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Table of Contents

Chapter Thirty-Four

Wind radio plays in the ears like FM static, sometimes tuning out talk.

Telephone poles in the shape of keys on the bottom of old sardine cans flash by on hills endlessly rising and falling in a 79-mph hiccup. Clouds in a frayed bouffant, tinted an elderly cobalt-and-silver rinse, are styled and subdued by black bobby pins of the pole’s wires.

The waves we see, when the road gradually branches to scrape the shore’s edges and blinders of inland walls are lifted, peel back their aqua tin to stack the car with close-packed rows of fishy scent preserved in brine, even though the water’s not salt. The smell makes Turk hungry, and for hunger Turk is well prepared: sack lunch like a large frumpy fourth passenger in a talkative sharing mood on the seat in the back beside him. Having anticipated the sea-like assault of odors, prepared to satisfy the desire he knows the lake will tease his nose with, Turk digs into a regiment of food stuffs in the bag, opens a can, ranks the metallic soldiers of his own sardines on a plastic plate. His arms motion the car with exertion as he eats, as though reaching out the window and grabbing the telephone poles, using their keys to open his cans.

Speed renders the trees calligraphic, makes of the towns that narrow and hourglass highway 42’s or 57’s urban width a pastoral pastel haiku: the brief epigrammatic lines of Forestyville, Maplewood, and so on up and through. I sense the speed traps – Sage had had a T-shirt custom made for me and I’m wearing it, Beware, Man Under T-Shirt With Intuition – and apply precognitive brakes when the chakra in my forehead foreshadows patrol cars old and rural as some grandma’s bonnet waiting around certain bends.

The trip is a present tense preparation for reminiscence, summing itself up as we go, gathering the details in greedy sweeps like a poker player raking in chips from the center of the table, all the denominations of sight and sound and motion poised for the drop into memory’s till, the things I’ll later pile into stacks to count and recall. The beauty I’ll hope to find is already gone. If there’s a hell it’s this, the-gone-before-it’s-passed ambient of time.

I once flew in a plane to Dearborn Michigan, everything fine until absolutely nothing at all happened, no burping surprise of turbulence, no acid reflux of spicy weather or zesty jet streams, and I nevertheless realized that I was thousands of feet off the ground, trapped in a metal soaring tube, that there was no way to extract myself from within the walls of the tube to take a position outside it – for example, to sit in a chair bolted to the wing, where I could scream in Catholic-school-girlish terror without disturbing my neighbor if the plane were to burst into flames and plummet – that if it were positively imperative to de-tube myself for a moment, my miserable misfortune was to be inescapably tubed and trapped.

If you dwell on the-gone-before-it’s passed ambient of time, it’s much the same panting existential feeling, leading you to think: If death subjects us to the stasis we expect, then we’ve got it backward, death is the paradise, and it’s all this ceaselessly changing nature that’s the horror. Something else Sage might be right about – it all evaporates if you don’t corral it with your own stillness.

But then she would contradict herself, “Give me cities,” she’d exclaim. Why? You need the fast dumb stuff to define the stillness – trite enough to be true. I drive seriously, acquisitively, taking curves that are sometimes brutal like they’re circuitries I’m owed. I’m the one driving, so I drive faster, through an antithesis of stillness, through wild watered landscapes.

First it’s Southern Door County. On the map it vaguely resembles an imperfect molar or tree stump angling to the right, but if you stare at the shape of the land, let your eyes defocus, the bayside shoreline usurps to become the primary configuration, and an optical illusory trade-off occurs: Riley’s Bay extends a flop of witch’s chin, Sand Bay performs its surgery on the witch’s mouth and nose, and the hat’s brim thins into the ships’ channel we’ll cross to enter Sturgeon Bay.

Red brick Belgian farmhouses ejected from a stapler of historic architecture clamp down the rolling fields that run from one rich complexity of placid green to another, an almost-sameness that penetrates and fastens the senses. The fields are a horizontal forest, shorn of density and clustered verticals and the laterals of shadows cast down from massed heights, the fields are an undulation of grasses. A spatula of sunlight flattens everything out. None of us have been this far north from Milwaukee, this far from that smaller city within the city corking the core of Milwaukee’s bottle, the cut-rate Boonesfarm of neighborhoods we slosh round in.

“Do people actually live here?” Turk asks.

“Of course they do,” Sugar Boy states grandly. “Just not your people. Mainly Belgians. The country’s largest concentration of Belgian’s, living in Namur and Brussels.” He’s not reading a book, he’s got it memorized like a tour guide. All he needs is a megaphone, a museum, a scholarly bow tie. Sugar Boy has a tendency to know things like this.

Turk asks, “You know this how?”

“Information is free,” Sugar Boy reminds him.

“Free?”

By Turk’s tone, his Draconian lean forward into the space between the front seats, I know what kind of trip this will be.

“When you go home tonight, to your little ghetto-hut, and look out your window and don’t see none of these I think the word would be quaint farmhouses sitting in all these clean green open spaces, and your stomach tightens up, you’ll pay for it. You’ll pay for it in the cost of some goddamned Tums for your tight stomach. That sound free to you?”

“Maybe I like to shop lift my Tums. And don’t call my modest living quarters a ghetto-hut.” Sugar Boy briefly re-thinks it. “Selective domiciliation sounds better. Besides, my covetous friend, it’s all about the dollar,” he says, Abbott to Turk’s Costello, or instigating advocate to devil, though he might also be serious. “Not all, but just about. You get the dineros, as it’s possible to do in this great color blind cash register of American society, you come here, get yourself a little red toy farmhouse if that’s what you want, and you too can be the proud owner of some goddamned cows up in the pasture.”

“That’ll work if you Koby Bryant, who you don’t look a lot like to me,” Turk says. “Money equalizes but to be black and lived next door to in places like these, whites’re more accepting if they know you from TV. It’s a susceptibility I think they suffer from, mistaking TV for the real world. Oh. Wait. I’m sorry. I forgot. Koby fallen from grace, what with that white girl who pulled that whole ‘My Visa’s Past Due So I think I’ve Been Raped’ tramp trap on him and everything. A case dismissed still lingers in the mind. What they did is still a no-no, boy. No, let’s just pretend you just you, just Sugar Boy, with plenty of dineros, maybe from one of your inventions. Move in, set up all the props, the cows and shit. Bet: You’ll feel like Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun, soon as the welcoming committee comes to greet you.”

Everyone laughs.

When together – Sage sometimes with us – we often laughed that liberating sour variety of laughter that falls like a thud, lemon rinds dropped into the bottom of a damp bag.

“I don’t have Sidney’s scruples,” Sugar Boy confesses. “Write me a big enough check, you can keep your farmhouse. See you in Marin County. So much money there, you could be the color purple and it wouldn’t matter.”

“I still say it’s a ghetto-hut,” Turk maintains.

Sugar Boy spins aimless gesture with his hands like a forgetful spider and explains, “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that I have to live next to them. I don’t know about you, but I see more than enough of my share of them all the time, whether it’s around the campus walking around in the dead of winter in bare feet without T-shirts – one of their peculiar cultural tics of the males, I’ve noticed – or whether they’re crammed in Starbuck’s, which seems to be some kind of Caucasoid Mecca – watermelon for whites you might say – or whether I go to Von’s or some restaurant or anywhere in public where I have to see them letting their brats run wild, screaming and knocking shit over, the parents clueless or acting like that’s supposed to be cute or something, or let us not forget serial killers,” he says more loftily, “still overwhelmingly white in this country anyway, because you just know if you’re in a good stadium-sized crowd there’s got to be at least one of those MFs in there, and frankly, I get more than a little tired of hearing the word ‘cool’ every third word in a sentence spoken by some 30 or 40 or 50 year old – all that I can do without. And many of them with that whole under-the-surface attitude of, sure, America’s a melting pot, but it’s really more my melting pot than anyone else’s. But if you ask me if I want to be where the best schools are, the best housing, the best jobs, the best medical facilities, then yeah, that’s where I MF-ing want to be.”

“Damn,” Turk says. “Now it’s like that? Sugar Boy the racist?”

“Racist? If I were a Chris Rock on stage, whites in the audience be’d laughing louder than anyone else. I’d get applause for dragging white stereotypes into the light of day and stripping them of their power through laughter.”

“Except you don’t have a white audience here, I can’t help but notice,” Turk points out, looking around elaborately to all cardinal points in the car. “But yeah, maybe if you were on Showtime At The Apollo or something, where they’d be outnumbered and afraid not to laugh.”

The us and them continues in this vein.

The word white, in Farsi, is sefid. To make the plural, whites, Sage simply affixed ha: sefidha. Amrekaee means American. Ye is used to indicate belonging to, or possession. Therefore, Amerkaeeye sefidha meant white Americans. But this was Sage’s construction, cobbled together because she was idiosyncractic and liked doing things in her own way. The widely accepted phrase indicative of derogation for white Americans was Amrekaee sefid pust. Pust means skin, and the expression was used in much the same way that the children of manifest destiny had used the epitaph redskin.

We’re college educated, relatively young, have more sheer information at our disposal than any group of people at any other time in history, living technologically-assisted daily lives that scant decades ago would have been unimaginable to all but writers of the most abstruse speculative fictions. We already possess the savvy cynicism it would have taken more than a half-century to earn when the world was not than much younger than it is now. We are computer-connected in a web that has colonized the globe, can journey farther and faster without stepping outside our doors than any traveler of known distances in the past. What we nonchalantly and peripherally know about our bodies, our finances (or lack thereof), our probable lifespans, the functioning of the human brain, the riddles of science, the economies and inner-most devious machinations of governments, were only known previously by an elite handful of individuals, an intelligentsia or priesthood, privileged through caste or cornucopia wealth. We are shamans taming the now before the now has happened.

We are capable of answering questions that could not have been posed in any vocabulary that existed when we were children.

In spite of all this, in the wearying jocularity and saltsweet banter of our observations regarding race – or, more broadly, regarding any deviations from imagined norms existing in the human sphere – we are as devoid of actionable insight, of seeing such matters through new eyes, as my parents or anyone belonging to their generation might be. The cadence of our conversations is faster, livelier, the delivery of punch lines wittier, in some cases more allusive and referential, our grab bag of facts and statistics – the ones we are rarely forced to cite – is deeper, but the conclusions we reach are no different from my parents’.

Turk would put it one way, Sugar Boy another, but all three of us are clever enough to know this: The instinctual call of the tribe, of clinging to the group, had once been necessary and ensured survival on this planet, if you’re inclined to begin at the beginning. But what about now? The challenges of surviving the hostile environment that made the tribe a necessity have been long beaten back by technology, and we still huddle for comfort in the sweet placental security of the cave, the call still rings resonant and clear, and we still answer it. As though self-perpetuating, seeking its own preservation, the call has even extended itself into an imagined future, into the fanciful time of extraterrestrials, in anticipation of the unlikely day that human ears would no longer heed it. The stories of the outcome of epochal meetings with aliens, the ultimate Other Tribe, have already been written.

I’m no longer on 57 or 42 or whatever highway we rode in on, and how this happened I have no idea. We’re driving along the witch’s chin, the moles of rocks and boulders sprouting along the shore’s jaw line. When I slow down to get my bearings, families with fishing poles exquisite as capillaries are boarding boats docked on the bay and, I’m sorry to say, hunch their shoulders as though expecting a drive-by spray. A little thought would reveal the kink in the logic, for if I were intending a drive-by, I would think that cruising along at a 7-mile-an-hour glide with a Please Help Me, I’m Lost expression on my face would fail to feed the rubber-burning speeds necessary to blur the identity of assassins harboring any genuine hope of escaping with anonymity intact.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Turk notes. “Give me the out-in-the-open honest racism of a man hiding behind a sheet stripped off his mama’s bed any day, preferable to that.”

Sugar Boy says, “You feel singled out along strictly racial lines, is what I seem to hear you saying. You take being a curiosity too personal. Think of it as a kind of celebrity. Besides, they’re fishing for smallmouth bass,” and that must explain something, because Turk and I both say, “Ohhhh, smallmouth bass,” or say something like it, as though suddenly understanding that the municipal government here has mandated that any family who engages in activity incorporating smallmouth bass fishing must, under penalty of expulsion from Southern Door County or at least revocation of fishing license, hunch miserably and stare benightedly at any itinerant meeting certain criteria, but in a manner displaying benumbment rather than open hostility.

Turk leans out the window and says, “Boo.”

