OBSIDIAN

You remember the name of the town, don't you? [Zihuatanejo]

‘And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?’

Heard from a guy I used to know. A thousand years ago. Out of the blue, that’s the way it always is. Just a ‘how you doing? How you been? sort of thing. Nothing special really, except the name and the freight it was carrying. The name belongs to a nineteen year old kid. Stuck in time. Can’t see the name without seeing that kid. White hair would be an outrage. Couple of things, first forty years is a long fucking time. Shit, forty? Coming up on fifty. Lotta water under the bridge. Lotta water under my bridge. Lotta water under his. Funny how we didn’t stay in touch. I think about that part of it sometimes. Not just this guy but most of the guys from those years. Funny. When you run into somebody you haven’t seen in a while, you know, someone you’ve lost track of for, say, three or four years, someone invariably says, ‘What have you been doing?’ but with this guy, and other guys who’ve looked me up, the fifty years seems to make that a silly question. The question becomes ‘Did you have a good life?’ But let’s face it, we’re in the home stretch here and any casual inquiry is going to call up some unpleasantness, death, illness, divorce, an estranged child, a bankruptcy, some goddam thing. Life’s like that, fifty years will include some cruelty. It’s almost enough to just hear from them, to know they’re still of this earth, still have their faculties, and can confirm I did, indeed, pass through that time with them.

“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

Raymond Carver

Overly familiar things.

Destined to be my shortest post ever. Pet peeves. Any reference to the Atlantic Ocean being ‘The Pond’. Dated, over-used (and how!) and trite. Vast majority of people who use it are too young or too uninformed to appreciate a time when it was actually kind of an amusing allusion. ‘Deja Vu all over again’. Give it a rest. Give it a fucking rest. ‘At this point in time’. Redundant, ill-considered. ‘At this point’ suffices or, in the alternative, ‘At this time’, equally apt. Not both. (It turns out I yammered on too long for this to be my shortest post ever. Turns out ‘As though it were yesterday’ which immediately precedes this snippet, is shorter. My only excuse is that ‘As though it were yesterday’ is actually a scrap from a much longer piece that is incubating and likely to see the light of day in a week or so.)

As though it were yesterday

I remember the funeral. Black and white and grey. The drum. The horses and the caisson. The sound of the horses on the pavement. And the little kid saluting. And the drum. And the adults moving along at a good clip to keep up with the caisson. Jackie’s veil blowing. And the drum.

Not a great hand but a good one

I wish I could say I knew him well but I did not. Our nodding acquaintance could brighten an afternoon walk if we encountered one another unexpectedly and, if our paths crossed in close enough proximity, we might even call out by name. But this, it turned out, was his nature, to put the other fellow at ease, to accept an easy familiarity quite beyond the actual shape of your relationship. Of course, by the time we became acquainted, he had long since established himself as a writer and a commentator and, in fact, in a funny, circular kind of a way, it was the trouble this created for him in the city that made it possible for me to come to know him in the first place. Truth be told, I had sought him out.

This was several years ago, nearly ten now that I think of it, I knew I wanted to meet him but also knew it would be nearly impossible in the city where he was already under siege. I heard he was a private man who kept to a small circle of friends and to the same neighborhood into which he had moved after the first book came out all those years ago. I heard he rarely did book signings and besides a book signing wouldn’t really serve my purpose and even rarer would he make an appearance at a party, even those which were ostensibly being given in his honor. No, if an actual meeting were to be orchestrated, it would have to be outside the city, or at least outside this city.

Bill, my serial neighbor, he of the frequent flyer miles, said he knew him but after a brief conversation it became apparent what he really meant was that he had once been in the same room with him and had, in fact, not even worked his way through the receiving line for a casual handshake but had rather maintained his focus on the free booze and a lady from Argentina. But he did say he’d heard he had a house up on the lake, the big lake, and that he’d go there in the late summer to clear his mind and do some writing. I listened to this with an air of polite interest. My interest, fascination even, in him, didn’t need to be broadcast.

I drove up in November, before Thanksgiving and well after I imagined he would have returned to the city. This first time I planned to just drive up to get a look at the village, see the size of the place, what it looked like, perhaps stop for a meal, maybe even get a room for a day or two.

It was a three and a half hour drive and about an hour out of the city I realized I hadn’t even confirmed he had a place at the lake and if he did if he used it the way Bill had described. I decided to continue on regardless, that if it turned out Bill was wrong which the more I thought about it seemed likely, I could take a room for the week-end and plan my next move, if there was going to be a next move.

Why I wanted to meet him escapes me. It seemed an amusing thing, I guess, to meet and know someone so difficult to meet and know. Maybe that was the whole of it. I’m certainly not given to celebrity worship, have never asked for an autograph even in those instances where I’ve found myself in a position to do so with little effort, wouldn’t cross the street to get a better look at an actor or politician and except for my first wife, who I stalked shamelessly, have never gone out of my way to meet anyone, ever. But I drove up in the gloom of an overcast November conspiring to meet someone solely because they were a public person and were someone whose writing I admired.

In those days I was still driving the hand-me-down Jeep wagon, the one with the grey primer, jury-rigged tail lights and the aversion to thin air. When I stopped in Montclair for gas and found the air crisp and cold I expected the worst. She coughed dramatically when I restarted her and swooned temporarily when I tried to pull back out onto the road but then she settled down and we made the run up to the big lake without incident.

The village is on the eastern shore and from the road skirting the south shore, with the late afternoon sun slanting in, seems to float magically above the water. I could imagine generations of children coming up for vacation seeing it from here, in this way for the first time, and the sheer anticipation welling up and laughing out loud.

I had a hot roast beef sandwich at Markey’s, a place more blue collar than quaint, inquired about a room for the night and bought a hat that said, ‘I ate at Markey’s so…’ and on the back, ‘if I stumble and fall, it’s probably ptomaine’. The lady who handed me my hat, pointed across the parking lot and said I wouldn’t have any trouble getting a room this time of year, before the skiers and snow bunnies and well after the summer crowds. I said, ‘So then everybody’s pretty much gone back to the city?’ as though making idle conversation but really hoping for some glimmer of people who might still be around. ‘Yeah, I guess…pretty much,’ she said dully, making change and smiling that ‘ya’ll-come-back-real-soon’ smile.

I walked across the road and through the low grass to the boat dock and stood looking across the water, squinting into the evening sun and wondered if he had ever stood here, in this place, watching the sun go down and if he were close enough to walk back to his place or if he’d turned and gone over to Markey’s for a hot roast beef sandwich.

I took a cabin on the high side of the parking lot for thirty-five dollars. I backed the wagon into the space between me and the number four cabin so that come morning if her arthritis was acting up I could get a rolling start and pop the clutch to bring her around. The sheets, crisp and cold, smelled clean, the two wool blankets heavy in a reassuring kind of way and as I lay in the dark I could make out a tiny shaft of light coming in from under an eave and lighting the far wall and an enormous cobweb above the Formica table. I decided to stay through the week-end, to go see Eddie at the gas station in the morning and give him another seventy bucks and drive back to the city late Monday morning. At three AM, I sat up and wrote the line, ‘Under their feet lay the bones of dead men, on the horizon they could see the big cats.’ It was the first line of Mastodon. I don’t know where it came from.

In the morning, I pulled on an extra sweat shirt and my brand new baseball cap and noticed that even in the cabin I could see my breath. I knew the Jeep was going to be unhappy. I walked over to Markey’s, somewhere up to the left, in the trees, a dog was barking, the sound coming down through the trees in that unique echo reserved for pine forests, out on the lake I could hear an outboard motor and voices, fishermen, I guess, talking and then some laughter. I considered how one might go about looking for someone, a stranger, in a small village without seeming to be looking for them. It meant, among other things, I couldn’t mention his name, couldn’t ask for directions, couldn’t even intimate that I was vaguely aware of some semi-famous author living hereabouts. In fact, any inquiry whatsoever would sound an alarm, so I was left with some aimless wandering. Pleasant enough in these surroundings but again I started to calculate what would be the odds of finding him, or anyone for that matter, with aimless wandering. The waitress, Doreen her name tag said, brought me a cup of coffee. I surveyed the room. Not counting the cook, Doreen or the youngish girl at the register, six men and two women, retirees I thought, plus a handyman, a guy in mechanics overalls and a young couple wearing plaid jackets and Sorels.

Next I strolled over to the gas station. Eddie wasn’t on duty. Charles W. was apparently the morning man. I told him I wanted to extend for a couple of days and started fishing around in my pockets for money. ‘I’ll tell Eddie,’ he said as if to save me the trouble of coming up with the cash. ‘Can’t I give it to you?’ ‘Naw, Eddie handles that,’ he said looking up at the cabins. Involuntarily my eyes followed his. The Jeep wagon with the grey primer and the jury rigged tail lights sat among perhaps a dozen cabins. There were no other cars, no movement, no sign of any other cabin dwellers. ‘It’s not like we’re gonna throw you out,’ Charles W. said smiling.

I went back to the cabin and spent an hour or two jotting down some thoughts. I wondered how he might look in real life, older, taller than I expected, friendly, taciturn, distracted…would I even recognize him?

