Thursday, January 30, 2014

FROM DREAM LAKE, OHIO--Chapter Fourteen (Finale)

   We buried what was left of Randy Howard that Sunday. 
   We buried him because no one from his family was able to participate. 
   In a way, I still feel as if the whole thing, the way it ended up, was at least partly my own fault. I know intellectually that that isn't the case. But emotions have been known to override intellect on occasion.
   I was angry. There's no denying that. And I wasn't only angry about the fact that my childhood friend had changed into some kind of John Garfield wannabe.

Charlie Davis: Get yourself a new boy. I retire.
Roberts: What makes you think you can get away with this?
Charlie Davis: What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies.

   That was from the first truly great boxing movie, 1947's Body and Soul. When I first heard Randy deliver the line "Everybody dies" in relation to the news that his ex-girlfriend Rita Gird had passed away, I misinterpreted his point. I thought he meant it like it was no big thing. He had actually meant it more in the heavy philosophical sense used by Garfield in that movie, as in "Is that the best ya got?" He'd known his family was behind it. He had known that RCA was planning on buying up all the houses in our old subdivisions, claiming eminent domain, so they could expand their operation sufficiently to undersell all the other glass manufacturers between Columbus and the Ohio River. He knew it because his brother Rudy had let it slip or had simply told him outright. What Randy and Rita and I had seen that evening years earlier had been Rudy's two employees breaking out of RCA, not breaking in. They'd already broken in, seen the documents, or taken them, documents that proved what the company was planning. Loretta, Rudy and Rocky didn't personally care one way or another, but they did see a way to turn the information to their advantage. Had word gotten out at the wrong time, developers would have come along, made nice offers to the homeowners, then bullied RCA into paying far more for the houses that would be torn down in the name of progress. Instead, Loretta and two of her three sons had decided to blackmail RCA, saying in essence, "Pay us or we'll make sure the developers find out your plans." RCA paid, of course, but the Howards played both ends against the middle, making sure their own developers knew about the plan and knew enough to keep quiet about it so they could cautiously and surreptitiously buy up as much land in the area as possible. Meanwhile, the money rolled in and if a few nosy kids needed to be rubbed out to prevent the whole scam from unraveling, then that was just too bad. Rita Gird hadn't even known what she had seen, but she sure could talk. She told some of her friends from school what had happened that night, as well as about Randy and me being interrogated by the local police the following day. Probably nobody would have put the plan together in their minds. But as far as Loretta Howard was concerned, probably wasn't good enough.
   Randy had convinced her that I was no threat. He'd had to beg through the following night, but he did convince her. His efforts had kept me alive.
   I didn't know any of this the day I marched up to his house and banged my fist on his front door. I'm no tough guy, but I was getting very angry with all these things that I didn't then understand, so I called Randy out and he came out, all smiles and handshakes and assurances. "Let's go for a walk," he said.
    We went across the street from his house and walked up and down the sidewalks we'd discovered as young kids. A lot had changed. The number of houses had tripled. Empty areas through which we had ridden our bikes as kids were now full-fledged family homes, stucco split-levels which, he told me, were destined for the RCA graveyard. He told me everything I've written here, all this and a few other things that don't matter to the story and which I will never reveal. I knew enough, however, to understand that Loretta was not going to let anything muck up her plans. "Everybody dies" can be taken a number of different ways.
    I heard what finally happened before I saw it. The fact is that I only saw it in after images. What I heard was a car humming off in the distance, back the way we had come. I heard the car's engine roar and the tires squeal. I heard what turned out to be Rocky's voice shout "Hey!" as he came up even with Randy and me. Rocky had leaned out the driver's side window, aiming a hand gun of some sort in my direction. It's important that you understand that I only saw what I've mentioned as a fast blur as I fell to the ground and looked to see what was happening. What was happening was that Randy had figured out that Rocky was at long last going to go with what his mother had wanted all along and that was to leave me dead. So Rocky had taken his shot and Randy had seen or suspected or known or whatever and he had fallen on top of me to knock me to the ground. I fell hard and before I even hit the sidewalk I heard two shots, one right on top of the other, loudest things I've ever heard, and then I heard those tires squeal again and then they finally faded and I just lay there for a minute or two, wondering if the reason Randy was still on top of me was that Rocky was coming back--and I felt what turned out to be Randy's blood running down the back of my neck.
   Whatever kind of gun Rocky had used had been powerful enough that two shots had taken off half of Randy's head and most of his right shoulder and blown them into squirming dust particles. 
    Loretta, Rudy and Rocky reached a plea deal with the state's attorney. I had been prepared to testify. Hell, I was more than ready. I was looking forward to telling the jury what Randy had told me. "Against penal interests," the prosecutor would have said had the Howards high-priced lawyer shouted "Hearsay!" They were sunk. They plead guilty to two counts of first degree murder (Randy and Rita's) and one count of conspiracy to commit. In exchange, they received sentences of life without parole. Any other pending charges--such as the deaths of the other kids from school or racketeering--were subsequently dropped. Justice can be weird. 
   So we buried our friend, Randy Howard, the kid from Dream Lake, Ohio,  by way of Florida, the young Air Force recruit who had saved my life by jumping in front of two bullets intended for me. You don't get to pick your family. But when you have all that pressure to conform--even when conforming itself is kind of aberrant--and you buck all that programming to save the life of a guy who has recently disrespected you repeatedly, then I'd say that makes that person a hero. 
   I haven't been back to Dream Lake since the funeral. God willing, I never will return. Instead, I went back to school, just as planned. I did well, met a girl named Margaret, graduated, married Margaret, got a job as a reporter for the Columbus newspaper. Margaret and I never had kids. People wonder, I'm sure, why that is. All our friends have kids and now even grand-kids. We never did, though. She and I talked about it, of course. I tried to explain that I had been through some things that would have ruined me as a father. I would have been far too over-protective and that would have messed the kid up and we'd all end up right back where we were, picking some other kids brains off our shirts. Margaret was cool with that. Somehow or other, she understood.
    The folks at the newspaper treat me nice. No one ever asked me about what happened, although I'm sure most of them have at least heard rumors. Now there's talk the paper may be going strictly digital. Progress, someone called it. I think of it as the same kind of progress that wiped out a lot of young people far too early. Maybe I'm just bitter after all this time. Yeah, probably that's all it is.

Saturday, January 25, 2014


    I am almost always predisposed against new movies, which is why I am particularly elated to tell you that American Hustle (2013) has affected me more than any movie I have seen in several years. To offer an example: when we first meet Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), he is piecing together with quantities of stick-um what another character in the film refers to as an elaborate comb-over. He carries a paunch that would encourage most men to cover themselves up. And he affects a look of cool with ridiculous shaded indoor glasses. He is, in short, the last person in the world that a man would emulate. Yet I guarantee you that by the mid point in this wonderful movie, any man watching this will want to look exactly like this guy, at least for the duration of the film.
    And that will work out fine because before the movie closes, half the women in the audience will want to be either Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), Irving's cohort, or wife Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence). 
    What that amazing sense of identification means is that the writing is tight, the improvisation works, the acting takes the art to new improved levels, the ensemble work among Bale, Lawrence, Adams and Bradley Cooper (the latter playing a Studio 54 version of an FBI agent) is more comfortable than compatible, which is the way it should be, and the cinematography actually implies emotions without beating us over the head with them. 
    American Hustle is everything that The Wolf of Wall Street yearned to be. 
   Based just loosely enough on the ABSCAM entrapment of the late 1970s, American Hustle tells a story of survival--and the cost of that survival. Irving and Sydney (inspired by Melvin Weinberg and Evelyn Knight, respectively), are two world class confidence players who take advantage of gamblers, cheaters and six-time losers hanging 'round the theatre (girl by the whirlpool's looking for a new fool). They are also constantly busy reinventing themselves as anything other than what they really are. Yet what they are isn't half bad. They are both into Duke Ellington while their contemporaries are into Chicago. They both love art while their contemporaries enjoy politics. And they love one another while everyone else apparently loves them. 
   I don't want to give away much more of the plot. However, I will say that the plot is amazing in the way that the tension builds and builds around first, genuine physical danger, and second, the possible loss of friendship. It is this latter point on which everything else in the movie spins. When Irving becomes a genuine friend of the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played with perfect understatement by Jeremy Renner), we genuinely ache at the prospects of the former's behavior injuring the latter. 
    As marvelous as every component of this movie is, we might expect that with a running time of 138 minutes there would be some over-indulgences. That is not the case at all. Every second of this powerful movie is necessary for its resolution. Every grimace, every slight of hand, every weird look from an uncredited Robert DeNiro (he plays the hitman gangster) is necessary. This is very much a movie you will hate to see end. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

