Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sophie



Sophie loved the movies, loved to sit in the dark theater before the film started, staring at the giant blank screen, waiting for the magic to happen. Few films ever lived up to the feeling of expectation she had in that moment, just as not much in life ever quite matches the dream we have for it in advance. Once in a while, though, it does happen. A bit of magic can appear in the middle of an otherwise ordinary life. Or sometimes what we think of as ordinary is actually magical, but we let it go by unnoticed.
Sophie spent her days working behind a bar. It wasn’t her bar, she was an employee, but she thought of it as her bar when she was behind it, treated it like it was her own, with pride and respect. At the time of this story the place was called The Golden Cup. Before that it had been Cicero’s, and before that it was The Green Door Tavern. Sophie had started as hostess at the age of 16, when it was called The Brat-haus, and now she’d been pulling drafts and pouring shots there for 10 years. The name may have changed, and the owners, but the clientele was essentially the same, and so was the booze.
Sophie was witty, quick with a joke, and an absolute master of the nickname. For instance, the first time she met Teddy Hennessey at the bar of The Golden Cup she dubbed him Tennessee, combining his first and last names and incorporating the fact that he had ordered a Jim Beam and soda. It was May 4, 1970, and he was at The Golden Cup with his younger brother Fred (yes, Teddy and Freddy; ridiculous, but there it is), and Fred’s buddy George Burdette. Fred and George had just returned from Vietnam, where they had served in the United States Army’s 4th Infantry Division, and they were celebrating their return with a night out, proudly wearing their dress uniforms. In addition to being the night Sophie and Teddy met, it was also the night George met Julie Fowler (aka: Fowler Child), who was Sophie’s best friend and a waitress at the Golden Cup. There was also an event of more historical importance that night, far from the Golden Cup, but near enough to cause some ripples.
“Another round, gentlemen?” Sophie inquired, as she noticed their three empty glasses.
“Indeed”, replied Teddy.
“Let’s see….Jim Beam and soda for Tennessee, Tom Collins for the younger brother, and a bottle of Miller for the Orioles fan?”
“Exactly right. How do you remember all that?”
“I am a professional, Tennessee.”
Sophie and Teddy were not the only ones, and perhaps not even the first ones, to notice the attraction between them. Meanwhile, George and Julie had struck up a conversation of their own as she brought their burgers out from the kitchen. It was as if Cupid had shot all four of them with a single arrow: Sophie and Teddy, and George and Julie. The two couples formed almost immediately. Sophie liked to say it was as if they were different kinds of liquor, and some cosmic bartender had mixed them each up in a way that made two perfect but totally different cocktails. She said she and Teddy were a Sidecar, while George and Julie were a Margarita. Margaritas are made with tequila, triple sec and sour mix, and served in a glass with a salted rim; Sidecars replace the tequila with brandy and the salt with sugar. Everyone knows tequila makes you crazy, while brandy keeps you warm. And salt is exciting, but too much can be bitter or even burn your tongue, while sugar is sweet and energizing. That pretty much sums up the two couples. Sophie and Teddy were sweet and kind, to each other, and to pretty much everyone. George and Julie were exciting and crazy…usually in a good way, but sometimes the excitement could be too much, could even seem dangerous, and there were plenty of bitter moments. But that’s well in the future. For tonight it was all about the excitement.
You might have noticed that Fred was left out of this arrangement. Partly that was just the way things work out sometimes. Partly it was because Fred Hennessey wasn’t really the kind of guy that pairs well, so to speak, like the way some extra sweet liqueurs just don’t mix well with much of anything. Partly, maybe mostly, it was because it was not an easy thing to be a gay man in America in 1970, despite what you might have read in your history books about ‘Free Love’, etc.
Don’t worry about Fred, though. He turned out fine in the end, becoming a painter and moving to Mexico, or the Caribbean, or someplace.
But, back to that night in the Golden Cup, May 4, 1970. Teddy, Freddy and George were having a grand time, drinking and joking, reminiscing about childhood adventures, arguing about the baseball season ahead – Teddy and Freddy were long suffering Red Sox fans, while George favored the Orioles. The Red Sox had little hope that season, although, led by Carl Yastrzemski and the two young Conigliaro brothers they were giving the Fenway Faithful reason to believe that the future held some promise. The Orioles, on the other hand, were the clear favorites to win the pennant, behind a stellar pitching staff featuring youngster Jim Palmer. Regardless, Freddy and Teddy had George outnumbered, and had most of the rest of the small, Monday night crowd at the bar on their side. At this early stage of the season there were only 1.5 games separating the two teams, and it was still possible for Red Sox fans to believe.
Somewhere amidst their good-natured arguing, though, a whispering started among some of the other patrons. There’d been a shooting on a college campus in Ohio. Kids protesting the war…National Guard…rocks thrown….tear gas and bullets…and then that photograph was on the television: the one of the young woman crying over the body of her friend, while other young people looked on in shock.
Suddenly baseball didn’t seem to matter. The two recently returned soldiers felt judgmental eyes fall upon them from some of the other patrons. The room now felt divided along lines other than those separating Orioles fans from Red Sox believers.
A long-haired guy sitting next to Teddy mumbled to his girlfriend, “Smells like pigs in here. Let’s go to Charlie’s”, as he drained the last of his rum and Coke.
“What was that?” Teddy asked, taking a half step toward him and moving to block his path to the exit.
“We’re just leaving, man.”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea, ‘man’”.
Fred and George each took one of Teddy’s arms as the departing couple made their way toward the door.
Sophie, whose shift was ending, invited the three young men to leave with her and Julie, in an effort to relieve the tension. But the men had no interest in leaving or avoiding anything. Fred and George had seen far worse things in Southeast Asian jungles than could possibly take place in this tavern, and weren’t about to back down or be ashamed. So, Sophie and Julie joined them, instead, and the group moved to a table in the back of the room, away from the bar.