As the morning warmed up, I coaxed the Jeep awake and drove down to Exeter Mills which is about twelve miles and consists of a motel made to look like a log cabin, a gas station (two pumps) and a chicken take-out. And a boarded up sno-cone stand which probably does a brisk business during the summer months. But Exeter Mills is more about the surrounding summer camps, there are few houses. I decided to circle the lake. What does he drive? Surely he buys groceries. I wondered if he was a regular at Markey’s. Maybe he doesn’t cook, maybe he’s strictly a Markey’s regular but just as surely, he has likely gone back to the city by now.

I stopped at Privet’s Landing, a small, sandy beach where the kids can hang out and give their counselors a break but in November crowded with drift wood and a square wooden platform which, in July, would be anchored out in the lake, ‘Privet’s’ in big block letters painted on all four sides. The trees on the far side of the lake seemed to come right down to the water, I could just make out a car or truck moving along the road and then I could pick out the village, little more than a couple of white flecks in the dark of the tree line and a faint plume of smoke.

I spent the rest of the week-end getting to know Doreen and Eddie and Charles W. Saturday night, I had the spaghetti, slightly over-cooked and spicy, and talked with Berg, the cook, a refugee of the youth camps who had trouble cooking for fewer than a hundred. I decided to come back in the spring, maybe get a realtor to show me around, make some light conversation. Yeah, maybe get a realtor.

I got back to the city late Monday afternoon and went to bed. The Markey’s hat ended up on the door knob of the coat closet.

So it goes. Poo-tee-weet.

NRA convention just ended here in Houston. Usual, predictable silliness. Palin spoke, shrill, drawn, playing the victim card and the entitlement card and the paranoid card…Perry spoke, pretty much the same shit…Ted Nugent spoke, I think, but failed to make any headlines down here and since I didn’t actually read any of the (mostly) front page articles about the convention, limiting myself to just the headlines, ledes and the occasional caption, I’m not absolutely sure what his appearance amounted to. I feel better not knowing. Couple of things occur to me though. First, they had a vendor showing his wares who is marketing a life-sized mannequin of President Obama that ‘bleeds’ when shot. Big seller. The same company has a model called ‘the ex’ which can be ordered with various colors of hair to approximate what your ex-wife might look like when viewed through the sight of a high powered rifle or assault weapon. ‘She’ also ‘bleeds’. Also a big seller. I can’t make this stuff up. I see where a thirteen year old boy in Florida shot his six year old sister (last night, I think) with a handgun he found while he and she were alone in their home. Of course, last week we had the five year old boy who shot and killed his two year old sister with his own rifle, a gift apparently, which had been left leaning in a corner of the living room of their trailer-home in Kentucky or Ohio. No one ‘knew’ the gun was loaded. Some guy in Virginia, Kokesh is the name, I think, a radio personality with a large reactionary following is organizing a march into Washington, DC with a thousand interested listeners all carrying loaded rifles. I’m not clear on the point they’re trying to make. Carrying a loaded rifle is legal in Virginia but not in Washington DC. Circle July 4th on this one. I think it has something to do with the effort in several states to round up firearms that are currently in the possession of people who may have originally bought them legally but who would now no longer be allowed to have them, you know, like they’re now felons or crazy or their ex-wife is so afraid of them that she’s managed to get a restraining order on em. So now if they were to apply through the FBI database to purchase a firearm, they’d be rejected. So this guy thinks this is evidence of the coming police state, hence, the march. The connection’s still a bit fuzzy for me.* Got an email a couple of weeks back from a guy I knew in the service. I get a lot of these emails. Mostly jokes or naked women. Sometimes jokes with naked women. But also sometimes political, invariably right wing and Fox News dumb. Sometimes I hit reply all and gently point out I’m a life-long Liberal Democrat which means I get taken off distribution for a while but somehow I end up back on it. Sometimes I take the time to point out the glaring fallacy of whatever they’ve sent but mostly I’m too lazy to do that. Anyways, recently I got one that was a call to arms over proposed legislation that would deny 2nd Amendment rights to veterans who had been diagnosed with extreme PTSD (the small print indicated the restriction would only apply as long as the patient was under a physician’s care and on medication, this didn’t seem to mollify my former compatriots). There you have it, if you’re crazy enough to require a locked ward and meds, you ought to still have access to your local firearms dealer. I miss Stanley Kubrick. And this is what I think they may turn out to have seen all along and we didn’t…we want their guns, all of em,.. no exceptions…we want to disarm them. I didn’t see it. I always thought what we were doing was trying to come up with some common-sense accommodation so that the needless gun violence might be reduced while preserving the right of rational citizens to own a gun. That’s what I thought but now am beginning to see there is apparently no rational gun ownership. They think any modification of the second amendment is infringement, that they should be able to own slaves, shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, that women should never have been given the vote. Maybe they were right all along and we just couldn’t see it. I think they may be right, I want their guns, all of em, every fucking one of them.

[My heading here belongs, of course, to Kurt Vonnegut. I thank him.]

(July 10th update) *July 4 has come and gone and no march. Seems as though Kokesh called it off (from a jail cell, I believe). So, anyways, no march. But now this knucklehead sneaks into DC and video tapes himself loading a shotgun with enough background showing to prove to his followers he was really in DC (in Freedom Plaza, a couple of blocks east of the White House) and if he can’t have his little march, he can still show those pointy heads what he’s made of. He states publicly this is/was an act of deliberate civil disobedience. And, in a ‘what-did-you-expect’ moment, last night (July 10), Kokesh was arrested at his home in northern Virginia for what are being described as ‘guns and drug’ violations. The warrant was served by the Parks Police, who have authority over the National Monuments and local gun laws in DC. They were accompanied by a twenty member SWAT team complete with armored vehicle and night vision goggles and ‘two low-flying helicopters’. And in wholly predictable knuckheaded fashion Kokesh and his followers are whining about the ‘official over-reaction’. Perhaps if Mr. Kokesh is found guilty of a felony he won’t have to worry about his Second Amendment rights anymore. Felons can’t own firearms.

(July 29th update) A Washington, D.C. Superior Court judge ordered Adam Kokesh held until trial calling him ‘dangerous’ during a Monday hearing. Further, Magistrate Judge Frederick Sullivan told Kokesh’s attorney, “I consider your client a very dangerous man,” and continued, “you don’t make a political statement with a gun.” The police confiscated multiple firearms, mushrooms and marijuana from his Virginia home.

So it goes. Poo-Tee-Weet.

The Beautiful Mouth

The trouble with this place is its expectations. I should have seen this coming. Plain as the nose on your face, as they say. I had intended to use this as a place to collect my thoughts, cogitate, plant fragments and revisit them until they forced themselves on me or were found out and deleted. That was the idea. But, of course, the posting of them became the point, the expectation, unfinished work need not apply. By the time I’d been back and jiggered and rewritten and come to an understanding, it was already ‘out there’, no one would see it in its Sunday clothes. Now I’m back to chasing fragments, back to disorganized piles on my desk, disconnected things rattling around in my head. Sent myself an email last week. A thousand word email. Poor man’s Word. Hit reply, rewrote it and sent it back to myself, twelve hundred words. This is what this place was supposed to be. Funny.

Marcel Dalio

November 16, 2005

Sunday, November the 20th is the anniversary of Marcel Dalio’s death in 1983. It was the end of a serendipitous life. You know him. He was a citizen of the world. Born Israel Moshe Blauschild, in Paris, in 1900, he became a much sought-after character actor. His lovely animated face with its great expressive eyes became familiar across Europe. He appeared in Jean Renoir’s idiosyncratic Rules of the Game (1939) and Grand Illusion (1937), arguably the greatest of all films. And true to his Frenchman’s heart, he married the very young, breathtaking beauty Madeleine Lebeau. He worked with von Stroheim and Pierre Chenal. He had it all.

But then the Germans crushed Poland, swept across Belgium and pressed on toward Paris. He waited until the last possible moment and finally, with the sound of artillery clearly audible, with Madeleine, fled in a borrowed car to Orleans and then, in a freight train, to Bordeaux and finally to Portugal. In Lisbon, they bribed a crooked immigration official and were surreptitiously given two visas for Chile. But on arriving in Mexico City, it was discovered the visas were rank forgeries. Facing deportation, Marcel and Madeleine found themselves making application for political asylum with virtually every country in the western hemisphere. Weeks passed until Canada finally issued them temporary visas, and they left for Montreal.

Meanwhile, France had fallen and, in the process of subjugating the country, the Germans had found some publicity stills of Dalio. A series of posters were produced and were then displayed throughout the city with the caption ‘a typical Jew’ so that citizens could more easily report anyone suspected of unrepentant Jewishness. The madness continued. The Curtain Rises (1938), a popular film, was ordered re-edited so that Dalio’s scenes could be deleted and re-shot with another, non-Jewish, actor.

After a short time, friends in the film industry arranged for them to arrive in Hollywood. Nearly broke, Marcel was immediately put to work in a string of largely forgettable films. Madeleine, a budding actress in her own right, was ironically cast in Hold Back the Dawn (1941), a vehicle for Charles Boyer with a plot driven by the efforts of an émigré (Boyer) desperately trying to cross into the United States from Mexico. But the real irony was waiting at Warner Brothers.

In early 1942, Jack L. Warner was driving production of a film based on a one act play, ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ but had no screenplay. What he had was a mishmash of treatments loosely based on the play and two previous movies. But he had a projected release date and a commitment to his distributors to have a movie for that time slot and little else. Warner Brothers started to wing it.