   The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is visually impressive. That is also the film's biggest problem. Released only in digital format, the film glistens and shimmers throughout inordinately numerous scenes of sex, drug use and tantrums which we intuit are intended satirically, although director Martin Scorsese gives us no particular reason to believe this is so. This movie is not the Return of A Clockwork Orange, although it might like to be. In order for the movie to be a satire, there would need to be some humor or wit attached and because of the utter lack of humanity expressed by real life sleaze-hole Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the only way to find this movie funny is to dive head first into the lifestyle that is being offered.
   Scorsese does make that head-long dive tempting, of course, because, as with any number of previous black comedy efforts (Goodfellas, for instance), the caricatures drag us in with the excesses of their actions. In one scene where a new employee in Belfort's scam of a phone room stops working two minutes early to clean the fish tank, second in command Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) publicly ridicules the schlep and then swallows the tropical fish in spite. We are also treated (or mistreated) to scenes of pitching midgets at bullseyes, dangling a gay chef out the window of an office building, and a drunken rape scene on an airliner. To the extent that anyone finds this funny depends on the extent to which that person can be led to identify with the Belfort character. 
    And that is where the other problem lies. Because we are denied any viewpoint other than that of Jordan Belfort--and because he ultimately gets away with his amazingly anti-human behavior (to the extent that he wrote a popular memoir about his life and also received one million dollars for the film rights, in addition to creating his own post-prison series of sales seminars), we never actually get to perceive the son of a bitch's actions from any place other than the lofty precipice Scorsese coaxes us onto. 
    The director, of course, is not obligated to dumb down his intentions in order to make them clear. So when the guy leaving the theatre ahead of me turns and says, "I wanna be Jordan. I wanna be that guy. Buying everything. Party time, man," I just shrug and figure there will always be idiots in the world. 
   But maybe I'm the real idiot. After all, what Martin Scorsese is saying here is that taking Quaaludes and snorting cocaine while lying to everyone about everything is a great way to get filthy fucking rich. (I beg your pardon about my use of the fuck word, but if you do see this movie, you will hear it uttered more than five hundred times, setting a record for people who concern themselves with such things.) Maybe I'm crazy to think that what Scorsese wants us to do is be aghast at the celebration of this kind of lifestyle. But let's consider the evidence to the contrary. In The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin (DeNiro, natch) gets away with everything and becomes a star even after kidnapping Johnny Carson (Jerry Lewis) and getting arrested by the FBI. Henry Hill in the aforementioned Goodfellas gave up virtually nothing in exchange for being a rat. Even in the not particularly worthwhile Casino, DeNiro (again!) loses very little in exchange for the demands he makes on life. So a pattern begins to develop. But, hey, let's give Scorsese the benefit of the doubt. Let's pretend or imagine that the real message behind all these movies and several others is that people are collectively stupid and that is the deep down reason why all these charlatans the director "appears" to be celebrating get away with so much; therefore, the man is doing us a public service by playing up just how corrupt our society is as a whole. Even if one is willing to make that colossal concession, then what the fuck is the point in making ten thousand movies with the same actors over and over again, every frame in which those men appear serving to repeat the same tired goddamned point, unless, oh wait, maybe I get it at last! What Scorsese is really doing is he's so fucking smart that what he's doing is he's proving our collective ignorance and worthlessness by lulling us into accepting his ultimately misanthropic viewpoint of humanity itself. In other words, the more commercially successful a given digitally released Scorsese film is, the more fucked up we are as a society. 
   Whew! At last, after all these years, I finally get it. Thank God. Now maybe the motherfucking asshole can make a goddamned movie about some other fucking piece of shit thing, like maybe caterpillars in the Bronx or some such shit because you old bastard, we fucking get it! We don't give a damn that Jonah Hill worked for only $60,000 because he wanted to be near you. We don't care that you think DiCaprio is the next DeNiro. We don't fucking give a good goddamn what you think about anything because the last halfway decent movie you made was Taxi fucking Driver and that was damn near forty years ago, unless you think that swill about New York actually proved anything to anybody. 
   Only a few good things can be said about The Wolf of Wall Street. Margot Robbie is more than just beautiful. She can actually act and the male dominated bullshit of this movie is far beneath her ultimate talents. Also Matthew McConaighey just gets better and better with every film in which he appears and the only reason he has such a brief appearance in this garbage heap of a film is that if he'd stuck around, nobody would have given a shit about Leonardo. 
   The only other thing of a positive nature regarding this teeming load of bile is that the details of the boiler room work are one hundred percent on the money. Every last instant of every scene featuring telephones is so perfect that for those moments you can almost forgive the cast and crew for making what is in the final analysis a morbidly reeking slab of infantile detritus. Get the clap before seeing this movie. You'll want a dose of penicillin afterwards anyway.

Thursday, January 23, 2014


   They kept the temperature in the Bernstein house a very nice seventy-two degrees. I understand that in some parts of the world--even in the United States itself--some people save money in the summer by setting their thermostats up to almost eighty. That's all right for them. Maybe it's a dry heat where they live. But central Ohio in the summertime gets hotter and more humid than you can imagine, even if you've been there. It's so sticky that even when you live through it, there's a part of your mind that makes you forget just how brutal it was, at least until next year, when you swear on your children's eyes that you'll move the thermostat setting higher than last year--even though you never do.
    Mom and Pop Bernstein were waiting for me, along with the apple of their eye, Glynda, the good daughter of the north. She'd left me out to dry and I have to admit, I was not feeling all that positively disposed toward her at the moment. All the same, I had manners. I shook her father's hand and greeted her mother with apologies for what had happened.
   "Things have changed in this city, my boy," she said as her husband looked on with approval.
   "That they have," I agreed. 
   "Both our families live in Israel," Mr. Bernstein said. We were there ourselves as children. In the Middle East, when somebody has a grievance with you, you know about it. You know what terrorism is? You remember the 1972 Olympics, when those bastards--pardon me--those so-called freedom fighters murdered our people? One thing must be said of the Arabs. When they don't like you, they try to kill you. Sometimes they succeed."
   "But these local hooligans," Mrs. Bernstein said, attempting, or so it appeared, to bring her husband back to the main topic.
   "Yes, these hooligans around here," Mr. Bernstein said, taking his wife's hint. "Here they toy with a person like he's a fly without wings. They stick you with their pencil lead points. They poke you and dare you to try to crawl away. They are worse than animals."
   "Daddy, mom, Johnny has no idea what we're all talking about."
   "No," I said. "I believe I do understand. And you folks are right. We were over at their house last night."
   "I told them."
   "Okay. Good. We were over there and the oldest brother, Rudy, he wanted to kill us."
   "Wait a minute. This happened. But the mother? No. She's exactly like you just said, like your father said about the fly without wings. Then after that, I know damned well and you, Glynda, you know it, too."
   "You know that was Rocky Howard. I know it was."
   "Johnny? Yes. It was Rocky."
   Her mother stepped forward and grabbed her daughter's wrist with both hands. "Tell him what he told you."
   "What did he tell you?"
   She looked from her mother to her father and then up at me. "He said that he could kill us at any time. He knew how to hit a moving car with one of his, hit it just right so the car would flip and--"
   "And everyone in the car would be killed," her mother finished for her. 
   I had told the Sheriff one story. Glynda had told them another. I had no doubt that Rocky Howard would have his own version of events. In other words, at least two of us would have lied to local law enforcement. My odds of being selected as one of the two out of three were excellent. I'm bad at math. Randy Howard could probably tell you.
   I looked at Glynda's mom and dad and wanted very much to tell them that everything was going to be all right, that I had a good idea that would get us all out of the mess, a mess that had started a long time ago, back when Randy Howard and Rita Gird and I had witnessed two of Rudy Howard's crew breaking into the RCA building. For what? I still didn't know. One out of ten people in Dream Lake in those days worked at RCA. Another one in ten worked at DuPont. And another one in ten worked at PPG, which was the Pittsburgh Paints factory. Making up a small percentage of the remaining seven out of ten were some modern day hoodlums, people I'd known since I was a kid, people who were crooked even before I knew what crooked was, before I ever had the first clue that the Howard family were not on the up and up.
   I remembered that the investigative journalist, Jack Anderson, visited our college during my first semester there. He was one of the paid lecture guys who came in to enlighten us. I went to watch him, expecting to ask him a snotty question or two about how he justified making his living by seeking out the bad in people. But I didn't ask him that because of something he said in his opening remarks. What he said--and this has stayed with me a long time now--was "If you young people want the world to be free of corruption, then you need to stop being a market for criminals. That means no prostitution, no drugs, and no politics."
   I had to do something. I had unwittingly brought this plague down on this family, not to mention some of the kids from school who it looked like the Howards had bumped off. I guess not everything was that much different from the way they handled it in the Middle East.
   "I need to find out what it was exactly that those two guys were looking for at RCA."
   Glynda shook her head. "If that was what this was all about, don't you think they would have killed you too? Already?"
   I shrugged, but I suspected that the reason I was still walking around free and alive had a lot to do with my earlier friendship with Randy. He might have been the youngest and full of piss, but his mom had cared enough about him to send him to the military to straighten him out. So his opinions would have mattered.
   "I'm going to call Randy. Can I use your phone?"
   What I did not know was that Randy wanted to talk with me even more than I did with him.
   We both got our chance.