Stopping for gas at a Texaco station, we discover through the free newsletter called the Sturgeon Bay Citizen that the City of Sturgeon Bay is currently liquidating all their surplus parking meters and any of the associated sundry parts of dismantled parking meters. The newsletter states that the following meters are in stock: Penny/NickelPenny/Nickel/DimePenny/Nickel/Dime/Quarter

A single meter costs $75.00, hoods are $5.00, and bases are $20.00. Shipping and handling is $30.00. It’s unclear whether the $30.00 shipping and handling fee would apply equally to items costing less than $30.00, such as the base or the hood. The newsletter goes on to state that poles and keys are unfortunately not available. Anyone wishing to purchase a parking meter or any of its sundry parts should feel free to contact City Hall at 920-746-2900. While money orders or cash payments are acceptable, checks are not. There are no guarantees and all sales are final.

This is how we pass time in the car:

“Who the hell would want to buy a parking meter?” Sugar Boy asks.

Turk says, “I might.”

This seems to greatly upset Sugar Boy. “You would spend $75.00 dollars for a used, or surplus, parking meter?”

The waterfront is a lake-sprayed blue-blanched carnival of marinas, observation points, informational plaques and lake-faring vessels: Tugboats, luxury yachts, Great Lake freighters, barges, cruise vessels and private boats with hulls and sails aslant.

Rubbing his jaw speculatively, Turk asks, “Why does anybody spend money on consumer items? Who knows the reasons?” Sugar Boy proposes, “Give me the money. I’ll take apart a parking meter and sell you the parts, but cheaper. I’ll even throw caution to the wind and take a check.”

“Not the same. Anyway, the part about all sales final and no guarantees – I didn’t like that one bit.”

“They almost had you, up to that point, is what I hear you saying.”

“Don’t like it one bit.”

                                               *

“We should have stopped at the observation tower in Sturgeon Bay for an unparalleled and breath-taking view of Sawyer Harbor,” Sugar Boy scolds as we approach Jacksonport.

Turk and I duly are duly impressed by yet another information-studded snippet, lively recitation that’s taken a sabbatical from its book’s stodgy presence to travel unmediated to our ears, but I ignore his invitation to regret, manned in my mission like a gear deep in the middle of a missile, a warhead cruising toward destined detonation. I allow the certain knowledge of an exact destination, the first I’ve had in days, to leash and lead me, and for a time I follow obediently, as Braille leads fingers feeling in bumps and burrows to find bridges in scenic perforations and to cross, follow forward. For a time I’m satisfied to simply go where I know I’m going, forget I’m going blindly until I remember that Ricky, my set of other eyes, is missing, mysteriously gouged from the sockets of the plan.

I’d heard from him yesterday after he’d gone to Dodge’s for the second time. He was the missile that had found its target, returned in one piece but still peppered with the shrapnel of excitement, radiating with the victory of the yoga’s dilatory initiative, stripping me of my Colin Powell decorations and medals, Ricky rightfully the triumphant general now. As he recreated the scene in glowing detail, I’d listened to the buzz of his voice over the cell phone at 8:00 pm, radiating the shape of my own excitement, a ghostly mushroom blast caught on film.

Setting the stage, he’d showcased the squint but was a tad overzealous, prompting Dodge to ask if he needed drops for his eyes. Prepared for a thick-headed staging of the remedial resistance to Sage’s instructions that would draw her close for a hands-on demonstration of some rudiment of an asana, he’d been surprised when Dodge walked away to the house to find the Bausch & Laumb All Clear drops he’d said were best, bar none.

It had been so easy that he’d almost been disappointed.

With the crack security team in their lounge chairs by the pool heatedly debating the demise of the L.A. Lakers, Ricky told her that he and I were working together to end her imprisonment tomorrow, told her Dodge’s plans for the wedding and “elopement,” and that to delay this departure, she must go along – not in a way that would display a change so sudden and inexplicable that Dodge would become suspicious, but more in the manner of one resigned to an inevitability. When he’d asked if she was ever alone, she’d named the bedroom in the roped-off section or the bathroom – just what Ricky had predicted – and he explained the purpose of the pager. Deploying the squint to underscore a euphemistic reference to molestation, he then asked if she’d been harmed in any way, and she’d laughed – “So I took that as a no,” Ricky told me.

But why was Dodge allowing them to talk, when she might reveal her predicament? While Dodge hadn’t harmed her, in the beginning he had made a threat: if she acted on any opportunity to let anyone know what was happening, who knew what further misfortunes Peace Datcher might be made to endure?

And I suddenly understood why Sage, a woman of infinite resources, a strategic thinker if ever there was one, in her own way a master of life lived in the context of everyday improvisations, had not, under the lax buffoonish scrutiny of the crack security squad, seized the moments that must have presented themselves, on more than one occasion, as opportunities for her escape.

It seemed longer, but their conversation had gone on for about two minutes.

By that time, Dodge was whistling, strolling down the garden path, juggling the little Bausch & Lomb bottle, eager to demonstrate its superior restorative properties. Sage leaned in to fold his legs into half lotus and the pager was slipped into the band of her sweats.

He would drive with me to Sister Bay – that much had been settled, but we hadn’t devised specific strategies. We would finalize the next day’s plans during the midnight call. I hung up feeling confident, my anxiety allayed by Ricky’s repeated emphasis that essentially our task was to employ some simple diversion.

I imagined that as we sped to Sister Bay, I would send Sage a message on the pager: on my way azzizam. after hacking Dodge to pieces, disposing of body parts in hatbox, will take you home. Ten minutes later, Sage from the bathroom would send me a response: about time, prof. don’t know about all that hacking biz tho. we can discuss hacking vs simple carving into more civilized bits upon your arrival. waiting with many bells on. Midnight came and went like a patron at a Nevada brothel.

Maybe Ricky had gotten lucky with Existentia?

I called first in hourly increments, hoping that such reasonable intervals would transmit reason to my extravagant fears, punching buttons fashioned to frustrate fingertips, tiny glowing tiles eluding targeted touch. The night dropped into its black crock pot and slowly thickened and sank to the bottom. Giving in to despair, I then called every 5 minutes – nothing, no Ricky, my calls unanswered as a letter with no return address. Morning came and I knew that I’d exhausted all options – actually, I had no options to exhaust. In less than 24 hours, Sage would be married and in Dodge’s helicopter, then deposited on a boat headed into the nowhere of wave upon wave.

I called Turk and Sugar Boy, printed out driving directions on Yahoo, and we left Milwaukee.

                                               *

The only thing I can do now is allow the certain knowledge of an exact destination to pull me forward. What should have happened is a part of the past, and if I’m not careful I’ll pick over that past like a vulture on a naked peak, all those unburied bones that brittle or bruise in the beak. What good would I be then?

Turk and Sugar Boy are suspicious of my silence, but for the time being, respectful, as though watching the work of an admirably nimble thief. Driving, I steal the curves, the drops, the rises, all the riches of the road, stuff them in my catburglar’s knapsack of silence. We’re south of Jacksonport, near a beach that boasts the state’s highest dunes, sheets of sand thrown over the beach’s bulky furniture, shifted by winds like muscular moving men across an expanse called Whitefish Dunes State Park. We don’t stop to take in the hiking trails, the clean-cut families on their tandem bikes with kiddie sidecarts, churning pedals in a leisure of knees like a spoon in a second cup of chamomile tea. In autumn the leaves would take a vacation from their stems, lay their dying carpets for snow building lush estates on the terrain. In December the bicyclists would store their gear and glide the trails on cross-country skies, slicing through yeasty Wonderbread loaves of white with polished knives affixed to boots, or with snowmobiles iron parallels into winter’s starched soft linen.

Adjacent to this park is another, Cave Point County Park, and Sugar Boy decides to break into my silence with his announcement that this place is cored with limestone sea caves, that the waves roiling through them, crashing against the rocky walls, are said to ring in liquid cymbals, sing symphonic hiss and froth.

Caves that corkscrew the rock, coves that shelter the caves, cliffs that climb to stand on the broad shoulders of mesomorphic panoramas.

Turk, not through with Sugar Boy, suggests a sing-a-long.

“C’mon now, everybody join in, especially you, SB: ‘This land is your-orr land, this land is my-eye land, from the sprawling ghe-eeh-toes, to the crack house filled with blow, from schools with books of mold, to black kids on death row, this land was made for you and me.’ I feel a second verse coming on, now – we ready? ‘This land …”

Sugar Boy faces the window, laughter leaping like popcorn in his shoulders.

                                                 * 

Wind insets panes of howling transparency in the frames of the car’s rolled down windows, each pane shattered by speed and instantaneously succeeded and replaced by another. The panes rattle and shatter louder when we’re higher, closer to clouds, when the road gets bored with the buildings that form the commercial districts clustered in the center of villages and wanders off to be alone in bluffs that lift to narrow two-lane ridges, and we watch the lake drop, scale down the side of some cliff face like a climber, rappelling swiftly.

Sugar Boy drives us through Bailey Harbor, a village standing closer to the shoreline, with thousands of acres of wetlands and wilderness making a tripartite contribution to the landmarks and points of interest: an idyllic nature-at-its-best-on-display sprawl called Bjorklunden, Toft’s Point, and the Mud Lake Wildlife Area. The sight of all this water makes me remember Turk when he was a boy, a scene that features Turk in a humiliating or perhaps even life-threatening situation, oddly enlisting water.

When I was seven, Sugar Boy and I had became friends when his family moved into the house the Moroders had fled from. I already spent much of my time outside my house in flight and evasion, the butter-hued kid bullied by marauding boys who lived a few blocks away and had formed a coterie they called, with an oil-and-water mixture of pride and self-denigration, Club Negro, a fraternity where the requirement for membership was the possession of a complexion at least as dark as the inky skin of blackberries. Even at the age of seven, I understood that Club Negro was a defensive gesture, the stacking of psychological sandbags in an attempt to build a barrier against which the waves of a color-obsessed society could hurl themselves, dissipating into harmless foam. I knew they watched the same programs I did, were inundated by a sea of televised white faces – this was in an era before Good Times or shows like it, shows that would be greedily consumed by a nation of viewers so indiscriminately hungry for images of themselves that the depictions were forgiven, at the time of their airing, for what many would later call minstrel-like or otherwise unrealistic portrayals of African American life. For this reason, I didn’t blame the boys of Club Negro, who took the blackness they were told was tainted, the mark of savagery, and burnished it to a militant gleam, made it a symbol of legitimacy and inclusion, knowing what they and I would later be up against.

I didn’t blame them, even though they broadly advertised their intent to drive their knees into my stomach, rub my face in the dirt to darken it.

Sugar Boy, with his polished chestnut complexion, also failed to meet Club Negro’s requirements, and in addition to that, his reputation as a nerd made him the target of a more general and ongoing campaign of victimization. Mr. Remmington hadn’t yet appeared in the shark-like Buick, and I remember that Sugar Boy during that time longed for the strong arms of a father to rescue him from the boys of Club Negro, to teach him to become a shield before stones, a coat of armor against blows, a thesaurus deflecting insults and returning them in refined form, a superior fabulist in the face of lies that had been crudely fashioned about his mother. It was natural that we were drawn to one another, that each through the other sought solace, protection, completion. We were like the two characters – I forget their names – in the book Cold Blood. In effect, by coming together, we were neither A nor B but C, the product of a symbiotic union, but minus the larger-than-the-sum-of-its-parts resultant evil destructiveness. Of course, without the evil destructive power of C, especially given the threat Club Negro posed, our union certainly lacked the raison d’ etre, the gritty down-and-dirty wallop, that might have made us a force of evil to be reckoned with. We were more like characters from an unwritten sequel to the book called In Not Quite Tepid Blood, our symbiotic union producing a sort of greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts, superior shadow-skulking power.

Being out of the house represented a clear and present danger in the form of knee-driven blows and face-imprinting dirt, but we were both, with alarming frequently, good-naturedly ejected from our households, with the notion on the part of our ejectors that to romp wild and free, under the daisy-petaled sun, among innocent companions our own age, would be a health-fostering experience, a process of gathering the cherished memories that our adult selves would one day fondly frame as childhood, an all too ephemeral phase of development our ejectors insistently exhorted us to enjoy, outside, for we were promised that we would look back on it, through bleary overworked eyes, as the only time in life sweetly devoid of, in my father’s words, “everyday terrors and alcohol-justifying stress.”