Shooting started without a screenplay and little plot. Principal players were cast and a director hired but casting calls for supporting roles and bit players continued, and sometime in the early spring Marcel Dalio and Madeleine Lebeau were cast as, respectively, a croupier and a romantic entanglement for the male lead. Veteran screen-writers were hired to produce a running screenplay, sometimes delivering pages of dialogue one day, for scenes to be shot the following day. No one knew exactly where the plot would go or how the story would turn out. No one was sure of the ending. And, of course, perhaps inevitably, they produced a classic, perhaps the finest, American movie.

They produced a screenplay of multiple genres, rich with characterizations, perfectly in tune with the unfolding events in Europe and loaded with talent from top to bottom. Oh, and they changed the title to Casablanca (1942).

It is so well known, that many lines of long-memorized dialogue have passed into the slang idiom. ‘We’ll always have Paris’, ‘I was misinformed’, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’, ‘ I am shocked! Shocked! To find that there’s gambling going on in here!’, ‘Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship’, ‘Oh he’s just like any other man, only more so’, ‘I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one’, ‘Round up the usual suspects’, and, of course, the oft quoted, apocryphal, ‘Play it again, Sam’.

Madeleine Lebeau plays Yvonne, the jilted lover of Humphrey Bogart, who is seen drowning her sorrows at the bar early in the film and who later, to get back at Rick and looking for solace takes up with a German officer finding only self-hatred. She is luminous.

And when Claude Rains delivers the signature line, ‘I’m shocked! Shocked! To find that there’s gambling going on in here!’ the croupier, Emil, played by Marcel Dalio, approaches from the roulette table and says simply, ‘Your winnings, sir.’ It is a delicious moment ripe with scripted irony, one among many in this film, but one made all the more so, knowing where Dalio came from and what he and his wife had endured to arrive at that line.

Alas, they separated and divorced the next year, both going on to long successful careers. Dalio never remarried.

Late in his career Dalio was approached by Mike Nichols who was looking for a vaguely familiar face to deliver a long and worldly, near-monologue in Catch-22 (1970). Faced with a hopelessly idealistic young American pilot, Dalio, as simply ‘old man in whore house’, in tight close-up, delivers a discourse on practical people faced with impractical circumstances, of the virtues of expedience in the face of amorality . Using his wonderful plastic features, now beginning to sag, in a voice full of melancholy, the old man reassures the young man that regardless of what ‘grand themes’ may be afoot in the world, in the end, little matters but survival.

Michael Ryerson

2005

Butch

I saw the settlement yesterday. Knew when I saw it, I’d have to write something about it. In some way the end of a long torturous road, yet, of course, in another more frightening way, not really the end at all.

He moved into the old neighborhood while I was overseas and by the time I came back, he’d become one of the boys. ‘You have to meet him. He’s cool,’ they said. He was easy to know, the Blarney Stone comes to mind, though with a low key thoughtfulness that suggested substance rather than simple hot air.

He moved into the house just south of my old family home, one of those grotesque Ponti-moderns that were so popular back in the kitsch swept ‘50’s, pastel stucco with the rock-and-pebble roof, concrete slab floors and huge windows grouped in fours in every room.

They came into town from Denver, him and a feisty, sometimes salty wife, and three young boys. Their door was pretty much always open. We played bridge, argued politics, sports and fast cars, Mailer, Vidal, Buckley, Walter Alston and Carroll Shelby. We watched Dick Cavett, Steve Allen and The Firing Line at his house. He subscribed to Time and Newsweek and Foreign Affairs. He recommended Atlas Shrugged and The Once and Future King, I suggested he read Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22. He held forth on ‘big business’, banking, aerospace and engineering with the casual air that passes for competence and besides he was supporting a family while the rest of us were screwing around in school or maybe just screwing around, so what did we know? He said he was a Republican

He had access to a persistent stream of well paying, part-time, temporary jobs and we all took advantage of this, week-ends, evenings, spring break, summers, whenever. He would call from time to time with one goofy job or another, cleaning offices all night at some enormous complex, driving an RV around a test rack strewn with speed bumps and artificial potholes out in Gardena, making engineering changes to schematic drawings over at Atomics International. This was during our student radical days but, of course, even anarchists gotta eat.

He moved on up the corporate ladder or, rather, he moved on up a series of corporate ladders, it being a dog-eat-dog world and he finding himself in one palace revolt after another. He had some hard times.

Right about here, I wandered away for a few years and when I wandered back I had a young wife and few prospects. And sadly, when my sense of irony and snappy patter got me crossways with a distant corporate employer, I found myself talking to him in Houston and he was telling me to, ‘come on down, it’s a boomtown here.’ And so we went, the two of us and an eighty-five pound mongrel dog named Yossarian and pretty much everything we owned, stuffed into and strapped on top of, a rattling Volkswagen.

He had been sent to Houston, temporarily they said, to reel in a renegade branch office, placate the customers and lay the groundwork for a return to profitability. The assignment brought with it a corporate apartment, a generous expense account and a white Cadillac two-door. His wife, with the boys, had refused to relocate with him, so he found himself with time on his hands and few witnesses. A combination that, predictably, would lead to mischief.

He was creative, ‘too smart for his own good’ my mother would have said, and at that he would have laughed that good-natured laugh of chastened recognition. And he’d have gone right on doing what he was doing. He had become the master of the business lunch, box seats and long expensive dinners. The customers knew they were being conned but his charm and his numbers were too good to pass up. The office righted itself.

He dated a series of bright young women who, each in her own way, looked great in the front seat of a white Coupe de Ville. He enjoyed telling the old stories and, of course, to them they were new stories. And they knew they were being conned, too. But likewise his stories and his numbers were too good to pass up.

The divorce papers arrived the middle of the second year.

I moved from one staff assignment to another, filling in as he launched new lines of business, moving ever further from the traditional model, and as his ‘deals’ became more creative he was seen less and less in the office and his corporate reporting became sporadic and uneven, sounding an alarm in Los Angeles. Soon they were coming to Houston once again to reel in a renegade office. He was out and I was on my way to Los Angeles and an office on the twelfth floor. He found shelter across town at the number one competitor, with a nice increase and a Mercedes Benz. We didn’t speak again for ten years.

In those years, I harbored a resentment born of the belief he had ignored plentiful, normal, garden-variety business in exchange for overly leveraged deals that generated irresistible margins reflected in artfully written balance sheets, acting on his early pronouncements of realpolitik, doing the things a man must do in business, politics and war as if von Clausewitz or SunTzu were in the next room. What had been little more than bridge table banter in the early years had come to pass. There were lawsuits and counter-suits and settlements and new business relationships. But I wasn’t part of any of that. In fact, I had changed careers altogether, severing my connection to the companies and the industries with which he would be doing business. Had I thought about it, the likelihood we would ever see each other again would have seemed remote. But I didn’t think about it.

The Los Angeles metropolitan area stretches from Redlands on the east to Chatsworth on the west, a distance of approximately ninety miles (if you were to drive those ninety miles you would never be outside ‘the city’, never clear of the developed urban mass), and from San Fernando in the north to San Juan Capistrano in the south, a distance of approximately seventy-five miles (and again, if you were to drive this axis, this seventy-five miles, you would likewise never be clear of ‘the city’), even allowing for rural enclaves, it is perhaps five thousand square miles and home to seventeen million people. At the best of times, say seven-am on a Sunday morning, it still requires nearly two hours to cross. On a Friday evening, it is impassable. And if you were to set off to find a specific person using only your eyes and your ears, you might spend a hundred lifetimes, or a thousand, and never once catch the barest glimpse of their silhouette passing into a building or the sound of their voice on a breeze. Only a nineteenth century novelist would dare suggest such a thing. Yeah, a nineteenth century novelist or real life. In late 1988, Kafka was waiting in my parking lot. Chekhov was with him.

I crossed the traffic lane toward my car in the early evening as I always did, the soft summer breeze whispering barbeque and an hour or two of cheesy television before bed, when a voice called out and I turned to see a somewhat heavier, yet more prosperous looking ex-co-worker I hadn’t thought of nor spoken to in ten years. He had friends in suits. They were all dressed in that vaguely flashy manner of upmarket salesmen meant to convey money and virility without drawing too much attention to expanding waistlines. They were in town to, you guessed it, reel in another renegade office for another too big corporation being run by men who had reached the limits described by the Peter Principle. This particular renegade office, unbeknownst to me, was located on the second floor of my building. The meeting had been pure chance.

We met for lunch. Three of them, one of me. Ten years had taken the edge off the anger, dulled the resentment. I suppose I could blame what followed on the business cycle but the truth is I was weak and they were strong. I went back.

The business had changed, they said. The traditional model was dead. Where we had been driven by providing specific goods and services we were now providing numbers and reporting, employee classifications and insurance models not possible for the primary employer but all too easily possible for the stand-in employer. But still, even in the new world, someone had to run the front office and so I was busy and gainfully employed once again. And he was free to be creative. I would like to say it was obvious what he was doing and that I was onto him but self interest carries with it a kind of myopia and you are allowed to go on regardless of what should have been apparent. In the end it blew up in a spasm of suits and counter-suits (been here before?) and once again he landed on his feet and once again there was scant room in the lifeboat.

That should have been it. But life has a rule which might be stated thusly: You may not proceed until you have learned my lessons. Our paths would cross twice more.