Monday, January 20, 2014


   On the ride back to Glynda's house I stared out the taxi cab window. On the surface, as well as deep down, little if anything had changed in the intervening two years. The big shift hung in the middle. Dream Lake continued spreading out from north of Lancaster Pike to south of Washington Court house, east of Westfall and west of Circleville. Ducks continued to sit, bob their heads beneath the thick surface. Old men and young children cast their lines in hope of uncontaminated perch, catfish, or sunfish. There had even been unconfirmed stories of the occasional small-mouth bass, although I'd never seen one myself. I'd also never seen a Godspeed Development truck parked along the edge of the Lancaster Pike entrance, but one sat there this day, humming against the reflective glow of the mid-day sun. A different truck, a little smaller, with the same company name, had sat in front of the abandoned building around which Randy and I had, years earlier, pulled wheelies while dodging local traffic.
   The Beavers General Grocery (which this day sold gasoline for sixty-three cents a gallon) remained located off Kingston Street near where the Elk Creek had dried up thirty years earlier. The Beavers--of Julie Beavers fame--charged a bit more for their bread, eggs and milk than it cost at the local Kroger's in town, yet many people appreciated the convenience of not having to drive so far for this and that, as well as Mr. Beavers reputed wit, something I'd personally never observed but which was rumored to be a milder cross of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Yet in the yard of the Beavers' home, located adjacent to the store, someone had posted a For Sale By Owner sign. Another sign, this one with the name of a real estate firm in red, white and blue letters, leaned against the mailbox of the house across the street. 
    I automatically rolled the cab window as we approached the Daneary Farm to block out the nauseating waft of pig feces, an aroma to which no one, including the Danearys themselves, had ever grown accustomed. Yet in the driveway to the main house was parked a long truck with the words Humane Animal Cremation Services on its side. Evidently the Daneary family had decided to go with a service that injected pentobarbital into their horses. The animal would--according to a flier I had read while sitting in the Sheriff's office--be at peace before it hit the ground. Then HACS would use a wench to relocate the animal from where it had fallen into the truck where a mobile cremation facility took care of business. 
    A work crew lunched on sandwiches while sitting on their their truck tailgates alongside a stretch of the Pike, the crew's barricades reducing the oft-traveled two-lane to a single path. A VW Beetle stalled ahead of us. Germany wouldn't be making any more of those any time soon. While we idled, the driver asked if I minded him listening to the new disco radio station. I told him to forget it. Instead we listened to some kind of news station that proclaimed serial killer Ted Bundy had been apprehended in Florida while in California the Hillside Stranger had claimed his tenth victim. In George, Larry Flynt had been shot and paralyzed. 
   The feet walking along the berm were attached to bodies and faces younger than the ones I would have recognized. A stiffness permeated the strides, as if every step were somehow important, leading to a kind of salvation I would have failed to recognize then as much as now.
   One billboard announced the impending arrival of an Ohio state lottery. Another declared the opening of a new Kingdom Hall for the Jehovah's Witnesses.
   The ride out to the Bernsteins only set me back seven dollars, which wasn't bad for a six mile jaunt, even with traffic delays. 
   My car sat in the rear of the family driveway. I gave serious thought to simply getting in, starting it up and hightailing it back to Columbus, letting the local boys figure things out on their own. I didn't owe Dream Lake anything. No personal responsibilities tied me to this piss ant burg. I was going back to college in less than two weeks. This joint held nothing for me except a string of stupid promises and broken luck. Randy Howard was just a memory and not all that important in the scheme of events. As to the kids from high school snuffed out by whatever means some middle class sociopaths had cooked up--possibly--it was none of my affair. The generation of which I'd been a passive member did not obligate itself to kinship beyond the halls of high school and beyond. Our goal, we had been drilled into believing since day one, was to ring the bells of freedom at the banks and construction companies and farms and factories, to punch in at this time and punch out at another and to ignore the barbarism from across the Atlantic and Pacific and to realize now and for all time that the radicalization of the world at large meant only trouble for those who didn't have the good sense to have been born here and instead had the stupid luck to have grown up somewhere else, so get in line, boys and girls, the milk truck down the road is on the way out and the crematorium awaits all those who enter the darkened caves of ignorance. Bicentennial was really Buy Centennial and woe unto he and she who failed to get in that line. This was 1978 and that meant the Eighties were a-comin', Lord, so get that cross around your neck and check out in that grocery line. Be a good consumer and God would pay you back with interest. Don't think too much, not too hard. That way lies madness. 
   The hood of my car was cold. I jangled the keys in my pocket. I used my shirtsleeve to wipe the bird crap off my windshield. Inside the Bernstein house someone was singing an old song about love in a faraway place. Probably it was Glynda's mother.
   I rang the front doorbell.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


   Sheriff Dwight Kenwood's office, the man himself would be happy to assure you, had not been built for my convenience. I sat on a hardwood chair next to one of his young deputy's desks, struggling not to fidget while the uniformed underling--a clean-cut fellow about my own age--rolled a triplicate form into his typewriter. I recognized the deputy from somewhere, but too many faces had flitted beyond my eyes in the two years since living in Dream Lake and I didn't place him right off. 
   "You went to the Jesuit School, didn't you?" he mentioned casually.
   I nodded. "Through fifth grade."
   "I thought so. You have the look."
   He decided to give up trying to line up the form in his typewriter and looked at me with a half grin. "I just mean you can tell around here. Most of the kids from the School turned out kind of rebellious. I probably would have too. You don't remember me, do you?"
   I admitted I did not.
   "That's all right. Floyd Wilkins. I married Julie Seavers."
  Her I remembered. The girl who grew the prematurely mammoth mammaries. Evidently Floyd felt the need to identify himself as the man who had put a ring on her finger.
   "Anyway, we have some paperwork to handle here. Now, you live up in Columbus, huh? What brings you back down to these parts?"
   "That's a little hard to explain. I used to be friends with Randy Howard."
   His half smile faded. "Rudy Howard's baby brother, huh?"
   "I came down here for a visit. Met up with Glynda Bernstein."
   "That was her Toyota we found you in? By the by, we'll have a tow truck out there soon as we can. Had to put a call in to Washington Court House. Been kind of busy around here lately. Anyway, so you and Glynda was out visiting the Howards, huh?"
   "We were. Then somebody ran into us."
   "Somebody, huh?" 
   If it can be reasonably said that a man can roll triplicate paper into a typewriter with skepticism, then that is what Julie Seaver's husband did. 
   "I didn't see who it was."
   "When I got out of the car, I felt--"
   "So the car, the Toyota, was laying flat after the other car hit you?"
   "What I'm saying is, the other car struck you. Did the car you were in, did it roll?"
   He knew it had. The top had been crushed. I acknowledged the obvious.
   "Anyway, so when it stopped rolling, was your car laying flat, all four wheels on the ground?"
   "It must have been. I mean, when I got out, that's the way it was."
    Floyd Wilkins typed with two fingers, but his speed was decent. "What I'm saying is, the two of you, you and Glynda, you didn't try to roll the car from the inside, did you?"
   I shook my head.
   "Reason I ask is that the left side of that Toyota, it was wrecked all to hell. Slide markings across the front side. Looks like it landed that way is why I remarked on it."
   "All I know, Deputy Wilkins, is that when I got out of the car--"
   "Was the driver of your car, this Bernstein woman, did she get out of the car at the same time as you?"
   "No. She was still kind of woozy."
   "Yeah. That was a hell of a skid you all did. Anyway, so you got out of the car."
   "Yes. The next thing I know, something hit me from behind and--"
   "Something? You mean someone?"
   "I assume it was a person. Unless there's some low flying birds around here knocking people down."
    Deputy Wilkins thought that was pretty funny. "Naw," he said, after a fairly hearty laugh, "We haven't had any reports of prehistoric pterodactyls, if that's what you mean. You see who it was hit you?"
   "No, sir."
   "Did the person, or anyone, say anything or make any sounds?"
   I lied and said no.
   "Anyway, sometime after the time you went down and the time you came out of it this morning, you observed that the woman driving your car, this Glynda Bernstein woman, was no longer in or with the vehicle, right?"
    Sheriff Dwight Kenwood--all two hundred plus pounds of him--rolled out of the center office and waddled over to the deputy's desk. He eyed me with momentary disinterest and took the typed report from his employee.
   "You comfortable, Mr. Davis?"
   I said I was all right.
   "Some people find our furnishings here less than hospitable. We've had some hard monkeys sitting in that same chair you're sitting in. We've had some guys, Wilkins here can attest to this, who have complained the chair is too damn hard. You know what I tell them?"
   I said I did not know.
   "I tell them it wasn't built for their convenience. Now you've given Deputy Wilkins here your statement. Is there anything you wish to add to this legal document before we proceed with our investigation? Anything you can think of that might be pertinent?"
   I said there was nothing.
   "You won't mind, then, affixing your signature attesting that the statement contained herein is truthful and complete to the best of your knowledge under penalty of perjury, blah blah blah, is that right?"
   I accepted the pen offered by Deputy Wilkins--husband of Julie Seavers--and signed and dated the triplicate document with my left hand.
   Floyd Wilkins admired my signature and handed the form to his boss. The Sheriff inspected it once again. "Very good. Now I suppose it would surprise you, Mr. Davis, if we were to inform you that Ms. Bernstein phoned our office a few minutes ago?"
   "Is she all right?"
   "No worse for the wear," Sheriff Kenwood replied, not looking up from the document I'd signed. "Nasty head bump is the way she put it. No broken bones. You weren't so lucky, I see. How's the arm?"
   I held up the cast surrounding my right limb. "Pain pills are helping."
   "That's good," said the Sheriff. "Now what do you think Ms. Bernstein said about what happened after you extricated yourself from her vehicle?"
   "Seeing as I was knocked out, I wouldn't hazard a guess."
   "She says that a gentleman named Rockwell Howard--his friends call him Rocky--ordered her to get into his car and he drove her to her parents home without further incident. She says that she was reluctant to go with Mr. Howard and to leave you behind, but that Mr. Howard insisted. Does that jive with your recollection?"
   "I have no way of knowing what happened between the time--"
   "Yes, yes. I understand. I suppose the fact that Rockwell Howard and his brothers and their mother are well-known associates of our little local criminal enterprise here in Dream Lake completely escaped your attention, is that right?"
    "May I go?"
   "Deputy, do we have charges to level against Mr. Davis at this time?"
   "Not at this time, Chief."
   "Then you are most free to go. I would recommend that you confine yourself to this county for the next several days. I hope that is not inconvenient."
   "Your advice was not delivered for my convenience."
   Both men shared a good laugh at that remark. 
   Kenwood said, "I took the liberty of telephoning your father. He says your mother and him will be happy to have you stay there while we further investigate matters. You do realize, don't you, that we have had a number of suspicious traffic fatalities here lately?"
   I chose not to respond. Instead I took my wallet from Wilkins, used the pay phone outside the Sheriff's Office to call a taxi. I wanted to get my car back from the Bernstein's driveway. I also wanted to talk to Glynda Bernstein.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