It was on one of our neighborhood skulking expeditions that we met Turk. Around the corner from my own home was a duplex owned and occupied – the downstairs – by the Rushen family, three children, the rarely seen father and mother. The parents had recently rented the upstairs to Turk’s family, and Sugar Boy and I had heard that the Mitchells had a son our age, but we hadn’t met him yet. The Rushen backyard seemed to be little more than a depository for junk: boxes, old furniture, broken appliances, car parts and rotting garbage. The ramshackle house was a magnet for neighborhood kids in the summer, because the parents of the Rushen children worked nights and there was no parental intrusion into the exuberant pandemonium that flourished there daily. That day, Sugar Boy and I had darted out my house’s back door (hunched darting was a legitimate, though distant, cousin of skulking, which was ideally measured or at least premeditated), leapt over the Rushen’s wire fence, floppy as a tube sock, separating their backyard from a walkway that bordered the rear of my house along its property line and fed into a narrow flight of concrete stairs to the alley. Looking over our shoulders, we dashed through an obstacle course of decaying mattresses and the parts of a washing machine and dyer that had apparently been successfully targeted by aerial explosives, we jumped over bags of cement and holes in the grass-rashed lawn, darted between stacks of The Milwaukee Journal baled in its newsprint’s yellow hay, hopped over a mongrel with lowered venetian-blind ribs nosing through all the more organic diversities of dilapidation, and we finally stumbled, skidded into the front yard.

There was a small crowd of kids gathered there, a group of ten or twelve boys milling in ominous agitation: the members of the dreaded Club Negro.

I remember actually thinking that maybe they were somehow in cahoots with my father, that he’d held a clandestine meeting with the leader of the club, told him that exactly at 2:32 pm on Saturday he would eject me from the house, that I would race through the Rushen backyard as I always did, and that I would appear in the front yard at exactly 2:32:45, with the bonus victim of a friend in tow. It would explain how eager he had been that day to usher Sugar Boy and me out of my bedroom. (Later I would learn that with my mother gone most of the day on various errands, Saturdays represented for my father an opportunity to participate in a one-person marathon of serious competitionless drinking, no impediments or witnesses, if he could superintend my exodus from the house, a feat he seldom failed to accomplish.)

We skidded to a stop in the front yard, the skid carrying us beyond the point at which we actually wished to stop, into the very bowels of the boys’ agitated ominous milling, the group moving as one, surging backward but retaining its cohesiveness and forming a rim like the curved lid of a pot, the dust from the yard’s grassless grim dirt rising beneath our rutting heels, like steam escaping from the bubbling rim.

Then they closed in, the lid clamping down over us.

My lips glossed with the ghostly taste of dirt, wore the lipstick of anticipation, and though their knees hadn’t yet dropped, my stomach rehearsed caving in, prepared for concussions of cartilage and bone. I saw Sugar Boy next to me rising to his feet with a look of futile determination on his face, as though he expected moments later to be prone and disabled in the dirt, and could no longer fathom his reason for standing in the first place. I thought about standing too, in some sad pantomime of solidarity, but quickly decided that if I refused to pry my imprint from its coffin of dust, I would have approximately four feet less than Sugar Boy to fall. I would only have to worry about the additional inch deeper in the dust my imprint would find beneath the heel of a Conversed foot.

One of the boys pulled me up and put something in my hand, a red rubbery weight, something squishy that uddered through the cracks between my fist’s fingers, bulging at both ends. Then I saw Turk, standing with his back to the wall in the space between the front porches of the duplex. He seemed fastened there, like a butterfly’s wings beneath the collector’s callous pins. It was only by looking at what Sugar Boy held in his hand that I discovered what had been placed in mine – a balloon filled with water.

The dust had settled down into its gray saucer and I could see that the boys were smaller, younger, less imposing than the members of the group I had identified from afar as Club Negro, and many had complexions that would have marked them as acolytes for the ceremony of initiation by dirt. They were subordinate to me in both age and physical stature. They were simply a group of kids roving the neighborhood in search of opportunities for delinquent amusement, minor mercenaries of mischief, noses more snot-rusted than either Sugar Boy’s or mine, with runty shallow chests propped up on bamboo legs, intoxicated with the recent realization that some semblance of strength could be found in numbers. Though we were two and they were many, I realized they could be easily beaten down.

They yelled obscenities, hurled the balloons at Turk. They thought we had been drawn by their gladiatorial shouts, spectators to the sight of their dwarf lions crisscrossing the arena, closing in for the kill.

“Man, how’d you get to be so damn fat?”

“Fatter than a heifer’s fat ass!”

“So fat, can’t barely stand!”

One of them, I was surprised to hear, had a scholarly bent, displaying his knowledge of our government’s executive branch, though his anatomical reference struck me, even then, as confused at best. “Fatter than President Reagan’s skinny wife’s skinny fat ass!” As balloons the color of M&Ms candied the air, Turk simply swallowed it all, stood there. Were it not for a gentle side-to-side rocking movement of his upper torso that was negligible enough to be almost invisible, he would have presented a picture of complete vacuumed-out stoicism. In that movement Turk seemed almost to be more concerned with rendering an impression that others would interpret as an appropriate, albeit dim, response than with making a genuine attempt to extricate himself. It was as though he were fulfilling an obligation to evade impact when, in fact, he secretly wished only to stand and absorb it. He was bigger than any of the boys and could have ended the debacle by wading into his crowd of tormentors, grabbing the first available arm or neck, but he didn’t. I watched his face amass humiliation and hurt the way a war hero’s dress uniform fills with posthumously awarded decorations. If I excluded myself, I had only felt such sharp sympathy for another human being at one other time in my life up to that point, and that was for Dale Moroder’s mother, on the day my mother, resplendent with righteous rage, had confronted her on the porch.

Another boy, so slightly proportioned that he might have escaped from confinement in the spare room of a dollhouse, screamed, “Fatter than Jojo’s ass!” This was much like the utterance concerning the presidential spouse. For the time being they were stuck, cycling through variations on a theme. The remarks were significant only in that the collapse of the references’ internal logic warned that the tiny tyrants were cast adrift, far from the shores of reason. For I knew the kid called Jojo, who was meatlessly thin, like a vegetarian sandwich six someones had sat on, his buttocks depthless as two leafs of lettuce left lukewarm by water. Two old men had been slowly passing by on the sidewalk, moving uncertainly toward the destination of the next breath. They hung on the warped chain-link fence that enclosed the front yard with their fingers clawed through the diamond spaces quadrangled in the wire, watching with unabashed interest. One of them gestured urgently and the dollhouse boy responded to the summons. A transaction took place and the boy pocketed what appeared to be a coin, then I saw the old man shuffle over to the open gate and twist his body like tinsel, raising a pitcher’s knee. He was energetic, making up for decades of stroke downtime, a prostrate the size and temperament of a sloth, arthritis boring into joints like termites mistaking mallow for wood. He moved freely, unencumbered by age, perhaps restored to himself. The balloon was an extension of what he’d once been, reaching back through time to a youth of vigorous blank-slate cruelty. None of the boys’ balloons had yet been accurate, a few catching Turk on the shoulder or glancing off a knee, but the old man’s aim had been deadlier, his balloon found its mark, bursting in a green pancake on Turk’s forehead, water startled as a thunder shower of flour. A chorus of munchkin cheers went up as they watched a house fall from the sky, Turk’s expression curling up in wicked witch-legged demise.

The two men shuffled off slowly.

The dynamic of oppression in action was offering me an inaugural lesson, a ticket to a maiden voyage, looming above me like a teacher who was despised, feared, and impossibly respected. My own muddled anger was snapping its fingers curtly in my face, telling me to wake up and join the party before it was over. I didn’t know who I was angry with, the boys, the old men, Turk or myself, but the feeling was self-consuming, digesting my ability to discriminate its source. I could no longer hear my thoughts, I could only hear the supercharged voices around me, thinned to a fuzzy fizz. I was rapidly losing my ability to see that there were options and that I could choose between them. I examined the balloon in my hand, my eyes the stethoscope. The balloon was sick, the balloon needed to be healed, to slip the surly bonds of rubber, to fly, to be lobbed. When I glanced at Sugar Boy, who was farther behind me in the crowd, I saw the same glaze melting down his face that I felt dripping down mine.

This is what I did: I dropped the balloon. I turned to face the all-bone boys. Sugar Boy, stuck blind by refractions from my angel-of-retribution eyes, was returned to himself with a slinky snap. I grabbed the biggest nearest kid – oh yes, little man, you! – by his tubular neck and the balloon fell from some secret crease at his side like an unruly appendix. The boys tried to scatter but Sugar Boy was working the back of the yard like a seasoned pro, riot copping the crowd, closing off exits, avenues of escape, all the lanes and adjacents of fleeing cowardice. He too had a neck and was squeezing it hard, masterfully shy of inflicting permanent damage, a windpipe that would angle and kink through the neck in a water theme park chute. I lunged for the next skinny Tinker Toy kid.

That was what I should have done, I meant to say.

Was on the verge of, was edging toward. An action I was capable, under circumstances not so chaotically defined, of inserting myself into, I meant.

I was angry with Turk because he was bigger and could have stopped them, but didn’t. I was bigger and could have stopped them, but didn’t. Aware of this strange connection, I was no longer so angry with Turk, with myself. A decision could be made, now. The balloon seized my fingers, introducing itself anew.

At that moment, one of the rarely seen parents, Mr. Rushen, opened his front door and stepped out onto the porch.

His stomach was a bloated tugboat, pulling the barge of his tall body into view. What had many years ago been the whites of his eyes were that glossy shade of red inhabiting certain advanced formulations of complexly synthesized plastics. He must have been trying to sleep, to ready himself for the job he was rumored to have on an assembly line in some factory. I had seen him months ago, looking much the same, a burly and fearsome man with a massive frown for a face, his skin a militant immanent black I’d always admired, his uncombed hair a herd of dusty diminutive bison grazing on skull. Before it would rise into prominence in the popular lexicon years later, he was the embodiment of the phrase fuck you. He wore what would come to be called a wife beater, boxer shorts and gruesome bedroom slippers. Both children and adults were transported to a place beyond terror when they beheld him. He clutched a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer in a hand the size of a war-torn continent.

We were all in His Goddamned Yard.

In a movement that would have earned them winning points on an Olympic synchronized swimming team, the boys turned, dropped the balloons, soundlessly fled. Some charged straight into the fence, were thrown back and down by its rubbery reflex, and then on whirring egg-beater legs scrambled through the gate. Those lacking the coordination to quickly regain their feet scampered through the gate on hands and knees.

Sliding his slippered feet rather than lifting them, Mr. Rushen moved slowly to the edge of the topmost stair and stood there, speculatively surveying the yard, the derelict captain of the porch’s salvaged wooden shipwreck. I had already dropped my balloon, and I could see that Sugar Boy no longer held his. He looked at the balloons littering his yard with their sunken treasure, Turk’s cruel counterfeit jewels, then turned his gaze on Sugar Boy, on his mute and massive new seven-year-old tenant still standing between the two porches, and finally on me. His eyes must have strained through the sluggish strands of a webby recognition, because after lingering on me he turned to face the general direction of my own house, establishing a flimsy connection, then turned back again and held me briefly in his grizzled gaze.

He lifted the beer can, drank deeply and with defiant relish, as would one in broad daylight on one’s Own Godammned Porch.

Mr. Rushen’s foot groped down to find the lower stair, Sugar Boy and I taking a wary small step that mimed his backward. He leaned forward, opening his mouth so wide that he resembled – ever a man ahead of the times – the hapless victim in a movie I would see years later with Sage at an afternoon matinee, a man whose mouth gaped grotesquely to allow an alien corkscrewing up through the soft assortments of stomach and chest the tooth-fringed exit it sought. We waited for the words that would traumatize us, scar us permanently, nightmare us, the philippic that would wail us into an Armageddon of regret and self-loathing.

Instead, Mr. Rushen leaned forward and burped.

He turned his lungs inside out like a pocket, emptying them of sound as though it were currency, some million-dollar banknote of gastric distress. At the bottom of that inexhaustible eruption was a roar that seemed drenched in speological echo, damp, bacterial, shaking loose centuries of phlegm stalagmites. We were deeply shocked and terrified. His display forced us out of our complacent conceptions of adulthood, the rectitude it represented, much as the actions of the old man fast-balling the balloon into Turk’s forehead had. It was radically inappropriate and there was no way to explain it.