These were my travelling years. I was responsible for operations from New Jersey to sunny Southern California. I was flying a couple hundred thousand miles a year. With frequent flier miles like this, I was typically upgraded to the front of the plane, better drinks, more smiles, higher grade of BS and a sense of entitlement all around. One morning in Los Angeles, I was later than usual, maybe the last to board, but with the upgrade I knew I had a seat waiting for me. I stepped on the plane, exchanged greetings with the stewardess, looked at the overhead bin and glanced instinctively at my aisle seat. The guy next to the window looked up. Yep. Kafka. In my ear, I could hear Life laughing at me. Stowing my small bag in the overhead, I considered the options and finding none,  decided a three hour flight posed a Zen challenge. I would chose civility and a kind of jocularity which stopped just short of friendliness. He was, after all, a remarkably easy guy to talk to and, lord knows, we had plenty of history. I would baffle him with cordial disconnectedness.

We talked mostly about the old days, the old gang, the days before the rancor. We talked as if there was no interim, nothing between us and the good old days of bridge and the Dodgers, fast cars and the silliness of Ayn Rand. It was easy to do. The time for explanations had long since passed. It was as though we were looking across an enormous canyon and discussing the lovely landscape on the far side all the while ignoring the yawning void. His charm and his stories were intact although there was a sadness about him. Yeah, a sadness. I was being conned and I knew it. And he knew I knew it. When we landed in Houston, we didn’t leave the plane together. As I went up the ramp, he was engaged in a heated exchange with the stewardess about a wine stain on his tan ultra suede sports coat. He was charmless.

Fifteen years passed. His name came up only rarely, perhaps less than once a year. I heard very little and what little I did hear it seemed was more of the same. New businesses, more lawsuits, more ‘creativity’. And then, for about five years, nothing. Until last year, in January, at a trade show in Las Vegas, my wife and I were just leaving a nearly deserted coffee shop following breakfast. As we passed through the lobby area, there were three people standing, in conversation, two men and a woman. I hardly noticed them. One of the men reached out and stopped me, extending his hand as if to shake mine and said, ‘Michael Ryerson, what are you doing?’ It was him, one last time. And the tone told me the ‘hail fellow, well met’ salutation was as much for his friends as it was for me. In his tone and body language he was telling them this was a serendipitous meeting and held the possibility of goods things, indeed. I answered factually, in a flat dry tone to warn him off, as if it mattered, but he would not be dissuaded, he pressed on, ‘No, I mean, what are you doing?’ with a special emphasis on ‘doing’ as though there was an important distinction being missed. His friends, who he had introduced as his ‘new’ wife and a long-time ‘consultant’, whatever the hell that meant, were leaning forward so as to not miss a scintilla of this most important exchange. ‘When are you leaving? We’ve got to get together for breakfast or better, dinner, how about we take you both out to dinner?’ (at this I could feel my wife pull back) ‘We’ve got big things happening, I’d love to have you look at them and give me your feedback,’ again the friends leaned closer, momentous forces were at work, ‘if not here then when are you getting back into Houston? We can have dinner in Houston. Here take my card, call me or I’ll call you, okay?’ I should have put the kibosh on it right then but sometimes my breeding takes over (not often, but sometimes) and I just couldn’t carve him up in front of his ‘new’ wife and long-time ‘consultant’. I nodded and smiled and left. The next day, a Saturday morning, he reached me in my office. For a moment, I let him talk, just let him rattle on and marveled at the gift, the casual, good-naturedness, glib but not too glib, perfect pitch, just perfect, I listened to his rhythm and intonations, what a frigging master! A nod at some kind of apology for those ‘difficulties’ all those years ago and what good are grudges anyway, bygones be bygones, and then on to more important things, big doings, and then when can we get together? And then I put a stop to it, explaining I could have said as much in Las Vegas but wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his ‘new’ wife and business associate but we aren’t going to have lunch, I won’t waste your time or mine, there isn’t anything you could say that could move me, I’m happy, my wife is happy and we’re, thankfully, in a good spot and I wouldn’t do anything that might jeopardize that in the least. There was a long pause, I could hear him breathing. He isn’t used to this, having someone cut him off, this was new ground for him. And then finally, ‘Okaaay…’ drawn out as if to say, ‘You’re making a mistake, you haven’t even heard my ‘deal’ yet’, drawn out as if to give me one last chance to capitulate. I closed with ‘Good luck and take care of yourself’ and meant it.

In April, someone sent me a copy of the federal complaint. It ran to twenty pages, named him as an individual along with fourteen corporate entities (companies he owed) and totaled $113,000,000.00 before penalties and interest. The date on the complaint was the previous November. In other words, when we saw each other in that Las Vegas coffee shop and subsequently, when he called me in my office, he was sitting on a one hundred million dollar federal indictment.

Yesterday, someone sent me a copy of the settlement.

The mills of the gods may grind slow but they grind exceedingly small. The government began swallowing his assets. First they took everything he owned and everything he would ever own; his savings, his cars, his house and everything in it. Then they took  his future earnings. They saddled him with a thirteen million dollar personal judgement. He may not now own a business of any kind, nor can he be employed where he might exercise any control or influence over employee salaries or wages, withholding tax monies, insurance premiums or retirement funds. The mills of the gods.

I’m not sure why but this all reminds me of a comment J. Paul Getty once made about his wealth, he said, ‘I didn’t really think I was rich until I found there were people willing to lend me a million dollars.’ Two sides of the same coin, I guess.

Michael Ryerson

Piss Off

So they’ve got a photograph of four Marines taking a leak on some dead guys? And this is news? I am shocked! Shocked! That there’s gambling going on in here! Oh, the humanity! So let me get this straight, just what the fuck do people think happens when you set these things in motion? When the tough talk is the applause line and looks so good in the paper, when sending someone else’s kid halfway around the world sounds like a good idea. Just what do people think are the natural consequences of an unthinking foreign policy that brandishes the lives of nineteen year olds like so many poker chips? Couple of guys get locked up, rolling around on the ground or trading gunshots or punches and one of them’s got to die. Just that simple. And if you’re lucky, you’ve got a couple of friends who’ll pitch in and help you kill this cocksucker, yeah, two or three against one, maybe four or five against one. This ain’t junior high school. There is no fair about it. The Marquis of Queensbury was a pussy. And when the sun comes up, if you’re still alive, you’ll find corpses with two, three hundred bullet holes in them and body parts and you’ll walk around collecting the bigger pieces, like some fucking jigsaw puzzle, and try to come up with a body count considering you’ve got damned few whole bodies. You’ll dig a pit and you’ll gather up the little pieces using your entrenching tool like a serving spoon, pieces of brain or muscle or snot, fingertips, a scalp maybe, and you’ll dump them in the pit so you won’t start getting sick in a week or so as the rot sets in. Yeah, you’ll do all these things and it’ll piss you off that you’re doing them and it’ll piss you off that some prick came in here to kill you and if you’ve got to take a leak, well, you’ll take it right on one of these guys and you don’t owe anybody a goddamned apology.

 

Michael Ryerson

Shadowbox

                                    She would never say where she came from
                                    Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone
                                    While the sun is bright
                                    Or in the darkest night
                                    No one knows
                                    She comes and goes


                                                             Keith Richards, Ruby Tuesday

                                                             *

August, 2004

The big car floating in near silence on a wide, empty road, the rearview mirror dark, the boy asleep in the back, his outline sharp, angular, the woman asleep, her face relaxed, beautiful. It is the summer before college. He still sleeps as a child sleeps, peaceful and unhurried, but his childhood has passed. The little boy is gone.

The road runs south, a broad expanse of white concrete, four lanes, pristine, cut with tiny grooves to ensure traction in bad weather, the tires sing a faint E-flat. Eight miles out we make a wide, gradual turn to the left and run toward the black, eastern horizon.

I hear a familiar voice and ease the volume up, Diana Ross mewing, her feline voice that sensuous mix of pubescent neediness and promise…                            OoooooOooOooOooooo, Baby love, my baby love, I need you, oh how I need you… 

Two guys changing a flat tire on the side of the highway. They look as though they’ve done this before. They seem to have everything under control. I watch them in the rearview mirror.

But all you do is treat me bad, break my heart and leave me sad,

When I got back, I’d go out at night and drive for hours. Most nights I’d sleep in my car. I’d go up the coast to Santa Barbara and turn around and come back. One night I went all the way to San Luis Obispo. Sometimes I’d pick out a street, Western or Washington or Atlantic Boulevard and just drive the whole goddamn thing, one end to the other. I didn’t know what I was doing but it made me feel better and for a few hours nobody knew where I was. That was a funny part of it, it felt good somehow that no one knew where I was. Sometimes I’d glance in the rearview mirror and see an intersection through which I’d just driven, and I couldn’t remember driving through it. I couldn’t remember a lot of things in those days. You know, you can drive across the city and not think about it…or at least that’s the feeling you get. Maybe you’re just thinking so effortlessly that it seems like you’re not thinking. You get into a rhythm and the traffic lights and the other cars kind of recede somehow and they’re just there and you’re dealing with them and no longer thinking about them. I could see the road string out, things slow down, I could pick out the dates on some of the bridges, wonder when the asphalt went down or the curbs went in. I could watch the buildings change from one neighborhood to the next, the age of them, the brick and the cracked sidewalks, the fire escapes, the narrow alleys, the glass and chrome, the wide boulevards, the big houses, the grass, the manicured parkways. I could see it all. Just keep moving.

tell me, what did I do wrong…to make you stay away so long,

The crescent of lighted road rushing forward is inexhaustible, the landscape passing unseen, the low whisper of the engine and the wind…

For a long time, I had this feeling they were coming for me. Weird, I know. Sometimes I felt as though the feeling would eat me alive. It didn’t matter how far I’d drive, the dread would overtake me. I usually slept in my car or on somebody’s couch, wherever I happened to be. I couldn’t shake the feeling that when you sleep in the same place, they can find you. I know that’s crazy but that is the exact feeling. I don’t have that feeling so much anymore. Maybe I got over it. Maybe I learned how to live with it. Maybe I’m just resigned to it now, I don’t know. Some things you can’t change, you can’t change what’s coming. There’s nothing I can do about it.