   Glynda and I never made it as far as Rita's mom's house, of course. Had we made it that far, things would have turned out differently. Instead, things happened they way they did, which is often enough the way things do go in real life. 
   One of the ways things went was that we had to turn left off Chippewa Drive onto the Lancaster Pike Trail. No stop sign had ever existed on Chippewa preparatory for the turn, but frequent travelers knew enough to slow down because the curve began with a gradation that switched up fast and became nearly a ninety degree bend. Glynda, who was driving, had taken this road hundreds of times, as had I. In fact, I remember with some clarity glimpsing the back of the Stop sign that greeted travelers approaching the intersection on Lancaster Pike. We slowed, allowed the center of gravity to shift until it was actually somewhere beyond the body of the car, then accelerated into the sharp turn to avoid skidding. Everyone under thirty drove exactly that way there and I could not remember hearing about any accidents, which, come to think of it, was a little surprising, particularly in light of what happened to us. Just as Glynda eased off on the gas to come out of the turn, slow motion perceptions squeezed our minds. I could see in amazing detail the way her knuckles whitened as she gripped the steering wheel hard. I could feel a rumble beneath our seats even before I heard the remarkably slow bend and crunch and scream of metal on metal. My left shoulder, left leg, left side of my face--everything on the left, including Glynda--pulled back the way we had just come while the head-lighted road in front of us slipped the other way. Glynda made what I can only describe as a pained sound of wonder, while I tried and failed to raise my arm to grab the wheel--an instinctive move and one which in all likelihood it was good that I did not accomplish. Then in the same perfectly segmented instant, perceived speed returned to normal as we flipped off what turned out to be a tree stump, hit the air, rolled a half turn and landed--hard, I might add--in the outer reaches of a soy bean field. 
   Glynda's head was bleeding. That was the first thing I saw when I came to, however many minutes later. We were lying on our side, or the car was, at any rate, the left side. I could still feel the wheels spinning hopelessly. And Glynda's head seeped red liquid. She was groaning a different sound now and that sound came out with less wonder and more pain than earlier. I kept trying to reach her, only vaguely aware that something was preventing me--something was holding me back. The car was fighting me! How? Then my right hand went to the seat belt clip without my conscious mind even issuing the order. The belt released and I rolled free enough to cradle Glynda's head. Her eyes were open about halfway. She's not dead, I said to myself. You're not dead. You two can walk away from whatever this is. 
   I was holding myself in place with my right arm. But that arm hurt very badly, although I didn't connect the car crash with the pain. With difficulty I put my free hand on the gash on Glynda's forehead. Then I leaned on the horn. 
   The horn's blare sounded a lot weaker than I expected. Still, I figured there was at least a chance someone would find us here and get us to a hospital or get us out of the car before the crash somehow caused the gas tank to explode or whatever was supposed to happen in this kind of thing. Randy Howard would have known what to do in this situation, naturally. And although at one time I would have simply asked myself "What would Randy do?" to get some sort of direction, our friendship was now strained and all I could think was how glad I was that he hadn't been here to see this.
   The blare seemed to be aggravating Glynda, so I lifted my hand from it and went back to putting pressure to her head wound. When the horn stopped, I could hear, clear as frogs croaking at the moon on a cloudless night, the clocking of approaching heels.
   Under normal circumstances--whatever normal meant following a very bad car wreck--I would have welcomed the sound as indicating that some form of benevolence was approaching. But the clocking did not portend love of one's fellow man. For some reason, I envisioned an off duty sheriff's deputy lumbering toward us, his thumbs cocked in his belt loops, a wad of Mail Pouch between cheek and gum, a pair of mirrored sunglasses covering his eyes (even on a night like this), and a snarl half bemused, half bored. 
   The voice, when it came, blew apart such fanciful illusions. The voice, when it spoke, in no way reflected even the most soured and embittered of law enforcement officers. The voice percolated a sound somewhere between coffee grounds and burned charcoal.
   "Get the fuck out the car."
   I intended to speak, to say something light and airy, something like, "We'd love to, old man, but the lady and I are somewhat bleeding to death, don't you see?" But as I opened my mouth to speak, a large ball of blood gurgled up from God knows where, clogged in my throat for just a moment, then came rolling out passed my teeth and lips, landing with no sound on my shoulder. 
   "Don't make me roll this car, assholes."
   It's amazing how a person can cling to that most naive of hopes, to wit, that one's fellow man will, in such an emergency, feign brutality merely to calm the victims rather than to react in an overtly panicked manner. With the clog of blood out of my throat, I managed to burble the words, "We can't get out."
   The clocking of heels had stopped. I could feel the man's presence near the vehicle. He was probably standing there, admiring the way the wheels on the right side of the car continued to spin mindlessly.
   "Don't move," the voice said and in the next instant the car disobeyed on our behalf as it began rocking on its side. Glynda moaned. Her face was illuminated by the dashboard which, to my surprise, remained lit even after the crash. 
    Then, in less time than it takes to say "Don't move," the car rolled over to the right, landing with some considerable force on all four wheels. I smashed my head on the car's ceiling. My already injured right arm yelped in pain. Glynda began to stir.
   "This isn't Mrs. Gird's house," she mumbled.
   "We're going to be okay, Glynda. We had an accident. Someone's helping us." How naive could I have been?
   I looked around from inside the car. Whoever was out there was not doing much to make himself visible. 
   Glynda put both hands to her head. I unclasped her seat belt. She bent her legs at the knees. "Nothing broken here. Except my head. Are you all right?"
   "Yeah, I'm fine." I was pretty sure my right arm was broken, but under the circumstances, we were alive and talking, so that would have to pass for fine.
   "Someone's helping us? What happened? Who hit us?"
   While we pause to contemplate my naivete, please add to the evaluation the embarrassing fact that it had not occurred to me that someone had run into us as we were coming out of the curve. It was not until the second she asked who had done it that I realized someone had. 
   "I told you get the fuck out the car."
   Even if someone had struck the car, there was no question that we had done nothing wrong. This accident had been the fault of the other driver. The other driver was probably the owner of that voice and those clocking heels. Was this guy going to try to blame us for what happened?
   Using my left arm--the one that didn't feel broken--I opened the passenger side door. When you take that first step after a car crash, you typically feel far less pain because the adrenaline pumping through you, or the endorphins, or some aspect of body chemistry, kicks in to mask or block the pain that you'll be feeling soon enough. So when I opened that door and swung my legs around to get out, I did not feel then what would shortly be a tremendously cold agony just above my right knee cap. At that point in the process, the only real pain I felt was my arm, just below the bicep.  
   I had not much more than put full weight on my feet when I felt a soft rubber thing explode against the back of my head. In the tenth of a second of consciousness left before I succumbed and blacked out, I heard myself wonder if that pain had been a delayed part of the crash. 
   What I did not know as I fell face down into the wet grizzle of old farm land was that the man with the charcoal voice and clocking heels had swung a blackjack against my skull. What I also did not know at that moment was that the man in question was one Rocky Howard, the quiet brother, the subdued brother, the considerate and apple of his mother's eye brother, went out once with Glynda brother, man with a blackjack brother.
   I fell into the dirt. 
   When I came out of the surprising comfort of unconsciousness, the sun was just lifting itself over the rim of the body of water that had given the town its name. The protective hormones had returned to their pleasant hibernation. The right half of my body twisted in front of my eyes as I tried and failed to get to my feet. After several sad attempts, I at last pulled myself up and leaned against Glynda's abandoned car. 
   She was gone. So was Rocky Howard. All that was left was a broken car, a long spiral of black skid marks, and a gopher that poked its head up out of a small mound in the field to see what all this trouble was about. Oh, and there was me, leaning against that car, wondering what to do about everything.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