The nightly news program gave way to Gunsmoke, and any anti-war sentiment in the room gave way to concern for Sherriff Dillon as he faced down yet another outlaw in the Wild West. The Hennessey brothers went back to arguing baseball with George, until Sophie said:
“Enough about baseball…let’s talk about movies. Who would you say is the better actor, Paul Newman or Steve McQueen?”
“Oh, Paul is so handsome,” said Julie, “those blue eyes. I just saw ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ Saturday night, it was wonderful.”
Freddy, who had blue eyes himself, though not quite as pale and clear as Newman’s, responded, “Julie, there is no way Newman could play the parts McQueen has played. He might be good looking, but he’s not as good an actor, not even close. ‘Bullit’, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’, ‘The Great Escape’, all much better than anything Newman has done.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that”, Sophie responded, “I think ‘The Hustler’ is right there, better than ‘Bullit’, for sure. I think they’re both awfully good looking, but for acting I’ll take Paul.”
And so it went.
Now, the waitress that had taken over for Julie was a young woman by the name of Tess Weber. Sophie called her The Wait Tess, naturally. Tess’s husband had been drafted and sent to Vietnam about the same time as Fred and George, but hadn’t been as lucky as they were. Tess hadn’t heard from him for months, and the Army had placed him on the MIA list. Everyone she worked with knew this much. What they didn’t know was that Tess was 8 months pregnant with the child of a minor-league baseball player, Billy Agostino. Billy was well known in the seedier districts of the city, visiting all the brothels and “gentlemen’s clubs” whenever his team was in town. All Tess knew was that he was a charmer who seemed to lend a sympathetic ear when she bumped into him in Manley’s Laundromat the night after she’d received the letter from the Army about her husband being officially declared “MIA, Presumed Dead”. It was an encounter that began innocently enough with an invitation to have a drink at the bar across the street while the laundry spun in the dryer, but ended the next morning with Billy moving on to the next city and Tess in tears, unaware of the new life growing inside her.
How no one noticed Tess was pregnant was due to her being tall, large breasted and slightly overweight; that and the fact that smock-tops were in style. When it happened that her water broke as she was delivering a round of drinks to Sophie and Julie and George and the Hennesseys, Sophie was the first to spring into action despite her surprise. The returning soldiers remarked later that she’d reminded them of a drill sergeant barking out orders. Under her direction, Teddy and George carried Tess upstairs where there was a room with a bed that the chef sometimes crashed in after a long day in the kitchen, with Sophie and Freddy right behind. Julie called for an ambulance and then helped clean up the mess. Freddy had been a medic in the army, which didn’t really qualify him to deliver a baby, but did make him more likely to not be horrified at the sight of blood and amniotic fluid than anyone else in the bar, so he and Sophie stayed with Tess and sent George and Teddy back downstairs to look for clean towels or sheets.
Sophie held Tess’s head in her lap, talked to her throughout the ordeal, fed her pieces of ice and wiped the sweat from her brow. Freddy stayed at the foot of the bed, rubbing Tess’s legs to relieve the tension and pain between contractions. Julie stood by as well, bringing the two substitute midwives whatever they needed. George and Teddy stood guard outside the door, on call if needed, but mostly trying to stay out of the way. And when the baby came, well before the ambulance, it was Freddy’s strong hands that guided him free and cleared his airway, cleaned his face and wrapped him tightly in a warm blanket, and laid him on his mother’s breast.
“He’s a good, strong boy”, said Freddy.
“Talbot”, said Tess. “That’s his name. After my grandfather.”
“That’s a fine name, Tess”, said Sophie. “Strong and wise. You did a great job.”
The ambulance arrived eventually, and the drivers loaded mother and child and took them both to the hospital. Freddy, almost as exhausted as Tess, rode along, feeling strangely paternal. Sophie and Julie and the Teddy and George slipped out the back door of The Golden Cup and into the diner across the alley for a cup of coffee. The diner had a jukebox, and while Julie and George were picking out some songs, Teddy said,
“Sophie…”
“Yes, Tennessee?”
“You’re about the most fascinating woman I’ve ever met. I want to know everything there is to know about you.”
“Well, there’s not so much to know. Sophie Lawrence, 30 years old, bartender, never married, lived my whole life right here in this city and worked almost half of it in that bar we just left. Not much more to know than that.”
“You left out ‘amazingly beautiful, courageous, witty and charming’”.
“I suppose I did, didn’t I?” she replied with a smile.
The jukebox started to play Bridge Over Troubled Waters.
Sophie said, “Looks as though Julie and George are getting along nicely.”
“Oh?”
“Yes, they’ve just left, hand in hand.”
“He’s always been a fast worker. Doesn’t believe in wasting time when he sees what he wants.”
“And you? You’re more cautious, are you?”
“Generally, yes. But I may be reconsidering that approach.” He reached across the table and took her hand. “Dance with me, Sophie.”
Within a year both couples were married, Teddy and Sophie and George and Julie. Sophie kept working at the bar, through even more name and ownership changes. Teddy and George opened a hardware store that was a moderate success. In February of 1973 Teddy and Sophie bought a house next door to the one George and Julie were already living in. Sophie and Teddy’s house had a gun cabinet built into a corner of the dining room, which they modified to hold all the liquor they didn’t drink. It was all bottles they’d been given by visitors, or as birthday or Christmas gifts. He no longer drank whisky, or much of any alcohol, other than an occasional beer with dinner. She didn’t drink at all, any more, though she still poured plenty of it down the throats of the customers at the bar.
 Freddy went to art school, and eventually headed south. Tess became a school teacher, and raised her son, Talbot Frederick Weber on her own. She always told him he was her gift to the world. Sophie called him Tiny Talbot, even after he reached his full height of 6 foot 3.
Sophie and Teddy’s first child was born the same year they bought the house, a daughter they named Michayla Jane. They always called her Mickey, or Monkey, or Mickey the Monkey, or any of a thousand other variations. Mickey was followed a little over two years later by a son, James Michael. They almost always called him James Michael, mostly because Mickey said that’s what he should be called. Mickey was a precocious thing, sweet tempered, but strong willed, much like her mother.
Enough about that, though; Mickey and James Michael have stories of their own….

