owner just called my dad. He made me and my brother wait in his office. I ditched the razor blade there. I’d been using it to neatly open the clear plastic coverings on the packages. I stuffed it into the corrugations of a cardboard box. fluting.jpg The owner was no dummy. His desk was locked. He did come in and search us. Looked all around the office too, even in the trash can, but nobody would think to rip apart all the cardboard on a box for a razor blade. He thought we had knives. I told him the packages were already cut. My dad took us home, read us the riot act. I don’t remember the punishment for that one. He told us the story about how he had been caught stealing and his dad had left welts all over his legs for that. Leather straps or a belt were not an uncommon punishment for us, but never that severe.

The second time, I was not so lucky. I’d stuffed some paperbacks under my jacket, but I’d done it so many times before that I actually forgot they were under my jacket as I reached for the door. The drugstore owner was pissed. He accused me of being with a gang; wanted to know which one. Told me that the gangs stole stuff for fun. Tried to convince him I wasn’t in a gang, didn’t know anyone in a gang. He had already called the cops though. 1967chev.jpg Too late for cuteness and innocence. The two cops put me in the back of the squad car and headed out; said they were taking me downtown to the station. I started crying. Seemed the best thing to do, and really, I was scared. I wanted them to know I was really sorry. I was really scared of jail, and scared of my dad when he found out. I started telling them not to tell my dad, begged ’em not to. Did my best to convince them that my dad would beat the hell out of me, and it was a possibility, after all. They didn’t turn at the light. They went on across the main street, up the hill and down the many blocks I walked each day. Took me home. My dad was at his second job. My mom came downstairs with two kids in her arms and two more screaming bloody murder upstairs. Cowards left me there. They left faster than I had imagined. Maybe they knew my mom’s dad, who’d been a Baltimore cop for a long time. bpdpatch.jpg My mom told ’em, “His dad will take care of him.” Dad probably would have too, except he didn’t touch me anymore since I’d knocked him down and tried, really tried, to kick his teeth in. He was still stronger than me, after all, but that had made him proud somehow. He’s spent years trying to convince me not to turn the other cheek to bullies, to stand up for myself, and not take abuse. So I did. He started slapping my head back and forth. I knocked him down. He wasn’t expecting it. But he smiled the whole time, that time, and never hit me again.  We talked this time, and that was it. He yelled some, as I recall, but we both knew he wasn’t going to hit me.

Posted in crime, faith, family, humor, Life, My Life, rambling, religion, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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