And instead of dissipating the burp actually gained strength as it continued, was so wretched and prolonged that it threatened to establish itself as the precursor to violent projectile vomiting. A startled and even stricken look began to assert itself on his face. It was as though Mr. Rushen was aware that his mouth’s aperture was in danger of approaching its jaw-snapping limits, but found himself powerless to effect closure. Perhaps the jaw hinge had locked and his mouth would remain, permanently, in its protrusive megaphone-shaped rictus. The burp was so preternaturally resonant and repugnant that Turk, who had not moved to save himself from the assault, took off after Sugar Boy and me when we tore through the gate.

Down the street, at the corner, we stopped. When the freight elevator of breath with its heavy load of terror made its way gradually from our lungs to lift us into lighter air, we shook in the epileptic laughter of our disbelief. We were certain that Mr. Rushen was still frozen in the jaw-snapped paralysis of the billowing burp. We checked our clothing for evidence of residual contamination, splotches, stains, decorative scraps of lung and liver, glossy medallions of membrane. We walked toward Third Street, where there was a novelty and magic shop on a block dotted with small mom-and-pop businesses that sold itching powder, rubber vomit, bloody soap, squat chocolate custard spirals of latex dog dung, all the sadistic trinkets I religiously saved my paltry allowance for and that my parents, groaning when they saw me entering the house with any small bag, came to regard with a longsuffering sigh of harassed resignation. I thought Turk had forgotten about his humiliating trial by balloon, but before we entered Bill And Pearl’s Novelty Emporium, Turk turned to Sugar Boy and me and thanked us humbly, his head down.

I threw a guilty look at Sugar Boy, but couldn’t help asking Turk, “For what?”

“For trying to help,” he explained happily. So I learned that others could, by virtue of what they needed or wanted to see, perceive a glorious aura of motives and defining characteristics surrounding you that had little or no connection to your actual motives, thoughts or feelings.

“That’s all right,” I answered expansively, extending the lesson into uncharted realms, telling, as I would come to understand years later, the first real lie in my young life. The lies I had previously launched had been directed at adults, who were themselves somehow less than real, or were the denizens of a region so foreign and mysterious that it was steeped in unreality, and therefore the lies I told to them were unreal, though I profited from them in tangible ways. But that day was different. Turk’s world was my world, filled with all the familiar signposts of childhood, paved with the Tonka Truck highways we were both traveling, and the lie I was telling him seemed to be tied to profits so obscure that I couldn’t understand what they might be. “That’s all right. But from now on, man, you better not,” I said importantly, “get caught between those porches.”

We left Bill and Pearl’s, sensing all the possibilities of our new-found triumvirate. Nations had been established and had blossomed mightily from the seed of just such modest alliances. I hadn’t forgotten the pathetic tableau in Mr. Rushen’s front yard, but the image was fast becoming hazy, fading. With a little coaching from Sugar Boy and me, Turk would soon come to realize that his size was an advantage, not a liability. Already we walked straighter, taller, harder. We filled the sidewalk like a striding blockade, staking out our territory with each increasingly powerful step, secretly hoping that someone, anyone, would make the mistake of trying to share the space with us. They would be forced aside, would have to stumble to the curb to pass, and we would not say excuse me. We took a shortcut without needing to discuss it, turning into an alleyway with a telepathic accord that confirmed our superior combined mental acumen. Maybe we could get costumes. No, we didn’t need to hide behind masks and capes like phony cartoon characters. We were the real thing, we would grow into invincibility, our natural birthright. We …

“Uh oh,” Turk said. We were hemmed in, surrounded.

There were no balloons this time. We stood facing not the boys with water balloons and bamboo shoots for legs – no, these were the authentic members of Club Negro, the dark dozen zoning the environs like a sophisticated cartel, the self-denigrating geniuses of irony and retribution who had managed to push the margins they had been unfairly confined to back toward an uncontested center.

We were nothing, we were weak, we were pseudo. We deserved to be precisely who we were and nothing more: Turk, Sugar Boy, Peace Datcher, a trivalent insignificance of stooges. We trembled and limply hung in the margins. They were Club Negro, we were Club Zero. We couldn’t even rhyme with them, except by way of an effete internal assonance. We didn’t have a chance. Whose idea had it been to take a shortcut? It was a concrete alleyway, but there was no dearth of filth and dirt on the ground. In deep disassociative fear, I watched myself bend down, scoop up a handful, smear it with manic vigor on my face. I scrubbed my face with it, coaxing dry dusty foam from the friction, employing the same scrupulosity and attention to detail that my mother, in vain, urged me to practice in the mornings with a bar of Lava soap. She would be proud to know that with some part of myself I had heard and absorbed her exasperated tutelage after all. In the alley I scrubbed with a force that would leave the indentations of pocks of pebbles on my face for weeks. Some defining moment like this could very well have served as inspiration for the creator of Lava soap, a product designer summing up the sorrow of his or her childhood in a eurekaed stroke of realization resulting in the idea of a body cleanser outfitted with pumice the size of BBs. More effective than planned obsolescence, an example of the vicious cycle ingeniously elevated to the status of marketing coup, soap that shredded and scarred the skin would necessitate further daily soapings to wash away remnants of abrasions inflicted yesterday by the same face-lacerating soap. Every nook and crevice of face and neck were baptized, I was awash with the Holy Spirit of self-mutilation. Quickly following my example, Turk and Sugar Boy smeared and gritted their faces with dirt.

I stood there like that. “You like it? Am I good enough now? Is this black enough now?” I rotated on a frenzied pedestal of my feet a full 360 to display myself.

My martyr’s arms were spread deliriously wide, as though awaiting an embrace, and my head was thrown back, my gaze skyward.

The boys of Club Negro looked surprised, stunned, then their lips twisted in hard, mocking, ambivalent smiles.

                                                 *

With all six screens of windshield TV no longer tuned to the Jacksonport channel, with the twinkling frequencies of both Bailey’s Harbor and Egg Harbor breaking up behind us as we enter Fish Creek, the sky’s greater Technicolor medium begins to limpidly announce the penumbral shade of a matinee, the premature synthetic evening you pay half price for that envelops the inside of an AMC during a sunny Sunday morning. My mood, too, seems to be a spectator in a muted matinee of emotions. We ride through pre-twilight, the lake’s blue burning-less-bright. Waves are losing luminosity, have begun to acquire a restful density, the fitful insomniacs of foam previously tossing and turning finally settling quietly atop a smooth slate-gray mattress. From time to time I try Ricky’s number – nothing.

Sugar Boy’s still driving. I turn to the back seat and say, “Turk. You remember that time in the yard?”

“What yard?”

“Your yard. You know, when we met?”

He pretends not to know what I’m talking about. “I thought we met on the playground at Palmer Street School. Yeah, I was putting my young moves on Verita James, the chick in second grade that had got in trouble for dancing on the desktops, had took her pants off. The little panties too, as I recall. My first glimpse of paradise. Couple weeks later, there I was on the playground, working my game. You two were off to the side, watching in awe, learning from the master.”

“She was dancing half naked on desktops in second grade?” Sugar Boy asks skeptically. “You must be getting it confused with Littlejohn’s, baby boy.”

Littlejohn’s was the strip joint on Third and Clark that Turk discovered when he was eighteen and from that time forward visited every night, almost without fail. His patronage and devotion were so absolute and fanatical that the management had rewarded him with a booth nearest the stage perpetually reserved in his name. Littlejohn’s had no kitchen and didn’t serve food, but special consideration was extended to Turk. Nightly one of the girls would be sent across the street to McDonald’s, returning with four Big Macs, two large fries and two shakes, and the feast would be waiting for Turk on the table like a shrine in a bag graffitied with grease when he arrived later in the evening. Any customer who ignored the little custom made placard in the center of the table bearing the words FOR TURK’S AMPLE ASS ONLY and took a seat there was summarily escorted to another booth by the owner, the surly apron-garbed Bradford Littlejohn himself. For these inebriated customers the booth began to exert the elemental power of an amulet, radiated the mystique of the unobtainable. Regional urban legend, preserved and promulgated by Turk, had it that one man, looking covetously over his shoulder at the booth as he was steered to another, offered Littlejohn $100 to sit there undisturbed for just five minutes. Littlejohn declined the offer, prompting the man to make another and still another, until the bid had soared improbably to $1000, Littlejohn refusing even that inducement without so much as a blink. The customer decided on a direct approach, and when Turk took his seat stumbled over to the booth waving a fan of ten 100-dollar bills. Turk accepted the money, let the man sit for five minutes, all the time stationed next to the table, consulting his Seiko. His five minutes elapsed, the bidder left the table without protest, exulting to other patrons that “It was worth it, every motherfucking cent.”

“I’m telling you, Verita James danced all over them desktops.” Then he paused and added, “She wasn’t right in the head.”

“And so – assuming this is true – you thought you would take advantage of that, a nine or ten-year-old girl not right in the head, is what I’m getting out of this.”

“I was the same age. It’s not like I was thirty or something,” Turk protests.

“A 10-year-old pedophile in training then.”

Just when it must appear to Turk that he’s succeeded in safely steering the conversation away from its point of departure, I say, “No, I’m talking about that time, the business with all the balloons.”

Turk is silent.

“When you were standing there and they were throwing the balloons, and I was in the yard with and Sugar Boy.”

“Okay,” Turk says with twitchy intentness like a fly standing on and guarding its crumb. “What about it?”

“It’s just that I remember how you thanked us when it was over.”

“And we ran into Club Negro,” Sugar Boy says, glancing over at me, “and you pulled that stunt with the dirt. Sheer tactical genius. A preemptive strike in the psychological sphere. That was one rife moment. Club Negro, they didn’t know how to take it. Didn’t know whether you were mocking their own self mockery, confessing something, or what.”

Turk, softening, agrees. “Yeah, rife. Club Negro wondering what was going on, what it meant. Pausing to think.”

“A crisis of interpretation,” Sugar Boy elaborates. “Epistemology doing what it does best, reaching a stalemate. The tide was turned. They walked away.” “That wasn’t a tactic, that was nothing but abject cowardice. And my point,” I insist, “is that you thanked us. But I never told you the truth, and it’s bothered me all these years. I didn’t do anything to get your thanks, Turk. I don’t even know what might have given you the idea that I was trying to help. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was holding a balloon, and I didn’t know whether to throw it along with the rest of them or …”

My words run away from home, everything of value wrapped in a kerchief tied to the end of a stick, and they wave farewell to what I was trying to say, whatever it was I was trying to express. Sugar boy clears his throat but has nothing to add.

Turk finally says, “Hell, Peace, you must think I’m a fool. I knew that. And anyway, you didn’t throw it.”

“I might have been about to,” I object.

“Facts is facts. I don’t care what might have happened, what almost happened. Fact is, for whatever reason, you didn’t. End of story.”

   

We drive on in end-of-story silence.

      
                                                *

Mosquitoes with their small talk try to engage our necks in intimate conversation, our hands slapping and sweeping as we squat, captive audience at the side of the road, to watch a presentation called The Treadless Tire Exacts Revenge. The presentation is monotonous, the dramatic arc static, but the star’s wardrobe is the biggest disappointment, ripped at the seams, an ill-fitting hemline of rubber hanging low and puddling the asphalt. We’re squatting on the shoulder, the side opposite the traffic that passes and strikes at Turk’s disabled Dodge Dart with a piñata stick of speed that misses but rocks the car with paddles of wind. I squat until the tines of my toes fork pain into the middle of my foot, then stand. Sugar Boy stays in his squat and Turk sits. The hood and the trunk are open (why the hood?), the hazard lights blinking like a cursor in a pre-crash Word document, the world knows that we’ve fallen into steep disgrace. Yes, there’s something dishonorable, even disreputable, about a car at the roadside with a flat tire. At least that’s what you feel as a passerby as you ease your foot off the accelerator a little and Linda Blair your neck so that you can study this astonishing spectacle at your leisure, look! an actual car with an actual flat tire, secure in the knowledge that you’ve escaped the humiliation fate is meting out to the distressed owner of the disabled vehicle. The owner somehow deserves what fate has wrought, possesses some secret flaw of character or at the very least shamefully lacks the financial resources necessary to avoid the mishaps that are the consequence of negligent vehicular upkeep. Every so often, to demonstrate that this is merely a madcap adventure rather than some sinister collapse of probity in the moral sphere, I wave cheerfully at a passing motorist, and if there are kids in the car they wave back, decals of flat face glued to glass.