   Loretta Howard--mother of Rudy, Rocky and Randy--in the words of a popular song of the day, didn't take no mess.
   Standing all of five-three, she entered her expansive living room wearing a long, white terry cloth robe, one which accentuated her latent, albeit leather, Florida tan. She wore pink footies that intermingled with the shag carpeting as she walked. Around her neck hung a long white necklace and a long red necklace and a long yellow one. Her dark hair was not in curlers, although for an instant I imagined that it was. While her eyes were not what you might think of as glassy, they did appear to lack a certain focus in that she avoided looking at Glynda and me while referencing us in the discussion.
   Upon her entrance into the living area, Rudy stopped pacing and sat down with a pre-obedient haste. Randy lifted his beer bottle and wiped off the water ring that had formed on the coffee table. I began to stand up but Randy and Rudy both made hand gestures to forget it. Glynda placed an open palm on my knee.
   "I've told you and told you and told you. Haven't I told you boys a thousand times? There is such a thing as propriety. Did they teach you anything about propriety in the Air Force? Rudy, did they instruct you in the finer points at that community college you flunked out of? No, I suppose they did not. Of all my boys, only my middle son understands how things are supposed to work. Where is Rocky now?"
   Rudy leaned forward without apparent purpose as Randy replied, "He's out, ma."
   "Out? Okay. I can see that he isn't here. If he isn't here, my bright young fly boy, then I might be able to gather that he is out. Would one of you like to inform me where it is that Rocky is out to?"
   This time Randy slouched as Rudy answered. "Aw, ma, you know he never tells us nothing about what he's doing. He's a loose cannon. Could be anywhere."
   She looked from one son to the other, then almost but not quite looked at me, saying, "I remember you. Your mother used to work at the piece goods store downtown. What's your name?"
   "John Davis."
   "John Davis? Yes, I remember. You were with Randall here when we had the problem with Rudy's felonious cohorts. The two maladjusted nimrods who got this problem started for us."
   Glynda cleared her throat. Mrs. Howard tilted her head as if only now aware that another woman was in the room. "You I do not recognize."
   "Glynda Bernstein, ma'am." Her hand did not leave my knee.
   "Glynda Bernstein? Oh, the Jewish family from Lancaster Pike. Sorry, my dear. I should have recognized you."
   "We've never met, ma'am."
   "All the same. So the two of you, from what I've been hearing from my sick room--the room where I would be right now if these two prodigals of mine could be trusted across the street--is that you are quite naturally confused over the demise of your friend. The friend named--would somebody like to remind their mother of the child's name, please?"
   "Rita Gird," Randy and Rudy said together.
   "Rita Gird. Traffic accident, alcohol abuse, depression. A troublesome combination. Do you all mind if I sit down?"
   None of us spoke as Loretta Howard--not without some small ceremony (indeed, nearly everything the woman did required parenthetical descriptors)--sat down cross-legged on her carpet right in front of us. "You are both no doubt troubled by the coincidence of several of your classmates departing this mortal coil so soon after graduation. It is possible, in some cosmic sense, that their own behavior may have contributed to their premature exits. One person witnesses something. She thinks it suspicious. She communicates this suspicion to someone else. That someone embellishes the story. The next thing you know, the local and state law enforcement agencies choose to investigate a harmless woman such as myself. They bandy about with slanderous accusations, accusations which I in turn must handle with attorney fees, which one might say is simply the cost of doing business. So I then have to weigh that expense against the risk of doing nothing. I also have to consider the cost of doing something--something more extreme. Something extra-legal. Am I making sense to you children?"
   Glynda again cleared her throat, then said, "Somewhere in all that, there may have been a threat."
   Mrs. Howard tipped her head in my general direction. "Does this one speak for you?"
   I was a little surprised that anyone was asking my opinion about anything. I said, "I usually speak for myself. Look, basically, we just don't know what's going on. Probably we don't need to know what's going on. Probably, if we were real smart, we'd just get our hats and coats and get the hell out of here, if that's all right with everybody."
   "It sounds to me," Glynda said, "that what you're suggesting, ma'am, is that these friends of ours--"
   "I never suggest anything, young lady. I am far too along in the tooth for making suggestions. What I do instead is recommend. It's not quite the same thing, is it?"
   I'd always thought it was, but hearing her say it, I guessed I'd been wrong.
   "I recommend that you listen. Rudy here, God bless him, was never given the gift of brains. I'm sorry, Rudy, but we all know it's the truth. What you are--what he is--is a good son who takes orders better than anyone who ever lived. The problem is he can't think on his own. Never could. Now Randy here, he can think just fine. Sometimes he thinks so clear it scares me. But he has a rebellious streak. Perhaps it was the times that did it to him. In any event, I decided he needed to learn some discipline and we arranged for his enlistment. I am still waiting to see the benefit in that arrangement."
   "What about Rocky?"
   "You do know my middle son, don't you, young lady?"
   "Yes, ma'am. He and I went out together once."
   Loretta Howard's perpetually swiveling head froze in place for just an instant, as if she were derailed by the possibilities inherent in the statement she had just heard. Her eyelids batted a few times, then she proceeded, apparently unruffled for the moment. "Then you know how subdued he is. I should say, his exterior is subdued. On the inside, that boy thinks all the time. Whenever I have one of my sick spells, it is always Rocky to whom I turn. But as I am told that Rocky is temporarily unavailable, I must decide on my own the appropriate course of action. These two have expressed their displeasure with my autocratic nature. But I trust you two do not mind leaving the decision up to me?"
   "What decision is that, ma'am?"
   "Why, young lady, the decision about whether the two of you will walk out of here this afternoon."
   My knee was just about to break from the pressure Glynda's hand was exerting. I pushed it away and said, "While you're thinking about that, you should maybe ask yourself what kind of risk the two of us actually pose. I mean, let's face it, neither one of us really understands what's going on for sure."
   Mrs. Howard smiled a malevolent smile. She said, "If that were all there were to this, you'd be dead already. No, I think we know enough about you, Mr. Davis, to prevent you from speculating. Randy, didn't you tell me that this boy had defrauded the telephone company on some long distance calls?"
   Randy grunted in the affirmative.
   "I believe that the total loss to ATT was in the neighborhood of $50,000, wasn't it?"
   "Lady, you have the wrong guy."
   "For your sake, I hope not, Mr. Davis." She turned--more or less-toward Glynda. "And you, young lady, I am certain that you have been operating a home of ill fame, hasn't she, Randy?"
   Again Randy emitted a grunt and a nod.
   "I most certainly have not!"
   "No, no, I am quite certain that we could provide the proper documentation to support both charges. The benefits of being connected to important people both in and out of the legal system has its advantages, I must say. Therefore, to answer my own question about the promise of the two of you leaving here together with troubled countenances, rather than not at all, I would recommend that you consider the question yourselves. Do you wish to confront a costly and unfortunate legal process which you will ultimately lose, or would you rather leave here and let matters work themselves out?"
   Rudy said, "Ma, I wouldn't trust these people. You don't know them that well."
   "Shut up. The sound of your simpering causes my head to throb. So, then, young people, will you follow my recommendation?"
   "Yes, ma'am."
   "Good! That makes me happy. And happiness is so fleeting these days. Rudy, help me to my feet."
    Her oldest son helped lift his mother to stand erect. She rose as if at one time in the not too distant past, she had been a ballerina. She waved one arm in the direction of the front door. "Please don't forget to take your hats and coats."
   We hadn't actually worn either of those things. We just nodded our heads with an enthusiasm that would have embarrassed an Uncle Tom and got the hell out of there.
   As we drove back up the street the way we had come, neither of us spoke for several minutes. At last, Glynda broke the silence. "We're not forgetting about this, are we?"
    I never liked being bullied. I hated it and suffered it in grade school, fought back against it successfully in high school, and it had never materialized in college. I wasn't about to start giving in now. I said, "We are not forgetting anything."
   "Where should we go now?"
   "If you know where Rita's mom lives, let's go there."
   She said she did. That's where we went.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