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A language gone to hell



When the devil speaks in your ear,
his whispered words appear scrawled
in red letters on the inside of your eyelids,
the same shade of red as his leathery skin,
red from being out working in his fields
under the noon sun for all eternity.
This way, if, in his mind, he’s misspelling a homonym,
like “your” when he means “you’re”,
as in “your not strong enough to withstand me”,
you can call him on it.
And when god speaks in your ear
his whispers also appear
on the inside of your eyelids,
but in stark, bright white.
They look like stars strewn across the sky,
as if they were so many monochromatic
Pollock paint splotches on a black canvas.
But you can’t read them at all, because god speaks
in Zodiac-like shapes and symbols, not words,
so you could never tell him he spelled something wrong.
The devil, he wants you to know
what he intends to do, he wants you to be aware,
and to be afraid, to live in dread.
So he tries to communicate in your language,
he listens to you, and also learns what he can
from online self-study courses at the University of Phoenix.
But even as clever as he is, human language is foreign
to him so he struggles, like you would if
you tried to learn to speak Dolphinic or Chimpanzee-ese.
Conversely, god doesn’t care
if you understand his intentions or not.
It makes no difference to him
if you are aware of his desires or plans.
The union requires that he post notifications
in public places as well as sending individual
communications under certain specific situations.
But there is no requirement that the notifications
and communications be in any specific language,
hence the zodiac symbols and various inscrutable miracles.

So, one in each ear would just about blind you.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Nightmare Hunters



If you’re looking for hints of nightmares forgotten,
You should search in shadows ,
In the underbrush, that’s where they hide,
Growing in the fecund earth on the forest floor.

Shine your light over there beneath that rotten log, see,
There’s one over there, its eyes glowing red.
Don’t touch it with your bare hand, you’ll never wash the smell off,
That’s what the leather gloves and the net are for.

They take root in the ooze and the muck.
Each one grows from seeds planted in sleep,
Each a different story from a mind unaware,
Like a shout from a mute madman in a hurricane.

Foggy swamps and bogs are the best hunting grounds.
A guy north of here found a rich patch in the elbow of the river.
Man, he lived off that one spot for a year.
When it finally ran dry in the heat of August, he curled up and died.

The worst thing that can happen is finding one of your own, of course,
Like Merle did over in the valley below Blue Spruce Hill.
Merle hasn’t spoken a word from that day to this,
And his eyes have that hollow, dead look.

But the money is good, and times are tough, so it’s worth the risk.
Besides, what’s the alternative?
If you’re not hunting them they’re hunting you,
And unlike you, they don’t sleep.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Millions of white paper fish



Eyes open on a foggy morning to a sleep-fogged vision
Millions of white paper fish falling from the sky
I stepped outside and tried to gather them up
There was a carnival midway in my backyard
Three planes went down behind the Ferris wheel
So I ran for shelter in a booth at Woolworth's diner
But the Woolworth went out of business years ago
They have no more coffee or blueberry pies
Back outside on a bench in the park in the rain
I thought I heard you singing a song with another girl’s name
But you were sleeping beside me on the bench the whole time.