Turk did have a spare Goodyear, and I had been relieved to see its brawny donut dunked in the darkness and junk cupped by the trunk. Sugar Boy had removed it, let it fall with a sturdy single bounce, spanked it with a sound reminiscent of mildly sadistic sex into motion with the rigid palm of his hand, leaning it next to its spent twin. Spanking the tire along, he seemed suspiciously practiced and enthusiastic, as though he’d participated in many mildly sadistic sex acts, perhaps with tires somehow serving a facilitative function. Next came the jack, rattling in its many joints and brackets like a war veteran with multiple metal plates and pins in a skull with garish voodoo doll stitches, but functional, we assumed. But when we looked for the last needed piece, the lug wrench, we couldn’t find it. We couldn’t find it, though we pawed mightily, scooping out old blankets and towels, bags of Cheetos and microwave popcorn, boxes of Cherrios, cans of sardines and Spam.

“Damn, Turk. Don’t tell me you eat Spam?” Sugar Boy had asked.

Turk shrugged. “I don’t like to miss meals.”

No one has Triple A and we’re wondering what to do when a pickup truck pulls off the road onto the shoulder some distance behind our car. The trunk idles ominously, the driver revving the engine.

“Uh oh,” Turk says with the same dull tonality of doom he’d used that day in the alley, as though the man we observe sitting behind the wheel with the cowboy hat and string tie were a member of another dreaded club, Club Cowboy-Hatted Caucasian. “I don’t want no trouble from this motherfucker,” Turk says, standing, jacking up his posture.

“Jesus, Turk. So the man is driving a pickup truck, wearing a string tie and cowboy hat, and spitting tobacco,” I say, watching the man walk toward us, spitting tobacco, “so that means he’s a member of the KKK?”

Still in the process of standing, which always takes a long time with Turk, as though two or three people inside him with bad knees were also standing, he says, “Looks like he’s wearing a sheet.”

“That’s not a sheet, it’s his face,” I whisper from the corner of my mouth, watching the man with a face as long and white as a KKK sheet approach us.

“Looks like you boys running a yard sale,” the man says, gesturing at the trunk’s junk tossed on the ground. He picks up a can of Spam. “Who eats this?”

“I do,” Turk says with a challenging tone. “Damn good grub,” the man says, examining the can admiringly. “I don’t care if it is pig lips and a host of other such byproducts. People turn their noses up at it don’t know what they’re missing, to my way of looking at it.”

Turk seems to relax. “That’s just what I was telling him,” he says, indicating Sugar Boy.

“I’d like to have this, if you don’t mind,” he says to Turk. He has the sort of crumpled aluminum eyes that look like they’re winking even when they’re not. It gives him a vaguely tongue-in-cheek, conspiratorial look. White hair long as a stretch limousine swerves down to his shoulders, white skid marks for sideburns. The skin of his face is rough, salted by weather, seasoned by a Lawry’s of robust climate. Before Turk can answer the man stuffs the can of Spam in the pocket of his blue jean jacket. The pocket is shallow and the can rolls out. He picks it up, wedges it with difficulty in the back pocket of his decade-colored Levi 501s. He says, “Roger T. McGruter would like to offer you his assistance.”

“Who’s Roger T. McGruter?” Turk asks, a literal thinker.

“You looking dead at him,” Roger T. McGruter says. “I believe in good samaratinism, what you see on bumper stickers described as acts o’ random kindness. Help out thine neighbor is a motto that any of the various vicinities in these United States could stand to benefit from, I say. Lived my whole life by it, haven’t done too bad. What you fellows need, other than a new car?”

“We don’t have a lug wrench,” Sugar Boy explains.

“Hell, that’s easy. Wait here. Well, where else would you wait, I guess.” He walks back to his pickup truck, legs bowed as a mouth harp.

“What’s this guy’s story?” Sugar Boy asks. “What’s anybody’s story?” Turk replies. “He likes Spam. Can’t be all bad.” He nods toward the truck while Roger T. McGruter rummages around in the pickup’s back seat. “Wonder who’s the woman in the truck with him? She hasn’t moved an inch since he pulled up.”

A woman with black hair, an old Milwaukee Brave’s baseball cap and sunglasses sits in the passenger seat.

Sugar Boy observes, “Looks like she’s in a stupor. Probably just got through eating four, maybe five cans of Spam.”

Roger T. McGruter has returned and hands the wrench to me, slippery beneath strata of grease, and Sugar Boy and I bend to the tire. Turk looms, aimlessly.

“Where you kids headed?”

“Sister Bay,” Turk says.

“Nice vicinity, Sister Bay. You don’t have far to go. If you’re into bed and breakfasts, then that’s where you wanna be. Fact this whole Door County vicinity is more or less a bed and breakfast paradise – or hell, depending on your point of view. I don’t think there are any actual residents up here. Just owners of bed and breakfasts.”

He pluralizes and pronounces the word breakfast as I’ve heard some labor to braid the end of the word breasts with tendrils of double Ss.

Turk has, with an air of self-sacrifice, assumed the strenuous responsibility of engaging the Samaritan in polite conversation while Sugar Boy and I watch the nails on our fingertips explode as we attempt to unscrew lugs that some ingenious misanthropic mechanic has welded to its posts with a flamethrower. I’m wondering how we’ll manage this without a double Whopper-sized patty of C4. Of course, as you’re traveling at 90 mph down some highway in the middle of nowhere they’ll fly off like a nymphomaniac’s bra and when you see a tire go bouncing past your window you think, some poor sucker’s in deep trouble. Then you hear a nasty thump, sparks wallpaper the side window and your car tilts, preparing to drop and roll like a person on fire.

“You a B&B owner?”

“Naw, I grow orchards. Cherry, apple.”

“Must be nice to live up here, though. This whole area’s really something.”

“Some call it the Cape Cod of the Midwest. But it ain’t much of nothing if you got nobody to share it with. You just plain forget about how beautiful it all is.” He pauses, thoughtfully kicking at a can of Spam with the toe of his cowboy boots. This reminds him to pat his back pocket to confirm that the Spam he gave himself is still there. “My wife passed away. Beauty no longer seen is a species of grief, I guess.”

Turk drops his head, massages the back of his neck in awkward sympathy. “Man. I’m sorry to hear that. I bet she’d want you to hang in there.”

“I should be over it by now, but … hell, I don’t know.”

“I’m no expert, but they say these things take time.”

Sugar Boy wipes his forehead. A line of grease now bridges his eyebrows, creating one long eyebrow. The eyebrow is hypnotic and strangely obscene, like Rasputin. I consider telling him about it but don’t.

Traffic with a superiority complex roars by on tires that would never stoop to blowing out.

“She passed on, what’s it been now, some twenty-five years ago. Don’t seem like that long, though.”

“Twenty-five years ago?”

“Don’t seem that long, though.”

Turk says, “That’s …”

“Can’t nobody take her place, I guess, when you come down to it.” He notices Turk looking at the woman in the pickup truck. “Her? A man’s gotta keep some kind of company to keep from going crazy with aloneness. I promised Grace’s – my departed – memory that I wouldn’t never fall in love again. That could have been a hard promise to keep, but I figured out a way, kept my promise. No, I don’t think Grace would much mind her.”

“Well, we do what we have to do.”

“See, Grace was never much one for the old bumpety bump.”

Turk looks puzzled until the other forms a circle with the thumb and index finger of his right and plunges the forefinger of his left hand in and out in the circle.

Sugar Boy and I are only a foot away but for some reason he cups his hands to his mouth. “How you boys doing down there?” When he says the word there, he draws it out in imitation of a diminishing echo. “THERE THere There there there … ”

Exchanging glances every so often at some particularly interesting remark of Roger T. McGruter’s, we continue to work with the tacit understanding that we’re rapidly approaching the saturation point at which casual confessions take on for the listener a morbid or grotesque quality, that the only way to avoid this would be to work with the frantic focus and concentrated intensity of a pit stop crew on Dexedrine to get the spare tire on.

“Just about done, down here,” I gasp.

“Since she didn’t think much of that business anyway, she wouldn’t care about … ” He flicks his thumb at the truck.

Holding the tire while I tighten the lugs furiously, Sugar Boy says, “You and your friend have an understanding, is what I'm getting.”

Prefacing his response with a thoughtful purse of the lips, he takes off the cowboy hat to wipe his brow with the back of his hand. The hat had hidden his head’s hairless crown, the lank white shoulder-length hair fostering the illusion of full growth. In actuality, head and hair resemble a jellyfish, those long tendrils radiating from the bottom of a plasmic saucer-shaped bell. Now he seems older and sadder, but in an aquatic kind of way. It’s as though he’s floating alone, lost, with a jellyfish’s slight translucent grip on the surface of the sea’s blank toss. “Dolly ain’t the kind to demonstrate too much understanding, I’ll be the first to admit.”

Sugar Boy grants, “She looks like she’d be the … self-possessed, silent type.”

Dolly sits in her Spam stupor, staring at us from behind the sunglasses.

“Done,” I announce, standing.

“So be it then. Hope you boys find what you looking for in Sister Bay.”

I think about what he’s just said and decide it’s a dark portentous remark.

We thank him. We watch Roger T. McGruter twang back to the pickup on mouth harp legs.

Turk says, “I guess he wasn’t so bad. Felt kind of bad for him, that wife business. Twenty-five years of grieving? Grace sure put one hell of a love mojo on Roger T. McGruter. And managed to hold him all that time even without bumpety bump? Hell of a woman,” he concludes, as though he’d known her.

He passes us in the truck, slowing to salute, honking flatulent horn.

“Yo, McGruter!” Turk bellows. He snatches the lug wrench from my hand, holds it high over his head, waving it like a flag. A banner of patriotic grease spangles the air with tattered stars and ragged stripes. The truck swerves off the road to the shoulder, a few feet in front of the car. Sugar Boy and I trot over to the passenger side. Turk trots too, but less so. He hands the wrench to Dolly, who refuses to take it.

Roger T. McGruter leans over across Dolly and takes the wrench. “She ain’t likely to be using them arms of hers anytime soon,” he says, chuckling. The reason Dolly would not be using her arms anytime soon is now apparent.

Surprise pinching his throat, Turk exclaims, “That’s …”

Leaning across Dolly’s lap, Roger T. McGruter explains, “Now hold on now, before you go figuring I’m ready for the nut house. If I’m nuts, it’s commonly so. Everyday walking around nuts like everybody else, I suspect. I’ll tell you boys something. Me and Gracie had plans. Them orchards came down to me from my papa. They was his dream, not mine. Me and Gracie, our dream was Puerto Vallarta. So long ago now I don’t even recall why Puerto Vallarta, but that’s where we was headed. Sell off them orchards when the time was right. Well, you wait for the right time, it passes you up like you wasn’t there. Remember that, boys. Gracie dropped dead, dead as George Washington and his wooden teeth. After that, I wasn’t going nowhere. Not without her.”

Because of the pressure of Roger T. McGruter leaning on her lap, Dolly adjusts forward a little, lets out a taut squeak as though uncomfortable or frightened.

“I suspected couldn’t nobody take her place, but I tried it with a couple girls. Jabbering all the time, hanging their undies and such on Grace’s shower rod. All that jabbering, but not in Gracie’s voice. And every time I laid with them girls, I felt like I was betraying her. Well, much as you’d like to think you can, you can’t go it alone. I don’t care what people say, we’re a species not cut out for it. Now Dolly here, true, she’s mute as a rock, but at least I don’t have to listen to somebody jabbering who’s not Gracie. But she’s a good enough listener, so when it’s night and all them apple trees are talking their tree talk, loneliest sound in the world when the wind blows, I can do a little jabbering of my own and it’s almost like I’m not alone in that house. Well, listen, I like to be off the road by nightfall, my night vision’s pretty poor, so I’m headed home. You boys feel like stopping outside of Jacksonport on the way back, come visit me and Dolly.” He chuckles again. “Just ask anybody, they’ll point the way to the McGruter orchards. I just got one favor to ask. Don’t go and ruin your trip feeling sorry for me. Like the young man said, I do what I have to.”

As he pulls away I see Dolly wave, her plastic arm in its blue jean jacket manipulated by Roger T. McGruter, the wig on her plastic head floating like a levitation of ebony plasma in the wind, the plastic skin taut with the pressure of his warm trapped breath straining against its seams, skin that squeaks like a squeegee over the window of a home where no one lives when Roger T. McGruter caresses it.