   I never liked Rudy. No one I ever met liked him and that included the mother upon whom he uncharacteristically doted. Mrs. Howard, to Rudy, was like the seldom-seen matriarch in an old Hitchcock movie, which I suppose made Rudy a contemporary Claude Rains, forever setting up other people with straight lines to use against him. So whenever he would bring her, let's say, the slice of lemon meringue pie he believed she had requested, she would typically respond in an oxidized voice, "Lemon meringue? Did I ask for lemon meringue? Who in this house would even think to ask for lemon meringue? Lemon meringue is something you give to people at a wake, people you don't especially like, so you bring that out from the back of the refrigerator. Thank you, Rudy, for relegating me to such a position in my own household." Rudy, in turn, would earnestly whine, "Aw, ma, that's what I heard you ask for. I must have rocks in my head. What can I bring you instead?" And Mrs. Howard, following a most deliberate and agonizingly heavy sigh, would unleash the response, "If it isn't too much trouble for my oldest son to bring his dying mother a thin slice of key lime pie, from Holsten's Bakery, not that putrid Kroger's imitation rat poison, thank you very much." Mrs. Howard didn't have much in the way of respect for anyone, except possibly Randy, clearly the favorite of all her favorite sons. And it was Randy, not Rudy, who answered the door on which Glynda and I knocked.
    "Johnny! Glynda Bernstein! What the Sam hill? Come in, guys! It's just me and mom and Rudy hanging out. Come on in."
   As we smiled and made our way over to the sofa where Randy waved us to rest ourselves, we could hear the matriarch in all her dignity. "Rudy!"
   "Ma, I'm sitting right here. Don't shout, okay?"
   "See who was at the door."
   "Randy? Who is it?"
   "Don't shout, you oaf!"
   "Sorry, ma."
   I hollered from the living room our names and was met with silence.
   After I half-heartedly apologized to Randy for my earlier behavior, Glynda took charge of the conversation.
   "We were really sorry to hear about Rita."
   When you have known someone throughout the formative years of your life, you may discover that you believe you can read that person's body language, possibly even in advance of the actions themselves. I expected to see Randy break into a face full of smile, then to watch as that smile broke into pieces with some sort of realization dawning upon him. I anticipated fallen shoulders, a straightening of previously crossed legs, a cessation of nervous foot tapping, a tightening of the finger muscles. What I witnessed instead--and caught a glimpse of Glynda reacting to as well--was a mild shrug of the shoulders as he twisted the cap from first one and then another bottle of Heineken. As he handed the bottles across the coffee table, he said, "Everybody dies, huh?"
   While I was absorbing that amazing question, Glynda leaned forward to take her beer and said, "You two dated a long time. It's weird you wouldn't be affected by it."
   "It is weird, huh? Lot of people from our class messed themselves up. Well, I never saw anybody in my squadron crack up. If they could handle it--"
   "Okay, look, nobody cares at all about the Air Force."
   "Yeah, oh. What we all have in common is not the Air Force. What we have in common, among other things, is Rita."
   Glynda had changed more than I'd realized. She'd always been sort of spunky, but now she was downright confrontational. I kind of liked it.
   "Johnny was telling me about that time the three of you saw some guys breaking into the RCA place. I guess your brother went all gorilla about it."
   "That was supposed to be private stuff, but yeah, I remember."
   "Who were those guys?"
   Here Randy did physically transform. His beer-holding hand propped the shiny green bottle on the coffee table. His ultra-relaxed posture stiffened as he appeared to be trying to look even more comfortable than usual. The smile had left town several sentences earlier.
   "I wouldn't worry about it too much, if I were you, Glynda."
   "Nice bike in the driveway. Yours?"
   He nodded, but the smile didn't return. "Honda CB 750. Four cylinder."
   "I know. My dad has one. It's a superbike."
   "That's what they call it."
   "Your dad can afford one."
   Ouch. Just the slightest hint of an anti-Semitic slur.
   "How can you?"
   "We're doing all right, as you can see."
    He was right about that, but what we really could see was Rudy walk into the room before he even got out of the chair next to the bed in his mother's room. That green leisure suit glowed like strobe lights made from rhinestones. Two years older than the last time I'd seen him, he now came equipped with a gaudy pair of large plastic-framed glasses and a gold chain that dangled down the front of his shirt. A hint of gray brushed into his temples. His tan was Hollywood. His eyes were coal. 
    "Who's the Jew bitch?"
    I got to my feet. "Rudy, this is Glynda. She's a friend of mine. I know this is your house, but I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't say that."
   Glynda, who hadn't gotten to her feet, laughed. She didn't say anything yet.
   "I remember you. John Davis, right?"
   He didn't offer to shake hands. I didn't offer to respond.
   "I knew this stupid thing was gonna blow up in our faces, Randy."
   Randy pushed himself out of his chair. He stood next to his brother. They both looked through us. My long time friend said, "This will start getting very suspicious."
   "Shut up. You think I don't realize that? I got some thinking to do. What do these two piss ants know about anything?"
   "They don't know what they know, that's what they know."
   Rudy paced while Randy watched. "I got too much going on to worry about this garbage. I got way too much. You been flying the friendly skies. You think Rocky helps me with anything? You know better than that. He just takes his cut. Does what he wants. Comes by, mumbles he needs gas money, helps himself, drives off. He was anybody else, I'd have sawed off his hands. So I got to take care of ma while you're defending your country or whatever. Nice. Then the business starts to fall apart. Great. Who helps me? Who helps my guys stay out of trouble? Jesus Joseph and Mary. Nobody, that's who."
   Randy shook his head. "I'm only in for two more years."
   "Shut up about two more years. I don't want to hear about two more years. You want to go be a hero in a uniform, go ahead. Just don't expect everything to be the same when you come home next time."
   I had my own version of domestic tranquility to struggle with at my parents' house, which was one reason I no longer lived at home. I didn't need to join in with the Howard's mess. Evidently I allowed my boredom to show.
   Rudy said, "You, bean pole. Sit the fuck down."
   I sat. Glynda put a hand on my knee. She said, "Eight kids, Randy. Eight of us. Is this what your big brother has been doing since high school?"
   Rudy's arm shot out fast. It shot across the room so fast I had responded to it before I even completely knew what was happening. At the end of his arm a fist had knotted itself up and flew in the direction of Glynda's face. I had had first hand experience with that fist years earlier. Glynda was too nice a girl to have to add that to her memories. I caught that flying fist in my hand. That the bones in my own hand did not crumble on impact was a considerable blessing. Yet Glynda did not so much as flinch.
   While I held his fist in my hand, I thought about twisting his wrist so that he would crumble to his knees and possibly beg me to let him go. The problem with that type of amateurish jujitsu move was that once you released your opponent, he was invariably more angry and determined to harm you than before. I studied his black eyes while trying to decide what to do. There didn't appear to be any mirror-to-the-soul action going on. His expression didn't even register surprise. Me stopping him from slugging a woman was just another disappointment in an already disappointing visit. C'est la vie.
   When the pressure went out of Rudy's arm, I dropped his fist. The arm it punctuated fell to its owner's side. 
   Unfortunately, Rudy had two arms and the second one also came with a hand. That second hand was out of its pocket faster than the first and knocked the side of my head halfway across the room. Since the side of my head is attached to the rest of me, I followed the trajectory and landed in a pile on the carpet. 
   When I turned to get up, Randy's foot (attached as it was to one of his legs) pressed against my chest and held me down. He said, "You have maybe one chance of walking away from this. You take Glynda, you leave here, you forget everything you think you know."
    Rudy grunted. "Look who's giving orders now."
   "I'll square things here, John. But you give me your word. Don't take all day to think about it."
   For the first time I noticed Randy was beginning to sound a lot like Rudy. It was not an attractive feature.
   We probably could have gotten away, had things worked out differently. It is entirely possible that I could have lied to Randy and Rudy and they would have let us go. Thinking back on it now, I'm sure we would have gotten out of there without further incident. But life is not a movie, or a TV show, or even a theatrical presentation of a stage show musical. Nope, life is often enough fraught with people who will do things you sincerely wish they had not done--and at the most inopportune times. Just as Randy had said what he'd said, Glynda, apparently disgusted with the entire affair, decided that this was the perfect time to expectorate right in Rudy's extremely tanned face. And so she spat. Rudy didn't even have a chance to blink. The spittle landed between his cheek and eye.
   He cocked his head to one side, as if in disbelief. I crawled out from under Randy's foot. Even Glynda looked shocked as Rudy, at long last, removed a handkerchief from the pocket of his green leisure suit and wiped his face. 
   Rudy was about to express his displeasure with us. That was when the family matriarch walked into the room.