Baez singing in the night…, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…

In the early days, I guess it was the church music and the singing, Mrs. Bradley with her short thick fingers and great forearms, hair marcelled into a tight brown helmet, glancing at the pastor, turning her head left and right, finding the keys and pounding away at the keyboard, striking every note with the same hammer-like precision completely without modulation, playing as loudly as she could, trying, it seemed, to drown out the congregation. And my father, never glancing at the hymnal, singing in a careful tenor from memory.

And grace will lead us home…

                                     grace will lead us home

In the first grade, there was Mrs. Stevens gently cradling and strumming an auto-harp, our bird voices raised and holding long notes while she searched furtively for the next combination of buttons to press and taking so long that the melody was lost in the interim.

But then, in second grade, there was Mrs. Brandt, so slim and small with her big eyes and gentle voice, simply sitting down at our upright piano and noodling around and joking with us and making us laugh and then, without fanfare, bringing forth Mozart with absolute assurance, completely in command and smiling all the while and looking around at us to see if we were listening and of course we were transfixed… so many notes, so close together and so quickly played that it made us giggle with delight. And in the hallway, other teachers brought their classes to stand and listen but we got to sit on the rug in the room with her and with that music.

I rest my hands on the wheel lightly, the big white car driving itself. Somewhere a DJ sits and serves up the voices of dead men…the syrup-sweet voice…Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology,…

The late, great Sam Cooke, half naked, wearing one shoe, shot to death in a motel down on South Central…’Lady, you shot me,’ his last words…I wonder if she noticed his voice…

The Morning Man comes on, a thick, rich basso profundo, a perfect pitchman for the siding he sells, for the bank he believes in, for the car dealer who’ll give me a square deal. He tells me the time, I glance involuntarily at the dashboard clock, he tells me the weather, no surprises, and slides effortlessly into some Brian Wilson magic…simple melody, complex harmonies, sneaky smart lyrics, the tempo measured, insistent…

                                       Well, east coast girls are hip,

                                       I really dig those styles they wear,

                                       and the southern girls with the way they talk,

                                       they knock me out when I’m down there…

I was 12 or 13 when my father taught my mother to drive, preparing even then, I think, for their separation and divorce, although they didn’t know it yet…

                                        The mid-west farmer’s daughters

                                        really make you feel alright…

They would go out in the evenings and I could see they were kind of resigned to it and come back an hour later, sometimes mad…

                                        And the northern girls with the way they kiss,

                                        They keep their boyfriends warm at night…

                             [...Dennis on drums here, a nice little tempo bridge...]

Later that year, he sold our Plymouth Belvedere, the first and only brand new car he would ever own, and bought two little French cars, with tiny engines; his white, hers egg shell blue. And for a long time, she was too frightened to drive on the freeway or any busy street for that matter, but finally worked up her courage and in the summer, took us through Topanga Canyon and up the coast highway to Malibu, just a quiet beach in those days, where we could rent idle surfboards from the surfers reclining there, for 50 cents an hour and she would lay on a blanket and read her paperback, while we tried to find the sweet spot of the waves. Of course, the surfboards were only idle when there were no real waves to speak of and the surfers were amused that we’d give them money when the surf was basically flat. We didn’t care, we were in the water and standing up and that was enough. When the waves were bigger, we’d have to stand and watch, hoping to see how it was done and maybe sneak a peek at the long legged girls who were also standing and watching…

                                           I wish they all could be California,

                                           I wish they all could be California,

                                           I wish they all could be California girrrls…

In the night, I could hear their voices, low and insistent, negotiating, pleading, yielding, muted, far away. I couldn’t hear the words and I pretended not to know what they were talking about but, in my stomach, I knew. Kids always know. To a kid things are supposed to work out one, specific way and they know when that ain’t gonna happen. It feels like standing on the edge of a cliff with your eyes closed. I started sneaking out at night and sleeping under the elm tree. In the dark, I could find a sleeping bag in the rafters of the garage and spread it out on the lawn and look at the stars and their voices couldn’t reach the elm tree. I slept in the back yard for the whole summer. Finally he moved away.

Carl Jackson moved onto our block that winter and we ripped out the backseat of his ‘53 Ford so we could stuff surfboards through the trunk and I gave Gordy Munoz twenty dollars for an eleven foot Hobie that his sister had bought and used once and, for an extra five bucks, he threw in an old blue board he had stuck in the rafters of his garage that he swore was a Gordon&Smith but didn’t have any logo on it and no one could remember where it came from.

It was the year Carol Watanabi was killed, walking her bike across Saticoy, by a young mother driving too fast, who was maybe distracted by the kids in her car or the late afternoon sun or something. And a few days later Jimmy Gessner and I rode our bikes down to see where it happened but there wasn’t anything to see really, except maybe the gouge marks on the asphalt where her bike went up under the car. I wonder if that lady ever saw her. I wonder what it sounded like when she hit her. I wonder if she’ll ever forget that sound.

We started driving ourselves to the beach, scraping together two dollars for gas and carrying a little square of hard paraffin wax in the hip pocket of cut-off Levis. And some older guy at Malibu punched Carl out, split his lip and chipped a tooth. That was the year we stopped being those kids who paid to ride someone else’s board and suddenly became ‘those ass-holes from the Valley.’

I allow the car drift out to the left lane, two tons of Swedish engineering running across the alluvial plain, the wind noise faint, the boards on the roof whispering, the big Michelins humming at 70 miles an hour, the road looming up, sweeping under the car and receding in the rearview mirror. We lose two lanes, the white concrete disappears, we get asphalt, the Michelins go quiet..a flash of lightning on the southern horizon. ‘Scattered thunderstorms,’ the Morning Man says, ‘scattered and then clearing’    …scattered and then clearing…

…lightning on the southern horizon…

The road swings right in a lazy arc, the ramp tilted to accept the centrifugal embrace of the tires, we rise up and lean over and gently come back level, return to the plain, heading south now, through the salt marshes and stands of soft pine…the thunder-heads flashing in the far distance…Fogarty is singing…an anthem maybe..a smoky wail….

                                           Don’t go around tonight,

                                           Well, it’s bound to take your life…

                                           There’s a bad moon on the rise…

                                           I hear hurricanes a-blowing

                                           I know the end is coming soon…

                                           I fear rivers over flowing…

                                           I hear the voice of wreckage and ruin… 

voice of wreckage and ruin…The big white car is floating in space now…wreckage and ruin…somebody kicks my foot and I hear a voice say, ‘It’s four,’ I roll over, blinking and look up at Rod’s silhouette against the stars and he says, ‘It’s four o’clock.’

‘Okay,’ I answer and sit up slowly.

He kneels down, ‘How are your feet?’

’Shitty.’

‘Are they bleeding again?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t think so. Maybe.’

I look around. Two hundred guys sleeping on the ground, a couple of guys sitting up. The airstrip a dark hump, silent. Far over to the left somebody’s taking a leak. I smell cigarette smoke. I hear somebody hock and spit.

‘They don’t have maps,’ he says.

‘What?’ I say, squinting, trying to see his face.

‘They don’t have any maps, they say we’ll get them when we get down there.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘No, really. I talked to the Lieutenant and the Captain was standing right there’

Fuck.

voice of wreckage and ruin

I try to get my mind around this…we’re flying into a probably hot LZ and we don’t have a goddam set of maps? What the fuck can these guys be thinking? I stand up and have to catch my balance, my feet burning…

’Where you going?’ Rod whispers.

’I’m going over to regiment, I know somebody who might have some maps, then I’m going down to battalion, somebody’s got to be sitting on some maps.’

I pull on my flak jacket, swing my bag onto my shoulder and pick up my rifle, about fifty yards down, I stop and piss into a ditch.

bound to take your life

Rod catches up, with Dave and Ernie right behind him, and we start down the road to regiment. A battery north of the river, Kilo I think, opens up. We all stop and look across the river into the dark. Six 8-inch howitzers in near unison, the battery report a deep thunder followed by the hiss of the departing rounds, whuwhumwhuwhump…. …ssssssssssssssssssss, twelve hundred pounds of high explosives headed for North Vietnam. Good Morning, Fuckers. Rod lights a cigarette and Kilo goes again, whuwhumwhuwhump …sssssssssssssssss …more lovely parting gifts…more body parts…

wreckage and ruin

                                           Hope you got your things together.

                                           Hope you are quite prepared to die.

                                           Looks like we’re in for nasty weather.

                                           One eye is taken for an eye.