Insects declare war, kamikaze the windshield, smoking as they crash.

                                                 *

Turk is singing “On The Road Again,” pinches his nose to duplicate Willy Nelson’s signature brittle but somehow winning nasality, a sort of tuneful intrepid non-singing.

The gravedigger of grief and time and smoldering dreams had dug a plot in Roger T. McGruter’s heart. He’d made the blow-up doll, Dolly, McGruter's gravestone. As I drive, a line from some book by Richard Brautigan hands me a ticket to its merry-go-round somewhere in my head: “The other graveyard was for the poor and it had no trees and the grass turned a flat tire brown in the summer and stayed that way until the rain, like a mechanic, began in the late autumn.” It was Roger T. McGruter’s epitaph, summing up what had happened to him, except for the poverty and the redemption of the rain. But rain in autumn doesn’t seem a plausible redemption, nature weeping its way into transparencies of freeze and calendar’s quarter of bitter white like night turned inside out, showing its cotton lining.

Strangely, no one says a word about the Samaritan or Dolly. Turk should be howling with laughter, bursting with heart-felt curses, retelling the tale and lingering on the highlights, making it broadly racial, hilarious with condemnation. Sugar Boy should be riffing off Turk, adding his own philosophical shading, fine-tuning the nuances, casting conclusions like runes. And I, of course, would be mostly silent, saying this or that but not too much, filing it all away for future reference, maybe wondering what Sage would think. Because if she were here now she’d have something to say, and with her awareness that words not carefully chosen often trivialize what they’re meant to represent, she would offer them in a way calculated not to parade an opinion but to orchestrate closure, much as a cut to complete healing must knit the tender integument of a scab. For without closure, Roger T. McGruter would continue to chimera the car with his presence, sitting next to Turk on the back seat, with Dolly’s figment in her rigid stupor on his lap.

I don’t want Roger T. McGruter with the echo of his ominous pronouncement “I hope you find what you’re looking for in Sister Bay” to accompany us on our journey through the land of bed and breakfasts, so I say, “Who knows, maybe he’ll change his mind, sell his orchards, and make it to Puerto Vallarta one day.”

“Sun and surf. Palm trees,” Turk says.

“Tropical midnights. Rainbow-colored birds and the ocean,” Sugar Boy rhapsodizes.

“Tequila with salt and lime,” I add, “maid service for pennies on the dollar to take care of your villa.”

“Senioritas with anatomy just begging for the sun screen in your hands,” Sugar Boy dreams.

But it’s Turk who finds the concluding segue we’ve been looking for, an inspired way to end this cataloguing of piecemealed paradise that otherwise might go on breaking off nuggets, falsely sweet, in our mouths forever. “Maybe somebody to make him let go of twenty-five years, or even pull the plug on Dolly.”

Did you hear that, Roger T. McGruter? He heard. Because he’s far from ready to pull the plug, not close to letting go (these things take time Turk had said), his presence tags along for the ride to Sister Bay. But it's time for him to go. I make him rise through the roof like a prayer hoisted on a pulley, until he’s aloft, alone with the things he must understand and accomplish spread out before him in an astral grisaille, waving to us as he coils up the spiral of his goodbye.

Beauty no longer seen is a species of grief, Roger T. McGruter had said.

                                               *

The village of Ephraim is the last before Sister Bay. I’ve had just about enough of 19th-century fishing towns, villages diademed on brows of beaches above lacy robes of shores, the 1000-acre nature preserves and the serpentine hiss of slithering tides, the million maritime museums, the lighthouses like martyred solitude, the wildlife sanctuaries and exhibitionist birds modeling their breasts in feather push-up bras for tourists’ binoculars, the blacksmiths’ peppermint shower of sparks, red and white-hot iron pounded into quaint weathervanes and lightening rods. I’ve seen enough old-fashioned this and that, raw-planked lodges that make you think of how Pinocchio might look with skinned knees, restored barns and country stores with barrels where crocodilian dills likely bobbed in brine, and all the yacht clubs, the shoreline artisans with their exorbitantly priced hand-hewn arts and crafts, the monarchal state parks, golf courses the size of medieval city-states, rainbow reaches of wildflowers, historic one-room school houses, waverunners bucking in a rodeo of water while parasailers above drift their wind-borne spores in kaleidoscope colors, the inverted cones of steeples capping a boxy custard of churches on hills, the spirit of Lutheranism mirrored in edifice cold and austere as sugarless ice cream.

There was none of this rich tabulation in the streets and neighborhoods of the city I knew, no vibrant backdrops to enliven the monotones and monotonies, no spaces green as comic book kryptonite, and consequently nothing stood out but the people themselves. Their faces were their museums and they were artisans of bric-a-brac lives salvaged and collected and displayed on unvarnished shelves. If everything leading to Sister Bay was sweep and depth depicted in lambent swatches of color, the people incidental as an afterthought, then the invisible city I’d inhabited was a reversal, a place where the brittle one-dimensional environment was absorbed by the people, who stood out in aggressive relief, bloated by what they’d been made to digest. They arrayed and offered up the items they’d collected as curiosities, tiny exotic vases and decorative boxes containing the fragments, some fragile and others sturdily imperishable, that had become central for them in odd and enigmatic ways and represented facets of personal history they believed were worth preserving.

There was an old man I’d seen in the neighborhood who carried with him and displayed wherever he wandered the queen he’d won from an opponent in a game of chess played every day in Garfield Park, a contest reputed to have lasted over two years. He approached strangers and introduced the queen with a name I can no longer remember, but I recall that his wife had died of breast cancer and he’d lost a son in Operation Desert Storm, and I suspect the queen, shaped like the hole in his memory his family had left, was his new family. When I thought about it, I could come up with theories – the queen was made of plastic and would last a million years, impervious to war and disease – but these were my inventions, and the old man’s reasons for settling on the familial substitute of a plastic queen were ultimately unfathomable. There were other things he could have chosen to symbolize the permanence I imagined he longed for, a rock, a steel link, a diamond, all these would have outlived him – why a queen?

There was the owner of the Cut-‘N-Go Barbershop who mounted a letter in a gilded frame on the wall above his chair, a letter sent to him from San Quentin by a eighteen-year-old customer whose hair he had cut in a stylish fade on the day that the boy confessed his intention to rob a liquor store. The barber had pleaded with the boy, tried to roadblock his path with reason as he maneuvered the clippers slowly enough to allow him time to construct his arguments, built on illustrations of the consequences that followed ill-considered actions, with the unsparing vividness he’d hoped would dissuade the teenager. Pictograms of locks fell from the stony walls of the boy’s skull, cave art flaking down to glyph the floor. The boy stood, stomping through the herd of wooly mammoth scattering beneath his Niked feet, and when he reached the door, he pulled a Tech 9 from within the stadium-sized space contained by a Raider’s jacket, caressing it and laughing. “When I come back tomorrow, I’ll have a fat tip to give you for the clip,” he’d promised, and then he languished behind prison walls. The barber received the letter one year later, composed in a cell like the crowded inside of a mailbox. The letter said only, “I should have listened. Now it’s free haircuts for life.” Why did that letter become the most important thing in the barber’s world? Hung on the wall like an antler’s head, a hunter’s paralyzed prize, it seemed to draw a mournful pride from him, and he would point to it, gesturing in wide orchestral sweeps with the clippers, subjecting perplexed customers to the same story over and over, until in the end his customers had dwindled to an infrequent few. At first I thought that maybe the barber felt personally responsible, in the way that people feel responsible for tragedies that, held to logical standards, are not within their power to avert. But then I would hear that he’d spent an entire week denouncing the youth to quizzical patrons, insisting that although he received a sentence of life with no possibility of parole, he’d gotten off lightly, and that what he really deserved was the electric chair (the owner of the liquor store had been shot in the throat, killed). So I had revised my theory: Maybe the letter and his obsession with it was simply the air inflating an empty ego, the pneumatics of self-importance producing the helium hiss of I-Told-You-So, a braggart’s overweening desire to float above others, to be right. But as soon as I reached this conclusion, I would hear that the barber was flipping the OPEN sign in the window to CLOSED in the middle of afternoons, was sitting in his chair holding the framed letter with his head so low on his shoulders that he appeared to be studying it in a decapitation of grief, muttering to himself or weeping.

At that point I was at a loss and went to Sage, hoping she’d be able to flesh out the wasted skeleton of my theories so that I could let the whole thing go, but all she’d said was, “That barber, Mr. Chaney … just leave him alone, he doesn’t need you low-vibing him, hectoring him with your thoughts.” In the dictionary according to Sage, low-vibing meant to be preoccupied in thought with another in a harmful way, a way that would intangibly and negatively impact the object of thought. She’d said it without heat, almost abstractedly, but still I protested. “How is that low-vibing Mr. Chaney? I’m just trying to understand so I can have some peace.” But she refused to elaborate and only gave me a long mysterious look.

There were others. A grandmotherly woman with 20-20 vision who had made a great deal of money in real estate lived on my block though she could have lived anywhere, walking the streets with a red-tipped cane, dark glasses, a German Shepard seeing eye dog named “Aesop” trussed in a complex harness made of twine. A mailman delivered packages containing paperbacks he’d purchased at a used book store, but no one complained because he always dropped off letters with checks early in the day. A ten-year-old kid, already over six feet tall, who walked around on stilts.

Why the letter, why spurious blindness, why used paperbacks, why stilts? I didn’t necessarily want to ask questions about them because there were never any answers, but I had no choice. They were naked and unless I persisted in keeping my eyes tightly closed, there was nothing to see but their lives.

In Door County, what I see first is environment, colossal and majestic as a whale.

The whale is so huge that its pores are the size of portholes, and if I peer through them I can catch glimpses of people inside, a population of tiny Jonahs who have been swallowed and live in the belly of a beautiful beast, hidden by what surrounds them. Whoever they are and whatever they might be seems less important than what powerfully enshrouds them. They are not naked, they are covered, cocooned in splendor. I would not ask questions about them in my mind, I would not wonder about them other than to dimly and academically wonder what their occupations might be, what pursuits of profession might have conveyed them here. This is a generalization, I know, but one that seems to have some utility for me, whispers with emotional resonance. This is a generalization, because sometimes the magnificent beast indifferently coughs up what it has swallowed, and in an exposure like premature birth someone like Mr. McGruter comes struggling out, clawing away the slick thick membrane, blinking in the light and blind to beauty and splendor, standing there alone with the species of himself, naked, with something to tell you.

Heat lightning in the distance makes bold physical statements like a bejeweled fashion model twisting down a runway.

Sugar Boy has announced, almost sheepishly, that a company has contacted him about one of his patented inventions.

He’s been contacted in the past by companies that specialized in extending offers that were actually cleverly disguised attempts to work inventors into a lather of excitement, then spend money on “marketing kits.” This, he insists, is different.

Turk is silent and I try not to cringe.

We’d like more than anything to see his dream come true, but we’ve witnessed the episodes of nearly clinical depression he suffers through when a “serious” prospect, one he believes to be fertile with promise, fails to produce the desired results. During those unhappy times, Sage, Turk and I pool our time and schedule a series of rotating shifts for the first three days, sitting with him, as he slumps listlessly with a primitively glazed look on his sofa, in order to lighten his spirits with entertaining anecdotes, brisk words of encouragement, frothy discourse on the rewards of persevering in the face of obstacles, and to urge him to maintain rudimentary rituals of hygiene, to bring him won ton or sweet and sour soup, to see that he is sufficiently hydrated, to phone his employer and rattle off symptoms describing rare and obscure illnesses justifying his absence from work, and to ensure that the limbo of marijuana intoxication he retreats into does not become so profound that he requires short-term rehabilitative physical therapy in order to stand up without toppling over. His depression was exogenous, the Boy of Fleece would have said. During the next two days, the length of our individual shifts shorten and our superintendence is less intensive as Sugar Boy, blinking his eyes laboriously as though awakening, begins the journey to the surface in earnest. For we three caretakers, this is a time of cautious celebration. While guarding against hubris, we allow ourselves to feel a modest sense of gratification and pride, knowing that our labors have been successful, that our efforts would likely have been judged as satisfying the most exacting and rigorous professional standards of treatment in psycho-therapeutic circles, and we seriously entertain the notion of returning to school to obtain degrees in the field of counseling, deciding against it in the end when we remember the soul-sucking exhaustion attending our recent ordeal.