Saturday, January 4, 2014


   "Neither one of us has changed in the least. Have you noticed?"
   That was Glynda Bernstein, sitting on the stool next to me at the bar in the L-K Motel in Dream Lake. She smelled vaguely of peppermint. Other than that, she had called it, at least for her part. She looked just as she had two years earlier at graduation.
   "The kids from our class," she went on. "The ones who stuck around, anyway, they've really aged. Not so much physically, but--"
   "Their attitudes?"
   "Yeah! I mean, it's not as if I expected everyone to keep on hanging out together, going to the high school games and all. Who cares about that now, right?"
   "I don't know. They're all so serious. Like, you remember Max Weldon?"
   "A little. The guy with one eye looking at Cleveland, the other at Cincinnati?"
   "Yep. That's him. Eyeball Weldon. I saw him at the grocery last week. All pale and withdrawn, just like he'd always been. But he had this shrew of a bitch with him, tossing toilet paper and Rice Crispies in the cart, bossing him around. Baby screaming. God, he looked miserable."
   "I thought he was going to go to medical school?"
   She smiled. The smile carried no mirth. "That's what we all thought. He knocked up Renee Throckmorton, apparently the night of senior prom. Goodbye, Ohio State. Goodbye, six-figure income. Goodbye, happy life."
   "Hello, Pampers."
   "And it's not just Max, who was always a shit anyway."
   "Wait. What do you mean?"
   "I mean that a lot of those guys in that clique, they weren't the angels they were made out to be."
   "I didn't really know any of them very well."
   "No, because you were like a wallflower. Believe me, you were better off. You remember that Chemistry test scandal?"
   I did not remember much about Chemistry at all.
   "You've forgotten that? Ms. Larsen made everyone take the test over the next day because everyone did too well, so she decided everyone had cheated?"
   "I do remember now. I remember being mad because I had studied my brains out--"
   "Right! Me too!"
   "I got an eighty-six, which was the best I'd ever gotten in that class, and Larsen said we had to take it again. I stood up."
   "That's right--"
   "I said I didn't cheat and it wasn't fair."
   "Right. She told you and me that we were supposed to learn the material, not just memorize it. Stupid twat. I hated her."
   "But all those potential valedictorians?"
   "Every damn one of them cheated. Then they flunked the retake and the principal voided the retake because it might upset the football coach. Bunch of dicks, the lot of them."
   I watched Glynda Bernstein toss back her rum and coke, drop the glass hard and smile at the bartender for another. Not for the first time, I realized that I'd had very little idea what was going on in the minds of the people I had virtually idolized for four years.
   "Let's talk about Rita."
   "Yes. Rita. Now Rita I will miss."
   "You'll think I'm paranoid."
   "What? Johnny Davis, the cute brainy guy from the back of the classroom? Paranoid? I don't believe it."
   "Believe it. You ever meet Rudy Howard?"
   "Randy's brother? I saw him a couple times. Did he always dress like that?"
   "Sure did. Green leisure suit. Talked like an Italian gangster."
   "Nothing like Randy at all, huh?"
   "Nope. Randy sort of tolerated him. But that guy always took good care of their mom. Her I never met, but I heard her wailing every time I went over there. 'Rudy, bring me apricots! Bring me a taco!' It was always something."
   "So what does Rudy have to do with anything now?"
   "Probably not much. A few years back, Randy and Rita and I caught a couple guys trying to break into RCA after hours. Rudy gave Randy and me hell about it. I mean, he was very upset. I got the impression those guys worked for Rudy in some way."
   "What do you mean, worked?"
   "Well, nobody knows exactly where Rudy gets his money."
   "That family had it to burn."
   "Sure looked that way, huh? The dad was never around, mom always sick, but each brother seemed to always have walking around money."
   "Rocky is nice."
   "Now I never knew him at all."
   "He and I--"
   "Oh. Serious?"
   "No. Just once. He was sweet. Just too quiet. I mean, there's mysterious quiet and weird quiet. He was not all that mysterious."
    I caught her looking at me from the corners of her eyes. She said, "There've been a few of our classmates who've died since graduation. At least eight, counting Rita."
   "Bobby Fleece, Rex Tisdale, Keith Hearndon, Rita, Margery Slone, Alice--I can't remember her last name, which is terrible of me--Maria Talle, and Kelly Wilder. Each one either a car accident or suicide. Christ, we were supposed to be the greatest class of our generation, remember? The Bicentennials?"
   I remembered. Eight? Eight kids? There had only been eighty-eight of us in the class. Glynda stirred her drink and watched the ice. "You want to talk paranoia? Ask yourself what those eight people had in common."
   "All from Dream Lake. All from our high school. All from our graduating class. All dead over the last year and a half."
   Her thin eyebrows crinkled. "None of them were from the ultra popular clique."
     "So what are we saying?"
    Her eyebrows straightened as she placed the palm of her hand on my wrist. She radiated a certain wildness. This was the most time I'd ever spent with her. Half an hour. I'd always admired her defiant attitude. But I'd never considered before just how much her intensity bubbled up from right below the surface. When someone cracks his knuckle, what really happens is a fluid fills into the gap where the joint gets separated. The crack sound is actually an air bubble bursting. The energy in her was like a pair of stiff hands suddenly joined together for a long-overdue knuckle-popping. 
   "What we're saying is that you told me that Randy had gone weird from the Air Force. Rita's dead and in the ground and he doesn't even mention it. Seven other people from our class are dead. Randy's brother acts like a goon. Who but a goon could dress like that and not worry that somebody'd laugh at him?"
   "You ever read Orwell?"
   She laughed. "I get it. The goosestep march. The Germans utilized that ridiculous step because they knew no one would have the courage to laugh at them."
   Where in the hell had Glynda Bernstein been in high school? What had I been doing that I only passingly noticed her? Hanging out with Randy?
   "You know what we need to do, don't you?"
   I knew what I wanted to do, but I was fairly certain it wasn't the same thing she had in mind. I just stared back at her.
   She said, "No, not that. At least, not just yet."
   I was an opened book, evidently.
   She said, "We need to go visit Randy. Maybe we can make Rudy a little nervous."
   Not just yet? Okee-dokey. 
   "Want me to get the tab?"
   I shook my head and dropped a card on the counter. "I don't leave home without it." 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014