So this captain has really, really light blue eyes and I have to look at him twice to be sure he can even see me and he looks edgy. He glances at my binocular case and he knows why we’re here and he’s going to stonewall us…I can see it, his hands are fluttering. This fucker has to know how stupid this is, I wonder how long he’s been here, his boots look almost new but maybe he wore a pair out, his hands look soft and he’s got no tan but maybe he doesn’t tan…his eyes tell me to be careful…I think he’s been here about a month…

’No maps, Sergeant, none, they’ve all been pulled, they’re already down there.’

He’s trying for that ‘command presence’ thing, trying to intimidate us but his hands give him away, he knows he’s selling some weak shit…I’m just staring at him, trying to keep the disgust from showing too much, I know I’m on thin ice here, I feel a little sick…

’Look,’ he finally says, ‘find Lieutenant Espinosa on the tarmac, he’s got the last maps. Take a look at his.’

What does he think? I’m going to fucking memorize Espinosa’s maps? Gosh, do ya think he’ll let me hold em, Captain? Shit, this is more fucked up than anything…

‘Yeah, thanks Captain,’ I say, trying to control the sarcasm, ‘…that’s what we’ll do.’

As we leave, I feel Ernie holding back, feel him starting to see ahead, to see what’s going to happen on the LZ, what’s likely to be the end for somebody, maybe everybody…and I don’t think me peering at Espinosa’s maps in the dark is going to make Ernie feel any better…without looking at him, I can see the questioning look in his eyes, asking why are we walking outta here? Are we going to leave it like this? Are we going to accept this? And, at the bottom of it, what he’s really asking is are we actually getting on these fucking helicopters this morning? I’m trying to see a way to get control again, of getting Ernie to calm down, to stop this from spreading too far…Dave and Rod seem to be okay, focusing on the practical, the nuts and bolts of it but Ernie is really fucking nervous, I can feel him looking at me…and I’m having some trouble too. In my mind’s eye, I’m seeing a bad LZ, I’m seeing a lot of casualties…I’m seeing maybe Crow all over again.

nasty fucking weather

The DJ gives the time and I check the dashboard clock again. We pick up a little squall, the droplets scurrying up the windshield, the wipers capturing them and sweeping them aside, the Michelins hiss, the big car nimble on wet pavement. The boy raises his head blinking and looks absentmindedly out the rear window at the rooster-tail of mist and, without saying a word, lays his head back down. He won’t remember looking. The Morning Man picks his way through the local news. I watch the dawn. The stars fade and retreat, the eastern horizon showing faint grey and pale blue, bleeding to violet, purple and orange, Monet ascendant, Soleil Levant. I power the window down an inch or so, and take in the morning air, heavy with the smell of the rain-soaked land, of the sloughs and bogs, the estuaries and the ponds, of the backwaters and the rotting leaves and  the straw and the peat…

‘…call my friends…a Bank you can trust…’

Rod leans in, ‘Have you done the calendar yet?’ I smile and nod at the ritual…’Wait,’ I say, and reach into my left breast pocket and fish around behind the little Bible for three playing card sized calendars…and bring them out into the dim light. Rod holds my flashlight. Three little calendars, two completely marked off and Rod watches and Peterson watches, and some of the others come over as I bring a pen to bear on today and soon today is gone behind the ink in an act of faith, an act of faith, and maybe, on this morning, an act of will. I put the little calendars away. Little rituals to pass the time, little rituals to mark our passing. Little rituals but maybe sometimes not so little….I look at my watch, 0522. In the pre-dawn, the sky lightens and the ground grows darker, the airstrip shows only a black spine running east and west. I kneel in the dark and fold the empty map case into my bag and run through a short inventory and there is the sound of other men going through their own personal inventories, of rustling canvas bags, of snaps and zippers, of metal on metal, of bolts being worked and magazines being loaded, of reaching in pockets, of checking web belts, of feeling through dark bags for dry socks and an extra shirt, a clean towel and a little piece of soap. For a toothbrush and toothpaste, eye wash and sun glasses, a fork and spoon, and c-ration cans, beans and meatballs, turkey loaf and pound cake, some instant coffee, an envelope of hot chocolate, three canteens of water, lip balm, nail clippers and a pocket knife. Powder for my feet and ointment for my feet, two stolen Darvons stashed for my leg, a little box of Sucrets, some band aids, salt tablets and aspirin. A snoopy blanket and a poncho, matches and heat tabs, a couple of extra John Waynes and toilet paper, lots of toilet paper. And, of course, weapons and ammunition, magazines in, round in the chamber, safeties on, four extra magazines for the M16 and two extra for the .45, a Kabar and a bayonet. Two fragmentation grenades, two smoke grenades, field dressings, iodine and Halizone tablets, chewing gum and insect repellent. Flashlight, extra batteries, a pair of wire cutters and an extra battery for Rod’s PRC-9. Binoculars. Stubby pencils and a ball point pen, scratch paper, a couple of letters, a couple of snapshots, a beat up paperback of Blake and a little Bible my father carried in his war. And then the lists; lists of map coordinates written inside-out, lists of radio frequencies written backwards and registration points and passwords, all in personal shorthand, no plain English allowed, numbers on numbers, lists of LZ’s and lists of call signs, call signs for units, call signs for grunts, for med-evac, for resupply and supporting arms, for artillery and mortars, for air strikes and naval gunfire, and finally, a list of men, The List, by name and rank; another sergeant, three corporals, eight lance corporals, ten PFC’s, two privates, a corpsman and a lieutenant. Twenty five men. Twenty five. I figure the Lieutenant can look out for himself… I hope. And a couple of grease pencils and an empty map case. An empty fucking map case. I rest for a minute…

                                           In what distant deeps or skies

                                           Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

                                           On what wings dare he aspire?

                                           What the hand dare seize the fire? 

They gather round…and the Lieutenant starts to speak and he’s wandering all around it…blah, blah, blah…My watch says 0531. I watch their faces, impatient, intent, tired…finally I clear my throat and stand up, he takes a breath and I hear my voice, “All right listen up…,” they turn toward me, “nothing new. They’re telling us the LZ’s a soccer field. Remember Tam Ky?” and here I pause and look around and realize no one here will remember the soccer fields at Tam Ky.  “Well, there’ll be a lot of open ground and probably no cover. One guy says it’s actually a soccer stadium so I’m not sure what to believe but they’re saying a lot of small arms fire. That I believe. All right, two things, safeties on, let me say that again, safeties on, check your own and then eyeball every safety in your group.” I look at Ernie and Dave and Peterson, “No more accidental discharges goddam it. Let’s not put a hole in one of these helicopters. Second thing, clear the LZ quickly, we don’t know what it’s going to look like but get the fuck away from the aircraft. Watch the door gunners on the approach, they’ll tell us if it’s hot but safeties on until the last possible moment…” They wait, thinking there’s more. There isn’t. I think about mentioning the maps but they already know anyway and besides I don’t know what to say. They stand and buddy-up, helping each other lift and fit pack-frames and bags, forming fire teams, heading for their groups. The worm in my belly begins to stir and my feet burn. I should have put on dry socks again. Just one more. Just one more. The words keep running through my mind. Just one more. How long can you bet the come line before the string runs out?…

                                          And what shoulder and what art,

                                          Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

                                          And when thy heart began to beat,

                                          What dread hand and what dread feet?

It is nearly silent. There is a soft, onshore breeze. I can smell the ocean and I imagine I can hear the surf. I close my eyes and try to clear my mind…what else? Always, what else? What am I forgetting? I squat down and play with the dirt. The dirt is always the same in these places, blasted by a thousand rotor blades, pounded by ten thousand boots until there’s only the hardpan and shiny pebbles left. Little shiny pebbles. What the fuck else? I hear Rod stir and I look up as he turns looking across the airstrip to the southeast, others stand and look. I turn and look, too. In the distance, the faint, thin whine of a single turbine cuts the morning air, a single turbine rising slowly to C-sharp, then a second and a third and finally a full chorus of turbines and blades coming awake. Somewhere beyond the airfield, the aircrews are pulling on helmets, checking their own weapons, counting ammunition, rotors are turning, engines are heating up. The worm that lives in the pit of my stomach sinks his teeth in and I feel that wave of nausea again. The groups form at the edge of the tarmac, eight men, maybe nine. We’re in the second flight from the second pad. First flight, eight guys, directly ahead of us. 0544. The eastern horizon now a blaze of violet and orange and from beyond the horizon, the sun slants up and catches a thunder-head and we are all bathed in an eerie reflected light. In the distance, from beyond the spine of the airstrip, a single Huey rises slowly out of the dark and sweeps along the south edge of the runway and then a second and a third follow and finally a fourth and they string out and come on in a long line, from left to right skirting the field and then a sweeping right turn, banking across the west end of the runway and they line up and come in on us, drop their tails and settle down in a line, everyone instinctively turning their heads against the flying debris. The rotor wash and the engine noise deafening, the airborne dirt and gravel radiating out and rattling off of flak jackets and helmets, one chopper to my left, one directly in front of us, with these guys standing and starting for the door, and two more choppers to my right, men hunched over carrying rifles and pack boards and the door gunners leaning out and helping, the pilots faceless behind their dark visors and canopies, their heads turning left and right as the aircraft load. I see people’s lips moving but voices are useless here, as the choppers lift off, I glance to the left, to the first pad, and see the Lieutenant with Peterson, Kelley and Kolb and the others moving forward to the edge of the tarmac, and to the right, on the number three pad, I can see Ernie standing with his head down…I nod at Dave and Rod and we move up to the edge of the strip and kneel, seven of us and Doc John. The outbound choppers rock forward, lift, hesitate and then sweep across the big mess hall and Delta Med and on toward the mouth of the Cua Viet. The following choppers from the three pad and the four pad pass over. The noise is deafening. I reach up and rest my hand on Rod’s shoulder, I feel someone put their hand on my shoulder. Four more choppers are banking across the west end of the field…and it’s our turn…goddamnit!…Oh Lord, I know I’m not real worthy but please, just one more.