As though easing a toe in the pool of my mind and gauging its temperature, Sugar Boy quickly leaps in and explains that this is different because a meeting has been settled on and will take place one week from today, they’ve made his travel arrangements, booked his flight to Newton, Iowa, the location of the corporate headquarters, paid for both his first-class roundtrip ticket on United and his overnight accommodations at the local Hilton.

“They did all that?” Turk asks, genuinely surprised.

Sugar Boy leans forward in the passenger seat and pulls an envelope from his back pocket. He shows us the roundtrip plane ticket. I’d like to grab the ticket and bite it, but it’s a letter, not a counterfeit coin.

I walk the precarious line between wild enthusiasm and dark cynicism. “Which invention?”

Sugar Boy strokes the kitten of sparse but frisky growth on his chin. “It’s a blanket.”

“Hmmmm,” Turk says, then snaps his fingers. “Don’t tell me, it’s a blanket with a built-in wool bookcase.”

Sugar Boy says, “You took your third-rate comedian pill today, is what I’m gathering.”

“Well you wanna get all mysterious and shit with it, ‘It’s a blanket’ – you invite my abuse.”

“Forget it then.”

“Oh, now it’s got to be like that?” Turk huffs.

“Come on, SB,” I say. “Don’t listen to him. What’s the blanket do?”

“He told you,” Turk says, “it’s a wool bookcase you can sleep under.”

I turn around and look at Turk.

“Damn, Peace, don’t be looking at me while you supposed to be driving. You’ll hit a caribou or something. Then we’ll have to pull it off the road and cover it up with a cotton-and-rayon-blend bookcase.”

I look at Sugar Boy. “I’m begging you.”

I think Turk’s somewhat mean-spirited repartee is a self-protective reflex designed to mitigate the apprehension he feels at the looming prospect of having to coax a dejected Sugar Boy back to the world of the living.

Sugar Boy speaks directly to me, pointedly excluding Turk, but in an orotund voice loud enough to be audible to a profoundly hearing-impaired person, so that Turk, even though he does not deserve to be enlightened, will nevertheless not miss a word. “It’s a cooling blanket, placed on top of the mattress and under the fitted sheet. It’s for people who live in houses without central air conditioning, way cheaper than a room air conditioner, for those who can endure the heat during the day, but want to be able to cool off to sleep comfortably on hot summer nights. It’s portable. You plug it in for 8 hours before using it – charging consumes very little electricity – and then you detach the cord and the cooling elements retain their efficacy for a full 24 hours. Comes in three different lightweight sizes, small ones so that you can take it with you, like if you go camping or in the car or traveling or whatever. Right now it’s called Chill Out.”

“Dammmmn,” Turk says, impressed. “You know, you think of how crazy ideas must have sounded before they became products, like the Clapper. I mean, when Mr. Clapper himself decided to go public and break it down, must have seemed like a pretty jacked up idea. But this one? Doesn’t even sound all that crazy.”

Now I’m excited, but still cautious. “But what’s the company?” I’m hoping, praying it’s not some fly-by-night operation set up by some college kid in daddy’s garage. “Who’s interested in it? Have we heard of them?”

Sugar Boy pauses. “Well, the guy calls me and starts talking about how R&D saw it on my website and wants to work with me on it, how much they liked it, and he doesn’t mention the company’s name, so I’m thinking this time, this time I’ll be careful, really look into it to make sure they have some kind of reputation …”

Here it comes, “Bubba’s Thingamagig Incorporated.”

“What is the motherfucking name of the company? Just say it,” Turk demands.

Sugar Boy sighs. “It’s May’s Mag,” is what I hear him say.

Suddenly Turk is whooping it up, throwing himself from one side of the car to the other, clapping, singing “He’s in the money, he’s in the money, da da da da da da da DA DA – DA DA!” the car bouncing dangerously, but why would he be exploding in jubilation for May’s Mag? so I’m thinking maybe I didn’t catch it because of the noisy trinity of wind and acceleration and traffic crucifying my ears, but Turk did, somehow. “It’s what?”

“It’s Made Sag.” “Whooo-eeeee!” Turk continues to explode.

I pull over on the shoulder to let traffic bullet past, park the car and cut the engine so that I can hear clearly, and ask him one more time.

“Jesus, Datch, what are you, 97? I said, it’s Maytag. They make washers and dryers,” he explains patiently. “I guess they’re diversifying.”

Turk leans forward and he and Sugar Boy collide palms in a furious high five.

                                                 *
   

We watch bubbles and froth jump and jabble on the caldron’s surface, witches of steam weave spells in the air.

A short and sweet celebration suggested by Turk, in honor of Sugar Boy’s imminent success and Turk’s unending appetite, is why we’re standing here with 15 or 20 other people, for nothing says Door County like a traditional fish boil, the roadside sign proclaimed, and we’ve made good time, another 45 minutes and we’ll be in Sister Bay, slightly ahead of schedule even with the flat-tire-inflatable-doll fiasco, and it would, according to Turk, be a goddamned shame to have seen the richness of Door County only through the mosaic of spaces mapping the insect buckshot peppering the windshield, and though I don’t want to stop and Sugar Boy doesn’t really want to stop, we are stopped, here on the outdoor patio in the rear of B.T. Franklin’s Norwegian Restaurant in Ephraim Bay. Franklin doesn’t sound like a Norwegian name to me but I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the expert in all things Norwegian.

Since I’m not a seafood lover, a fish boil doesn’t sound at all appetizing to me, but maybe if I had been eating sardines and Spam all day I would be primed for it, like some sort of byproduct-and-sardine carburetor enticed into revving by the promise of fuel higher up on the food chain, boiled lake trout and whitefish. And don’t forget potatoes, Turk had pointed out, they put potatoes in there too.

And in fact Sugar Boy says to me, whispers, “I can think of no worse celebration meal, really,” but Turk is smiling broadly, a piano keyboard grin with his teeth sinking and rising, playing chords of gluttonous anticipation, and he’s rubbing his palms together vigorously enough to ignite glass, his posture a textbook illustration of hovering vulpine readiness, and we don’t have the heart to demonstrate our distaste by vomiting in front of him, near or directly on his feet.

In the middle of an area encircled by a low brick wall, the caldron’s suspended over a roaring wood fire with flaming logs vertically stacked against the kettle’s pear-shaped base, broad hands of fire with cobalt and turquoise varicose veins saluting the black’s cast iron. The heat projects deadly depth, the pores of your skin gaping behind their 3-D glasses.

“This is fun as hell,” Turk tells us. “Isn’t this a whole lot better than hitting the crack pipe?”

This remark is a bold invitation to withhold comment.

A father standing nearby with his a pair of sons smiles encouragingly at Turk. Maybe he’d fought his own battle with demon crack, writhed through rehab to emerge sober and clean, and is now in a position to sympathize.

A man who’s called “master boiler Gerald Pipey” is stationed near the caldron. Stomach overhanging his belt, he stands with authority, legs wide as a flying squirrel’s aerial spread, whistle a large middle-knuckle of chrome on a shoestring around his neck, gym teacher style. He blows the whistle and a harassed-looking teenaged boy decked out in culinary whites and wearing a chef’s hat sprints over from the sidelines, stirring the kettle’s contents with a long-handled ladle. Another young assistant with a poker, less alert, stumbles to the caldron from his post on the side opposite his coworker and jabs fretfully at the tepee of logs, realigning them.

After glaring at the assistant, master boiler Gerald Pipey addresses the crowd, aiming a pointer at the caldron like it’s slide show. “This is a traditional fish boil, people. Tonight you are taking part in a great tradition dating back to the time of the Scandinavian settlers here in the Peninsula. A lot of people think this is easy. Well,” he says, his voice crumbling into baritone gravel, “who wants to step up here and try it? Who wants to try to toss that can of kerosene on those flames there at the required exact, precise moment? Anybody here willing to risk possible hair singeing or first degree burns?” Hair singeing and first degree burns are considered by all, the risk rightly rejected. The crowd, previously murmuring with excitement, falls into an uneasy silence. Those who had been drinking beer or cider from mugs the size of small aquariums drink with less zest, begin to sip with caution. The master boiler, Gerald Pipey, squints appraisingly at bystanders. “Oh. No takers? No volunteers? That’s what I thought. This is how it works, people. There are chunks of whitefish in that boiling kettle. Whitefish is a tasty and firm white meat of a fish and that is why those chunks of whitefish are in there. Just like in the life you live, timing is the cardinal element here. Earlier when I blew this whistle, trainee Robert Varsh responded by depositing rock salt in the receptacle, one pound per every two gallons water, no more, no less. Anybody here with blood pressure concerns? Hypertension? Anybody wants to flat out ask me, ‘Master boiler Pipey, why not go easy with those pounds of salt?” The crowd wisely withholds comment. “No takers? No devils’ advocates? The salt does not cause those red potatoes in there to be overly saline. It does not cause the whitefish to be overly saline. Yes, it is seasoning, but the purpose of that salt is physics. That salt causes the augmentation of what’s called the spe-ci-fic gra-vi-ty, thus causing the oils produced by the fish to float. We want that floatage. We demand of those pounds of salt no less than that floatage. If you think we are going to serve you a plate swimming in rank fish oils, think again. That salt will make some of the oil foam right to the top, where it can be, and has already been, skimmed off. Questions?”

One of the rehab father’s sons raises his hand and speaks when given the nod. “Is it a special kind of rock salt?” he asks, breathing through his mouth, kid sytle.

Beneath heavily twisted master boiler eyebrows that look crudely industrial, like girders or the Russian alphabet, Gerald Pipey stares at his questioner so long the boy finally drops his gaze.

“Some establishments will add onions to the kettle for additional flavoring, but we are purists. This fish is damned fresh and we feel onions will overpower the fresh fish flavor. We don’t need onions and we don’t want onions. Onions are not welcome around here. There was a patron here couple of weeks ago who actually attempted to assault the kettle. He ran up to that kettle right there with an onion he had hidden in his jacket pocket, and attempted to insert that onion into the kettle. I say, he attempted. A little something called ‘flames leaping into and consuming patron’s hair’ put an end to that attempt. Now? Now he wears a cheap toup. Lesson? Stay away from the kettle.”

Abruptly he blows the whistle three times, a rapid short burst reminiscent of strafed small arms fire. It seems to me that the whistle blowing is a bit excessive, betrays a soupcon of shrill fanaticism, but as a result of the elaborate pains taken by the master boiler to explain the intricacies of the process, I know that there are factors involved here that I could never, given the limited scope of my experience and knowledge, hope to comprehend. He is the master boiler, blowing the whistle with what untrained eyes might be temped to see as rabid intensity, because the situation apparently demands it.

Underscoring my conviction that the whistle has a range of applications in the rarefied fish boil milieu reaching far beyond my ability to comprehend or predict, an older man dashes out from the restaurant playing a bouncy German polka, boxed in behind an accordion that, fully expanded, reveals in the stiff vertical planes of its bellows the suggestion of rudimentary black prison bars. He seems imprisoned not only by the instrument but by his outfit, red suspenders and shorts, knee-length stockings and jaunty cap, the ensemble delivering the overall effect of jovial emasculation commonly produced by authentic folk costumes worn by spirited adult males.

Gerald Pipey stiffly consults his watch, holding his arm straight out. “I will now monitor the time. When a predetermined number of minutes elapses, eye period e period, when the fish reaches the exact moment of doneness, I will pour that kerosene onto the fire. Flames will shoot up, like the very flames of Hade’s conflagration. I suggest you do not position yourself with an immovable object behind you, in case there is wind shift and fire explodes out, in the direction of your hair. Are there any attorneys in the crowd?” No one responds, preserving the evening’s intimidated status quo. “Good. Enjoy yourselves.”

Some people dance, some chat, others clap and sway. The accordion sounds as though you’re listening to it through the thinnest tympanum of generic brand aluminum foil stretched over your ears.

Something in Turk, as he watches a Velcro of turbulence rip and re-adhere its foam to the water’s surface, moves like a zoom lens into the caldron, the melted celluloid with its blurred movie of churning potatoes and fish, a scene his appetite steps into like an actor inserting himself into a role he feels connected to deeply. His eyes are glazed with glassy stare, hands shoved deep in the pant pockets of his black running suit, jiggling the nickels and dimes, the small change of a dreamy absorption. A running suit is virtually the only thing Turk ever wears because the elastic waistband stretches amiably to embrace his girth. Sugar Boy and I are standing behind him, and we step closer to hear him as he begins to speak.