   James Garrison was born in Knoxville, Iowa, on 20th November, 1921. His family moved to Chicago and after Pearl Harbor Garrison joined the U.S. Army. In 1942 he took part in the fighting in Europe.
   After the war Garrison attended Tulane Law School in New Orleans. He then joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation and served as a special agent in Seattle and Tacoma. In 1954 Garrison returned to New Orleans where he became assistant district attorney.
   In 1961, he was elected as the city's district attorney. He developed a good reputation and in his first two years he never lost a case. According to Joan Mellen, the author of A Farewell to Justice (2005): "He hired the first woman assistant attorney in New Orleans history, Louise Korns, who had been first in her class at Tulane, and entrusted most of the research to her... Garrison's was the first office to employ full-time police investigators, among them Louis Ivon... Garrison dressed nattily in three-piece suits and he was not corrupt, rejecting the Napoleonic premise that political office was a form of private property."
   Three days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Garrison brought in David Ferrie for questioning. The D.A. had been informed by Jack Martin, a part-time private investigator, that Ferrie had known Lee Harvey Oswald and might have been involved in the assassination. Ferrie told Garrison that on the day of the assassination he had driven to Houston in order to go ice-skating. Garrison thought he was lying and handed him over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. However, after a brief interview he was released.
   In 1965 Garrison was told by Hale Boggs, a Congressman from Louisiana and a former member of the Warren Commission, that he had serious doubts that Oswald was a lone-gunman. This encouraged Garrison to read the Warren Report and books on the assassination by Mark Lane, Edward Jay Epstein and Harold Weisberg.
   Garrison recruited Tom Bethell to investigate the case. He interviewed Vince Salandria who claimed that the conspirators were the CIA and military leaders who wanted to stop President Kennedy's effort to end the Cold War. He also contacted Sylvia Meagher and Mary Ferrell.
   In November 1966 Garrison told  journalist David Chandler that he had important information on the case. Chandler told Richard Billings and in January 1967, the Life Magazine reporter arranged a meeting with Garrison. Billings told Garrison that the top management at Life had concluded that Kennedy's assassination had been a conspiracy and that "his investigation was moving in the right direction." Billings suggested that he worked closely with Garrison. According to Garrison, "The magazine would be able to provide me with technical assistance, and we could develop a mutual exchange of information."
   Garrison agreed to this deal and Richard Billings was introduced to staff member, Tom Bethell. In his diary Bethal reported: "In general, I feel that Billings and I share a similar position about the Warren Report. He does not believe that there was a conspiracy on the part of the government, the Warren Commission or the FBI to conceal the truth, but that a probability exists that they simply did not uncover the whole truth."
   Garrison also recruited Bernardo de Torres, who had good connections with anti-Castro figures. William Turner, the author of Rearview Mirror: Looking Back at the FBI, the CIA and Other Tails (2001) has argued: "A veteran of the Bay of Pigs, De Torres showed up on Garrison's doorstep early in the probe, saying he was a private detective from Miami who wanted to help, and dropping the name of Miami DA Richard Gerstein, a friend of Garrison's, as an opener. In retrospect, Garrison remembered that every lead De Torres developed ended up in a box canyon." One of the jobs Garrison gave him was to find Eladio del Valle.
   Garrison became suspicious of his motives and on 7th January, 1967, he ordered his staff "under no circumstances" to offer any information to De Torres. Four days later he wrote at the top of one of De Torres' memos: "His reliability is not established." Garrison was right to be suspicious as he later discovered he was working for the CIA. According to Gaeton Fonzi, de Torres's CIA handler was Paul Bethel. Another researcher, Larry Hancock, has argued that "It certainly appears that De Torres’ role in the Garrison investigation is suspicious, and it supports Otero’s remarks to HSCA investigators that De Torres had ‘penetrated’ Garrison’s investigation. It also shows that De Torres had an agenda of his own in addition to getting intelligence about Garrison’s investigation and investigators. That agenda involved once again shifting attention to Fidel Castro and a Cuban hit team rather than the activities of the Cuban exiles."
   Garrison eventually became convinced that a group of right-wing activists, including Guy Banister, David Ferrie, Carlos Bringuier, Eladio del Valle and Clay Shaw were involved in a conspiracy with the Central Intelligence Agency to kill John F. Kennedy. Garrison claimed this was in retaliation for his attempts to obtain a peace settlement in both Cuba and Vietnam.
   On 17th February, 1967, The New Orleans States-Item reported that Garrison was investigating the assassination of Kennedy. It also said that one of the suspects was David Ferrie. Five days later Ferrie's body was found in his New Orleans apartment. Although two suicide notes were found, the coroner did not immediately classify the death as a suicide, noting there were indications Ferrie may have suffered a brain hemorrhage.
   Garrison immediately announced that Ferrie had been a part of the Kennedy conspiracy. "The apparent suicide of David Ferrie ends the life of a man who in my judgment was one of history's most important individuals. Evidence developed by our office had long since confirmed that he was involved in events culminating in the assassination of President Kennedy... We have not mentioned his name publicly up to this point. The unique nature of this case now leaves me no other course of action." Garrison added that he was making preparations to arrest Ferrie when they heard of his death. "Apparently, we waited too long."
   Another suspect, Eladio del Valle, was found dead in a Miami parking lot twelve hours after Ferrie's was discovered in New Orleans. Police reported that de Valle had been tortured, shot in the heart at point-blank range, and his skull split open with an axe. His murder has never been solved. Diego Gonzales Tendera, a close friend, later claimed de Valle was murdered because of his involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A senior member of the Cuban Secret Service, Fabian Escalante, agreed: "In 1962 Eladio Del Valle tried to infiltrate Cuba with a commando group of 22 men but their boat had an English key - a little island. In the middle of 1962. Of course, we knew this. I tell you about this, because one of our agents who was one of the people helping to bring this group to Cuba, was a man of very little education. They talked English on many occasions on this little island with Eladio Del Valle told this person, on many occasions, that Kennedy must be killed to solve the Cuban problem. After that we had another piece of information on Eladio Del Valle. This was offered to us by Tony Cuesta. He told us that Eladio Del Valle was one of the people involved in the assassination plot against Kennedy."
   A week after the death of David Ferrie Garrison announced the arrest of Clay Shaw. He was 54 years old and a retired businessman. John J. McCloy, a former member of the Warren Commission, was asked by a journalist what he thought about the Garrison investigation. He replied that the Warren Commission had always known that new evidence in the case might turn up. "We did not say that Oswald acted alone. We said we could find no credible evidence that he acted with anyone else."
   Ramsay Clark, the new Attorney General stated that the FBI had already investigated and cleared Shaw "in November and December of 1963" of "any part in the assassination." As Garrison pointed out: "However, the statement that Shaw, whose name appears nowhere in the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission, had been investigated by the federal government was intriguing. If Shaw had no connection to the assassination, I wondered, why had he been investigated?" Within a few days of this statement Clark had to admit that he had published inaccurate information and that no investigation of Shaw had taken place.
   As part of Garrison's attempt to prove the existence of a conspiracy, he subpoenaed the Zapruder Film from Time-Life Corporation. The company refused and they fought this subpoena all the way to the Supreme Court, which finally ruled that the corporation had to hand over the film. As Jim Marrs has pointed out: "Time-Life grudgingly turned over to Garrison a somewhat blurry copy of the film - but that was enough. Soon, thanks to the copying efforts of Garrison's staff, bootleg Zapruder films were in the hands of several assassination researchers."
   In May, 1967 Hugh Aynesworth published a critical article of Garrison in Newsweek: "Garrison's tactics have been even more questionable than his case. I have evidence that one of the strapping D.A.'s investigators offered an unwilling witness $3,000 and a job with an airline - if only he would fill in the facts of the alleged meeting to plot the death of the President. I also know that when the D.A.'s office learned that this entire bribery attempt had been tape-recorded, two of Garrison's men returned to the witness and, he says, threatened him with physical harm."
   Garrison later responded to Aynesworth's claims: "As for the $3,000 bribe, by the time I came across Aynesworth's revelation, the witness our office had supposedly offered it to, Alvin Babeouf, had admitted to us that it never happened. Aynesworth, of course, never explained what he did with the evidence allegedly in his possession. And the so-called bribery tape recording had not, in fact, ever existed."
   In September, 1967, Richard Billings told Garrison that Life Magazine was no longer willing to work with him in the investigation. Billings claimed that this was because he had come to the conclusion that he had links to organized crime. Soon afterwards, Life began a smear campaign against Garrison. It was reported that Garrison had been given money by an unnamed "New Orleans mobster."
   In Shaw's trial Perry Russo claimed that in September, 1963, he overheard Clay Shaw and David Ferrie discussing the proposed assassination of John F. Kennedy. It was suggested that the crime could be blamed on Fidel Castro. Russo's testimony was discredited by the revelation that he underwent hypnosis and had been administered sodium pentathol, or "truth serum," at the request of the prosecution. It claimed that Russo only came up with a link between Shaw, Ferrie and Oswald after these treatments. Shaw was eventually found not guilty of conspiring to assassinate Kennedy.
   In 1973 Garrison lost the office to Harry Connick. After leaving his post as district attorney Garrison wrote a book about his investigations of the Kennedy assassination, On the Trail of the Assassins (1988). Carl Oglesby summarized Garrison's theory as follows:
(a) Rabidly anti-Communist elements of the C.I.A.'s operations division, often moving through extra-governmental channels, were deeply involved at the top of the assassination planning and management process and appear to have been the makers of the decision to kill the President.
(b) The conspiracy was politically motivated. Its purpose was to stop J.F.K.'s movement toward d├ętente in the Cold War, and it succeeded in doing that. It must therefore be regarded as a palace coup d'etat.
(c) Oswald was an innocent man craftily set up to take the blame. As he put it, "I'm a patsy."
   Several researchers were highly critical of the methods that Garrison used in his investigation. Sylvia Meagher wrote: "As the Garrison investigation continued to unfold, I had increasingly serious misgivings about the validity of his evidence, and the scrupulousness of his methods." Anthony Summers was surprised that Oliver Stone decided to base his film JFK on Garrison's work: "From a vast array of scholarship, he picked a book by Jim Garrison, former District Attorney of New Orleans, as his main source work. Garrison, many will recall, is a strange figure - considered crazy by some, and crooked by others."