                                           What the hammer? What the chain?

                                           In what furnace was thy brain?

                                           What the anvil? What dread grasp?

                                           Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

The Huey rocks forward, shudders and rises slowly, an aluminum and plexiglass bubble of anxiety rising in the belly of the morning. I reach for some chewing gum and glance at my watch, 0551. No maps. My stomach hurts. The chopper chattering and vibrating, we rise into the morning sun, the air goes cool, my eyes start to water, my ears pop. We hold steady to the east for a couple of minutes and clear the mouth of the river. About two miles off the coast, we begin a slow turn to the right, the glare of the South China Sea streaming in the door and reflecting in on the roof of the chopper. Off my left knee, beyond the toe of my left boot, beyond the skid, I can see the float, maybe five ships and some choppers rising to follow us south, their rotors cast a flickering shadow on the water. I glance at Rod. He looks over at me, his face blank, his eyes dilated. I think his stomach hurts, too. Beyond his chest, out the right hatch, I can see the smoke rising from Quang Tri, three thick, black columns. We keep going. It will be worse in Hue. It is the morning of a long day…

                                           When the stars threw down their spears,

                                           And water’d heaven with their tears,

                                           Did He smile His work to see?

                                           Did He who made the lamb make thee? 

The DJ comes on to say good bye, doing a voice-over with Otis Redding in the background, that it’s been his pleasure to sit up half the night playing forty year old tunes, that they’re classics, after all and that he’s cherished these last hours with us…’cherished,’ he says, always selling. The road bends slightly to the left, the back channels and the causeway just ahead, and he introduces his replacement, a sultry voiced woman of an indeterminate age with a bounce in her voice and she teases with the upcoming play-list…Ronstadt, Baez, Jackson Browne and some Stones…and then launches the morning news. But I only hear ‘…and some Stones’

What few records we owned were by this time scratched beyond use but the big bands were mostly gone, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Dorseys replaced by the ‘Champagne Music’ kitsch of Lawrence Welk, Spade Cooley with his fancy cowboy shirts and black heart, Cal Worthington, Dick Lane and Molly Bee. Tuxedo Junction begat Shame on You. It all played on the big RCA console in our living room and on our new television set on Sunday afternoons. This all belonged to my parents, this was their music. It spoke of their hard times and of their good. It spoke of wartime separation and renewal. Elvis happened too early for me and too late for them. The Beach Boys and the Beatles started it for me. Of course, the fact that the music was different and not appreciated by my parents made it mine, made it ours, of being somehow finally apart from them, of my first car, of the beach, of the first tentative fondling, of secret embraces, of touching in dark places and of having just one girl. And all the while, we were awash in these rhythms, these voices, with that time in our lives, when we were smooth and hard and quick. And later, much later, when we heard them again, when we were no longer smooth nor quick, we would still feel for a few moments as we felt then, when anything was possible, as though the world was about to lay down for us and we would have our way with it. Lurking in the background was the Stones. Where the Beach Boys and the Beatles were upbeat and optimistic even when they were trying to be dark, the Stones were insistent, self-indulgent, mocking, decadent. Where Paul smiled sweetly and raised his cherubic face to the light, Mick mugged and pouted and dripped sweat and Keith stared off across some unseen personal desert. After Southeast Asia there was only the Stones. After Southeast Asia, they looked like we felt. Shit, after Southeast Asia, they looked like us.

The boy sits up wrinkling his face in a frown of self awareness, waiting to come full awake, slowly moistens his lips and squints out at the sun slanting in at near horizontal. ‘Hey,’ I say and he smiles at me in the rearview mirror, ‘Hey,’ he whispers back. We pass two bait shops on the right, fishermen in baseball caps leaning against their pick-up trucks drinking coffee from styrofoam cups.

                                        ‘Live Bait, licenses and tackle,

                                           finger mullets, live shrimp,

                                         coffee, donuts and soft drinks,

                                                                 ICE!’

                                         the signs say…

A ragged, bone-colored hound lifts his leg and pisses on a tire and beyond the clapboard buildings, in the back bay, a couple of rust-stained runabouts rise and fall, riding their anchor chains on a gentle swell. The boy stretches with a groan and the woman comes awake with a murmur. We reach the base of the causeway bridge as Keith sounds the great opening chord to Jumpin’ Jack Flash and the woman reaches over absent-mindedly and turns the volume down even further, the open chord riff pounding and echoing in the background, Keith on a Gibson acoustic tuned to open D, and the car rumbles onto the extruded iron grate and we can see the bay water shimmering oily green through the road bed and in the glimmer  I can see the salt marshes at Hue and the first flight choppers banking over, pounding, echoing…and somewhere in the ether Mick is a prancing, spinning jumpin’ jack…his voice harsh, insistent, even at low volume…the car rising up the long bridge and the backwater stretching into the morning sun, the first choppers bouncing in hard and we’re coming across the treetops fast, reflecting light onto the car roof…in the background, Mick is wailing…I was born in a crossfire hurricane...and I howled at my ma in the driving rain…[all the boys in long, low moaning harmony]…But it’s allll right!!! I’m a jumpin’ jack flash…It’s alllll riiight noowww!! In fact, it’s a gas!

We crest the bridge and start down the backside facing the town and the beaches beyond…

                                                     It’s a gaaas! gaaas! gaaas!

[...strutting, spinning, pouting, thrusting his chin, skipping across the stage, all insouciance  and menacing sexuality, reckless energy, unrepentant child.]

                                    I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead

                                   But it’s alllll riiight noooww, in fact, it”s a gas!

                                   But its alllll riiight, I’m jumpin’ jack flash.

                                        …but it’s all right…it’s all right… 

Yeah, it’s all right. No apologies, it is what it is…and what did Keith say in his usual, self-deprecating way?…Five strings, two fingers, one asshole…yeah, and a mugging, strutting frontman…maybe the greatest frontman of all time… yeah, maybe…

The wind from the rotors is bending the trees, the fronds dancing…And we’re coming in fast over the treetops, the guy in the right door working out scattering shell casings and blue smoke and the guy on our side leaning out and looking down toward the LZ and far off to the left I can see a stone quarry and I don’t remember a rock quarry being this close to the river, in fact, I don’t remember a quarry being here at all and I realize it isn’t a quarry at all but part of the city I’m seeing, a quarry of broken buildings and sundered streets, miles and miles of destruction, torn and blasted, utter, complete…and we’re sweeping into the stadium, another helicopter still on the ground…men running to the left…watch your footing, goddamned helmet, Jesus H. Christ this bag is fucking heavy…god. damned. helmet…

It is just a tiny seashell necklace of a town, a little beach town pretending to be a resort and, like beach towns everywhere, awash in not-so-secret dry rot, weeds and peeling paint, shiny sports cars and suntanned women in big sunglasses, and silent men in rags searching the trash bins of sardine-can-condominiums with lyric names like the Windswept, the Seafarer and the Broken Anchor, liquor stores, pawn shops, head shops and, of course, at least one restaurant called the Tiki Room, and the McDonald’s, Walmart and the Radisson Suites Hotel, the flotsam and jetsam of driftwood businesses that hang on by dint of owners who live in the back and don’t take vacations, the bait shops, boat rentals and outboard motor repair, sea shell, skateboard and T-shirt gift shops and Sonny’s rent-a-bike. The road runs along the backwater piers dotted with early morning fishermen and sea birds. The boy watches, silently taking it all in and the woman looks at the map, ‘Donuts?’ she asks, and I nod smiling, ‘Yeah, sure…’ ‘Can we get some kolaches?’ the boy calls out. ‘Sure…’ I say, looking at his face in the rearview mirror…

At the ocean, we turn right and start down the wide boulevard that runs along the top of the sea wall, the shops and condos strung-out on our right, the sea, churning murky green and white, on the left, the sun still low behind us, a line of pelicans trace the surf-line, riding the draft coming up the face of the waves. We stop at a traffic light and I watch a thin, bearded, barefoot young man leaning against a shopping cart standing on top of the seawall, his ragged jeans hanging in folds, his hair matted, his pale blue eyes fixed on two joggers, a man and a woman, approaching his intersection. He stands motionless as they pass, crisp, sleek and well-fed.