“It’s funny how I can always eat. Like right now – and I’m not even really hungry.”

Shock drives its shaft through my chest and I glance at Sugar Boy, whose face mirrors the pierce of my spear. In all the time I’ve known him, Turk has never talked about his weight. It’s a topic that I’ve discussed on occasion with Sugar Boy, who believes Turk’s obesity has its origin in a metabolic imbalance, or has something to do with brain peptides, the hypothalamus, a protein called leptin that’s responsible for crossing the blood-brain barrier and routing messages that signal satiety. It was like listening to Kodiac expatiate at length on how the kingdom of a chemical utopia, fashioned with turrets of mystical states and vaulting spires of bliss and the cupolas and minarets of visionary beauty, could be constructed with reconfigured pathways and tweaked neurotransmitters, a premise resting on a foundation of inchoate knowledge that nevertheless was apparently to some extent scientifically true. But while it may have been true, Turk – or anybody for that matter – was more than the sum total of a particular state.

Sugar Boy and I had known Turk for years and I felt certain that if he hadn’t spoken to us about his obesity, then he probably hadn’t broached the issue with anyone at all, other than perhaps with his family. I mentioned to Sage one evening, seriously and with no attempt to dehumanize him by making him the butt of a callous joke, that the silence Turk surrounded himself with must have felt like solitary confinement, a cell where the prisoner was not served bread and water on a tin plate, but was served entire sides of beef, pigs on skewers, whole turkeys and every variety of fowl, bushels of fish, loaves of bread, a feast served on platter after gigantic platter, and that the prisoner was told that he had no choice, that if he didn’t consume it all he would surely die. I told Sage, spouting pop psychology aphorisms, that maybe if Turk could talk about it, he might begin to understand the ramifications of his silence.

Sage replied, “That’s not altogether true. Turk had called for you one night when you’d gone to your mom and dad’s for something, and we talked for a while, and one of the things he talked about was his weight.”

My surprise was so profound that I was speechless, and my initial response, which I hid from Sage, would return a short time later to haunt me with the pettiness and irrationality it had been rooted in, for instead of greeting the news that Turk had shared his burden with open arms, I’d picked at my scab of disappointment, bled betrayed friendship from my self inflicted wound. He had taken Sage into his confidence, while Sugar Boy and I had been relegated to the sidelines, after we had waited loyally and patiently all those years to hear his troubled confessions, offer him advice, wisdom, solutions.

“How long ago was that?”

She answered, “I don’t know – months ago.”

“How did you get him to do that?” It came out like an accusation.

“I didn’t get him to do anything. He just started talking about it.”

“But what did he say?”

“I’m not at liberty. I promised I wouldn’t go into detail with anybody else about it.”

Further attempts on my part to convince her that I had a right to know were met with some resistance. “No, no, and no, followed by a string of no’s stretching into the unforeseeable future,” she said.

“It wouldn’t be unforeseeable if you would just tell me.”

She clasped her head in both hands. “Ahhhh, devonee! Stretching into the foreseeable future, then.”

She had just called me crazy but I persisted. “That means you’ll tell me, maybe not now, but at some point taking place after a period of time you’re saying is foreseeable …” Sage paused, silently inhaling. Her breath accepted the nomination offered by an audible sigh. She began to explain how the attribute that most cogently set human nature apart from other life forms, in her opinion, was the ability to articulate negation and affirmation in the form of a simple yes or no, those twin engines that propelled historical forces and history itself, which was nothing but a long record of choices, along its uncertain trajectory. She explained that the irony was that hidden in the yes or no that was the ultimate distillation of our humanity was something that was not human at all, something that was coldly mathematical.

I listened, intrigued, wondering where she was going with this filigreed line of thought and how she would connect it to my desire to hear what Turk had said when they’d talked about his weight.

“Some people have the ability to make complex things simple, others have the gift – we’ll call it a gift – for making simple things complex. The latter group, the group you most definitely belong to, responds in an almost visceral way to complexity. You have to admit, I got your full attention with my preamble.”

“Yes and no as the ultimate human parameters, history as a record of choices, and this ironically non-human mathematical thing that I’m still waiting to hear about,” I said.

“Right. Here’s the mathematical thing hidden at the very core that I was talking about – no, no and no, followed by a string of no’s stretching into the un-or-forseeable future, plus an additional no, which you are hearing now, equals a NO of even greater magnitude.”

Sage laughed, delighted.

“Funny,” I said.

So not only was I ashamed of myself for begrudging Turk the listening ear he found with Sage, I was disgusted with myself for having been so easily duped by the ornate flight of abstraction Sage had known would draw me in. And to all this I was able to add yet another integer of frustration to complete the equation – I still didn’t know what Turk had said.

But now that Turk’s talking about his weight, I’m not sure I’m prepared to hear it.

“I don’t even like fish,” Turk confesses, staring at the caldron.

“You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to,” I tell him.

“I can always eat. If I’m happy, I’ll eat. Down, I’ll eat. Bored, depressed – I’ll eat. Whatever it is, when I’m eating, it makes me feel better. Afterward, it’s a different thing.”

“Turk, if it makes you feel bad, don’t eat,” Sugar Boy reasons. “Let’s just go, then.”

“I could go, but then I’d regret it. I’d be thinking about what I missed. Wouldn’t even be able to get that shit off my mind.” He watches a woman wearing a red satin Rolling Stones tour jacket standing by a table with an urn. She turns the spigot and a fragrant mahogany ribbon drops from the urn’s spout, coffee cupless for a moment as it falls, the ribbon cut when she cups it from the middle, coffee coiling to the rim and brimming. “All I’d do in the car was think about what master jackass Pipey said, how the fish and potatoes are served with melted butter, lemon, coleslaw fresh as a garden, homemade rye bread, cherry pie for dessert. You know how I told you me and Shayna needed some time apart? Made it sound mutual? It wasn’t. She gave me an ultimatum. Issued it to me like she was writing a parking ticket, pay up or go to jail. Told me how we had a good thing, told me ‘You got jokes and I like to laugh, you got IQ and I like to think, but I can’t take the whole weight issue anymore.’ When I didn’t execute, she stepped.”

Plugging his allegiance to Turk into a socket of disgust for Shayna, Sugar Boy begins to pace as though charged by crackling current. “If she felt that way, why’d she even start? Who is she to tell you what you need to do? Stop me if I’m wrong, but at eighteen the only thing she’s graduated from is Young and Dumb University – I told you she was too young – still lives at home, works in a shop called Beads And Braids installing weaves or whatever it’s called all day. Raw without the diamond.”

Bandit eyes steal glances at us as Sugar Boy paces, waving his arms. Even master boiler Pipey, Daniel Boone coonskin eyebrows furrowed, eyes intently tracking the fleet-footed fawn of minutes through Timex terrain, looks up from his wrist watch to see what Sugar Boy’s commotion is all about.

I pull the plug from the socket, cut his live wire current by grabbing Sugar Boy’s arm, point to folding chairs behind the table with the urn. After we sit, Turk massages the back of his neck and continues.

“It’s not her fault. When we met, I told her I was in a program to lose weight. I misrepresented.” Sugar Boy pushes his point like a harried number 2 SAT pencil, lead snapping. “She’s supposed to care about you, and she breaks up for superficial bullshit?”

“Listen. You got my back and I appreciate it, but people don’t make textbook decisions. What if it was you? What if you met a supersized chick? In a club, or next to the lettuce bin at Ralph’s. Gives you that look that says bring it on. You about to tell me you look through what you see like it’s invisible?”

Sugar Boy opens his mouth to speak and Turk says in a warning tone, “Wait. Think about it first. Don’t say the right thing, say the real thing. And while he’s thinking about it, Peace, before you jump in, you lay some gray matter on the table too. What if it was Sage? What if when you met her on that bus, instead of weighing in at about, what, 120, she was pushing 200 straight off the edge of the big chick cliff?”

It’s a silence so thick you could cut it with a chainsaw and the blade would break. “Hey, it’s not her fault I did this to myself. I was born big, I know that, but there was a point where I made it worse, after Grams on my mom’s side died. We were real close, me and that old lady. She had a ‘if need be, you and me can go head-to-head, toe-to-toe,’ approach I used to secretly get a real big kick out of. I could be a hard headed little dude but she had that old school disciplinarian thing down pat and I respected it, I looked forward to it. I remember after her funeral they had the wake in her house. I’d seen her in that coffin that morning and I just didn’t get it. At nine years old, all I knew was your dog died, folks on TV shows got blown up and died, but I didn’t connect it to anything. When I saw her in that coffin, man, I was just trying to figure it out. There she was, she was right there, in her body somewhere, but I couldn’t get to her. And she didn’t look like she was sleeping, either, like they tried to explain it. ‘Gram’s gone to sleep so she can be in heaven’ and that’s what death was. Whatever it was, it didn’t look like sleep. It looked like the opposite of sleep, like she was so full of whatever it is that makes you awake that she was paralyzed with it, except her eyes were closed. Everybody was at her house that night and I snuck off to the kitchen. I looked at the refrigerator – she used to call it the ice box. All the stuff Gram had cooked was in there – two days after Thanksgiving, so the ice box was still full. She’d made a glazed ham big as my head is now, big pot roast, capon, mashed potatoes and gravy, string beans and cornbread dressing, yams, greens, two or three peach cobblers, cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese casserole. Nobody was in the kitchen, so I took all these bowls and platters wrapped in aluminum foil and sat on the linoleum and unwrapped it. You know what I thought? I couldn’t get to her, but I could get her in me. I ate that shit like there was no tomorrow. I ate it with my hands. I ate it in the dark. In the dark with my eyes closed. I couldn’t even see what I put in my mouth. I was in leftover paradise, but it didn’t have anything to do with being hungry. She loved to cook, and I was just trying to get something of hers inside me.”

“Turk. You’ve never been to a doctor about your weight, right? It’s probably a metabolic dysfunction, shouldering blame is the wrong thing to do,” Sugar Boy argues.

“Might be,” Turk admits. “And I know the health consequences. My doctor wants to put me on a program, but there’s a part of it has nothing to do with that. My kind of hunger is a state of mind.”

“People,” master boiler Pipey announces, “we are now entering the final countdown. I will now toss this kerosene in this coffee can onto those flames. There will be a roar and a rush and a great boiling over. What’s left will be the perfectly done whitefish and potatoes that will keep you coming back to B.T. Franklin’s Norwegian Restaurant in Ephraim Bay year after year.”

“My mom was sick all the time after Grams died, all the time going to the hospital. She was having nervous breakdowns left and right but I didn’t know. Ambulance would come, off she’d go.”

“Five …” Pipey shouts.

“My pops was in the house, but he was so quiet it was like he wasn’t there. At night, I’d lay up in bed and think about Grams, try to figure out what death was.”

“Four …” “I got to thinking about death so much that at night in bed, I started to imagine I was a goddamn egg. Egg cracks real easy, everything spills out? I felt like I was an egg, and there was a big needle in the air above me, waiting to puncture the shell. Instead of me pouring out, nothingness would pour in.”

For the sake of the element of surprise, this time he lets the vocal ride, simply holds up three portentous fingers.

“That was death. I couldn’t begin to imagine what it was, so it was nothingness. I guess that heaven and hell thing didn’t fill in the hole like it was supposed to. After that as they say, the rest is history.”

“Two …”

“I ate to keep what was in the egg shell full. If death came and poked the shell with that needle, like it had with her, wouldn’t be room for the nothingness I couldn’t imagine to pour in. And I just kept on eating. I don’t eat, I’m in trouble.”

“One.”

“SB. Know what you need to invent? A time machine,” Turk says.

The accordion player squeezes out a final insanely played chord like Vincent Price resides in his fingers and dashes inside the restaurant. Master boiler Pipey blows the whistle, cheeks belling in balloons of muscle that would invite Dizzy Gillispe’s envy, flings a slosh of kerosene from a Folger’s coffee can onto the logs. People whose hunger is physical applaud and cheer as fire dances and leaps and kicks up legs in a can can of flames, disrobing petticoats of froth in a cascade that foams and diaphanates over the sides of the caldron’s hissing rounded rump. The air near the caldron smells as though it’s been filtered by a humidifier assembled from fish scales rather than plastic.

Turk stands, rubbing his palms together. “Let’s go. We got whitefish and cherry pie waiting for us. I don’t know about you boys, but I’m hungry.”

Next Chapter


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