I went to see Rod when he got out but he wasn’t there. One night, I saw his street name on a freeway sign in Lincoln Heights and got off the freeway and wandered around looking at the houses. But it was two in the morning and I didn’t know where he lived. But the street was only about five blocks long and I figured if I came back sometime in the daytime, someone would know. A couple of weeks later I went back. I knocked on some doors. Mostly I got blank stares. I think they were uneasy with a white guy standing on their porch. By the time I got to the third or fourth house, some people had come out on the porches across the street and were watching me. I think there’d been some phone calls. A couple of skinny vatos locos wearing hairnets and undershirts came out on the sidewalk and gave me their best menacing stare. Finally a small, suspicious woman listened to my spiel and when I mentioned the Marine Corps, she put her hand to her mouth and laughed and pointed right across the street. A twelve year old boy waited smiling on the porch. I told him who I was and he wanted me to wait for Rod to come home from work but I didn’t. I was sorry Rod wasn’t there right then but I had this sudden feeling of not being able to stand still, I felt like I was suffocating…Rod left a couple of messages at my Mom’s but I didn’t call him back. I knew I’d go back, I just didn’t know when. I didn’t think it would take so long. Anyway, we met at a bar down on North Broadway and had a couple of beers. It was good seeing him again, there’s something about just being around familiar faces, familiar voices. It was good seeing him again, good to sit next to him but there wasn’t much to say. There never is. I used to be surprised at how little there was to say. He wanted me to come home with him, but talking in the bar was good enough for me. Then he said a funny thing, he said, “You know, you’ve got to be careful what you say.” I asked him what he meant even though I knew, and he said, “You know, what you talk about, what you say you want. They hold it against you. You’ve got to be careful.” So I went home with him because I knew what he meant. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to watch what you say. We sat around the living room with his Mom and his sisters and his little brother, making small talk, until his Dad came home. His Dad is a short, stocky guy with powerful shoulders and big thick hands. He’s worked at the brewery his whole life and his face is creased with laugh lines. When we shook hands, we all sort of laughed. Rod put his arm around his Dad’s shoulder. Then we went out into the backyard and sat under a big old tree, the three of us, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and talking, with his little brother leaning against the tree listening to us. It was good. His sisters were pretty. I tried not to look at them. The property ran down a short hill to an old wooden fence and a couple of avocado trees. Looking southwest, through the telephone lines, we could see downtown L.A. and the sunlight flickering off of the cars on the 101. “You been doing some digging,” I said, half jokingly, motioning toward a pile of fresh dirt near the fence. Rod laughed, “Yeah, my Mom wants an orange tree and I was going to plant it for her.” We strolled down to the pile of dirt. The hole was four or five feet across and maybe five feet deep. “Jesus, it must be a big tree.” Rod looked into the hole grinning, “You know, the ground was so nice and soft, I just couldn’t stop digging. I really liked digging that hole,” he laughed. I had to admit it was a really nice hole. “And ya wanna hear something else kinda weird? Yesterday, my Dad and I sat up there under the tree and had a beer together and when he went back into the house, I came down here and sat in the bottom of that hole and finished my beer. Just sat in there where it was quiet and finished my beer.” I imagined Rod sitting in that hole, leaning back against black loam and quietly drinking his beer. It made me smile. We walked back up the hill toward the house. His little brother was in the side yard talking with some other little kids. His Dad’s chair is empty.

‘C’mon, lemme show ya something,’ he says and we go up the back stairs and he leads me down the hall to his room and he reaches for a closet door and, all of a sudden, I know what he’s going to show me. I don’t know how I know but I do and I know if he tries to pick it up, I might have to take it away from him and he opens the door and pulls these towels aside and there is the butt of a handgun showing on the shelf. A .45 automatic. But he doesn’t reach for it, just stands there smiling at me as if to say, “See? There it is. There’s mine,” as though we should all have one. Maybe we should. I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t. “Ya wanna look at it?” he asks and now I know if I don’t pick it up he will, so I reach in under the towel and lift it out. It’s heavy. I point the muzzle at the ceiling, check the safety and glance at the bottom of the butt. There is a magazine in it. The hammer is back. He smiles some more and says, “And one in the chamber,” like this is something to be proud of. The hair on the back of my neck rustles, I know I’m holding a snake.

‘Jesus, why do you keep a loaded gun around with all these kids?’

‘Whaddya ya mean?’ He seems puzzled.

‘I mean, Jesus, why do you need to keep a fucking loaded pistol laying around with one in the chamber?’

‘Hey, nobody is allowed to come in here and besides what good is it if it’s not loaded? Why have it? I’m ready if those fuckers come for me.’

He says ‘fuckers’ as though we both know who they are.

I slide the pistol back under the towels. ‘What fuckers?’ I ask trying to sound casual.

‘Any fuckers,’ he says as though the very question is impertinent.

It is hard to argue with this. Hard to argue with a man with one in the chamber.

His Mom asks me to stay for dinner. Goddamn it, they seem happy.

Later that night, driving away, I think about a guy sitting in a hole drinking a beer and I think about those fuckers he’s expecting.

The island stretches out to the southwest, a long, low barrier island of salt grass and shifting dunes, four lanes of blacktop running 30 miles from Bolivar Roads to the San Luis Pass, 30 miles of back bay marshes and mud flats and little clusters of vacation houses on stilts, the road still empty except for a fisherman’s truck with rods sticking out of the bed and a sturdy mongrel dog with his head up, nose high, testing the breeze. The rain has scrubbed the air to sharp crystal: the bulrush and salt grass greens, the emerald, cadmium, turquoise and olive in deep relief against the whites and blues. It is a morning as Vincent would have painted it.

I balance a chocolate donut and a carton of cold milk. We pass the entrances to public beaches, parking three-dollars-a-day, a bait shop, a tiny country market, another bait shop, a lonely restaurant, the riding stables. The year-round shanties give way to boarded up vacation cottages and then to walled neighborhoods with guard booths and electric gates and grand kitsch houses on faux stilts. Twelve Mile Road, Hershey Beach, Public Access Turn Here, Spanish Grant, Thirteen Mile Road, Yacht Club Right Turn Ahead, Lots For Sale, Boat Slips Available, Pirates Beach and finally, behind a long low white wall,  Jamaica Beach, the name spelled out in rusting, filigree wrought iron. We pass the main gate, watch for the west entrance, wave at the guard, nod a hello, bear to the right, past the two story Tudor, past the salmon colored three story with the ship’s bell, watch for the turn.

Every summer, for three or four weeks, they take a house at the seashore and throw it open for friends and family to visit as schedules permit, and hey, don’t forget to bring the kids and the dog and a sleeping bag if you want and a good time is had by all. So here we are with the big black dog, a cooler full of drinks and a couple of boards on the roof. But with the onshore breeze the surf is mush so we’ll hope that this afternoon is good and besides there’s more donuts and introductions all around and did you see my new skateboard? And, oh yeah, keep your voices down cuz some of the little kids are still sleeping…They call it a bungalow but it is a bungalow in name only, the stuff of monied understatement. It is two stories of glass and chrome and wide verandas, of deep-grained wood, polished granite and stainless steel, of Kitchen-Aid and Zero-Cold and whispering air conditioners, of water colors of sea birds and boats, coffee table books of seashells and sailing ships and sculpture, while the actual, wild, living antecedents shimmer just beyond the balcony. It is vistas of nearby surf crashing silent behind glass, of sand dunes and salt grass and mute sea birds in a bubble of climate-controlled silence. Maybe this what we all want, what we all need, a comfort zone, an insulated bubble where we can hunker down and the elements can’t reach us, where we are safe from the world. Maybe that’s what we all want. And maybe we’re all afraid because we know, deep down, it isn’t possible, we can never be safe. They can always find us.

In the midmorning, we set out for the beach in a straggle of flip-flops and straw hats, folding chairs and sun visors. A troop of casual Bedouins.

He is standing thigh deep in the churning water looking up the beach toward me, his hand resting casually on a sharp, white dagger of fiberglass and polyurethane foam. He is smiling that wide smile of young men in love with motion. He is looking up the beach toward me and for an instant there is no distance between us, just two parts of the same thing. And just as quickly he is paddling away…He sits straddling his board with his back to the beach, watching the approaching swells, searching for the darkest trough, the deepest trough, waiting for the biggest wave of the set. He is patient, he will wait a long time but he has a limit and if his limit is reached he will choose a secondary swell and for a brief few moments he will carve a unique and fleeting parabola, boiling blue and white and green, across its face, joyful, temporary and then gone. And he will smile that smile again and turn and paddle out…

They had wedged a little bunker under the grandstand and a lieutenant was peering out, dispensing maps and radio frequencies. I took two of each. Rod jotted some freq. numbers down and then pulled out his shirttail and wrote something on it. I didn’t ask.

We cleared the stadium wall and worked our way toward the river and came upon a guy who had been wounded in the shelling. A corpsman was doing what he could, trying to maintain the appearance that something could be done. We knelt down. We tried to keep our faces blank, so that he couldn’t see in our expressions the inevitability but the blast had taken his left shoulder, arm and all. The chopper was still minutes away. He was lucid, being held by the corpsman, chatting and even laughing a little bit, trying to ignore what was happening. A couple of guys came up carrying a stretcher. One of them was holding a body bag.

Up the beach, someone has a radio playing, the music ebbing on the wind vague, indistinct and dreamy, music to laze in the sun by…and as the wind shifts it takes the music with it…

In the late afternoon a Coast Guard helicopter works its way slowly up the beach, a  young man braced in the open doorway looking at the swimmers and surfers and the people on the beach. They seem to pause just beyond the boy on the white dagger…I don’t want them to pause there, I want them to continue on up the beach, I want them to go about their business…

When the end finally came and they said I could go home, I knew I had to get away. Finally,  the plan had been reduced to its barest minimum, to survive and to go home. To go home and to forget about it. That was the plan. I knew I had to get away.  I thought going home would be far enough. But going home wasn’t going to be far enough for any of us.

Michael Ryerson

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