Monday, February 12, 2018

the man i never wrote about

grass in the courtyard looked dry and brittle, like straw that would go up with the kiss of a match. it was the summer when everything got burnt by the terrible sun. brown leaves scuttled in the wind.

it was the summer of rick astley, perhaps the blandest singer to emerge from the morass of mid-80's pop, and his ear numbing big hit, which gregory listened to all the time, in the car's cassette player, in the boom box with the busted left speaker, and whenever they played the video on MTV, he would sing along at the top of his voice "together forever and never to part, together forever we two." gregory was not half the singer rick astley was.

it was the summer when it was over between us, and we both knew it, but we kept never talking about it.

one morning we fought over milk.
i was sitting at the little table with my coffee, studying the movements of a shadow cast by a stunted tree. i heard his bare feet slap against the wood floors, heard the cabinet open as he grabbed a clean mug. i heard the coffee being poured, and the glass carafe still half full going back into the Braun. i heard him go through the silverware drawer, to find a spoon. and then, the fridge door opened, followed by:  "did you forget to get milk?"
. "isn't there any in there?"
"no, there isn't any in here."
and the fridge was shut, firmly.
he stepped into the room. he was wearing his pajamas, grown up versions of the kind little boys wear, soft flannel, big buttons, and because it was summertime, these were shorts and a top with short sleeves, baby blue with palm trees and banana bunches. his hair was adorably corkscrewed, his glasses all smudged with fingerprints. i told him not to get those frames. i told him he would look like sally jessie rafael, which he did as he stood there with hands on hips. "you know i need milk for my coffee."
"drink it black" i took a sip of mine, to show him it could be done. "delicious."
"i put milk on the list when you went shopping. i remember it was the first thing on the list. MILK. right on the top."
"i must have forgotten."
"how do you forget something written on a piece of paper in your hand?"
"i must have not seen it." i saw it. i didn't forget. i didn't get the milk, on purpose. yesterday at the corner lil' peach, my hand was just reaching for a quart of the 2%, when i thought of stupid rick astley and that song. together forever. i hated that song. i didn't want to hear it ever again.
instead of buying milk i got myself a pack of newport lights, even though i was supposed to be quitting, and some tic tacs for the smoke breath. walking back to our place on queesnsberry street, i puffed my cigarette and didn't feel a pang about not getting his milk.
"well i can't have my coffee without it." gregory pouted.
"have some OJ," i said, "i remembered to get that."
he gave me a look. "let me put on some pants and some shoes. i'll go to the corner."
"no, you don't have to. i can go."
neither of us moved.
"i should go. i forgot it yesterday. " really, i needed to get out of the room. i needed a cigarette.
we looked at each other. i grabbed my jacket off the hook.
"get the paper too, since you're going."

things came to a head in San Fran. we'd bought tickets months before, to celebrate my graduation. it was a vacation which neither of us really felt like going on, but neither was willing to back out. it was a mute dance, we stumbled through the motions. we stayed on opposite sides of an enormous bed at the hotel where the doormen wore silly beefeater costumes.  we went to breakfast at a nearby dinner done up like a 50's bowling alley. we walked along the mission. we went to the castro, which was a sad echo of itself in these early days of aids. all the infamous baths were closed, and the cruisy spots we'd heard of. instead there were video stores and cafes and bodegas. we looked in store windows, bought the usual crap. we did fisherman's wharf, and rode a trolley car. we had a drink on the top of a famous landmark, where we watched the fog roll in with the evening.  we did all the things you do. i honestly don't remember a single thing we spoke of, or whether we laughed, or enjoyed ourselves.

i remember what i was reading, one of of the tales of the city series. armistead maupin's books had become a refuge in those lonely days, i'd read an entire one on the silent flight over, and was on the third installment. ever since we had talked about coming to san francisco, i thought of finding a real-life barbary lane, the wonderful apartment house where those stories took place. toward the end of that interminable week, i suggested we go on an adventure to find maryanne and mouse and mrs madrigal, but gregory said he was tired. so i went alone. i never found my fictive friends, or their home.  i spent the day climbing up and down hills and stairs, peeping into private gardens withered by the drought, but no barbary lane.

when i let myself back into our room, i was bone tired. i heard him talking on the room phone, he was laughing. when i came in he hung up.
"who was that?"
"no one, just my buddy bill. remember bill, the work friend i told you about?"
a few minutes later the phone rang. "oh hey bill, sorry i think we got disconnected." then he took the phone into the bathroom and closed the door.

the plan was to drive down the coast along pacific coast highway to eventually stop in LA where we were supposed to meet up with my friend barry who lived in weho. actually, gregory would be driving. i didn't drive. i still don't. it was a sore point between us. he resented driving everywhere. i tried to compensate.  i made co-pilot my job. i made sure there were snacks and drinkables, i had mix tapes i'd worked on for weeks (no rick astley), i had the map all ready to go. back then we still used those fold out maps. i was a damned good co-pilot.

we made our way through carmel, and monterray. it was about then when i remembered i'd forgotten my book back at the hotel. i was sure it was in my brown bag, but it wasn't.
"you're so irresponsible" he said.
"it's not that big a deal."
"you're always forgetting things."
"i had to bring your ID to work that time you left it at home."
"and i'll never hear the end of it." i changed the radio station.
"i was listening to that."
"since when do you like anne murray?"
"since i was listening to that song."
i changed it back, the push button made a satisfactory clunky sound.
we went on for a while. the highway is breathtaking coast line, steeply cut into a mountain range, the road hugs the curves of the hilly terrain formed by the intense pressure of two continental plates slamming into each other, and suddenly you are aware of the drop to the rocky crashing sea. it was an hour and a half of utter silence between us, punctuated by the radio pushbutton and pop music, the crinkling of the map as i folded and unfolded it, and the whirr of the AC on full blast.
"who's bill?" i asked. i couldn't take the quiet anymore. if we were going to have it out, let's have it out. "who's bill?'" i asked again when he didn't answer me after too many minutes.
"what do you want to know?"
"just a response to my question."
" i don't think this is the right time to have this conversation.'
"so, there is something to have a conversation about?" i'd lived with him long enough to learn that trick they must have taught him in law school, that facility of evasion.
"what are we waiting for?"
"now is not the time."
he just stared at the twisting ribbon of black top road that unspooled in an unending loop before us.

some miles later, he had to pee. we pulled up at a lone gas station/convenience store/ public restroom/pay phone at some town called santa someone. he slammed the driver's side door when he got out, leaving me to myself. fuck him, i thought. According to the map we were just about half way to LA., a long time to be sitting in a ford escort with him. i decided to get out and stretch my legs a bit. for good measure i slammed my door shut too, just as i noticed the keys in the ignition. of course, the doors auto locked. for a second i contemplated the craggy shelf of rock and the plummet to the pacific, wondering how long it would take to reach the ocean from this height.

he was carrying a couple cans of diet coke classic from the vending machine.
"what's the matter?"
i couldn't even look at him.
he saw the problem pretty quickly. "well that about figures."
"what is that supposed to mean?"
"i leave you alone for five minutes."
"you sound more and more like my fucking dad."
"you apparently need a parent, you're still a child."

so there we were, in the middle of nowhere. the gas station guy was no help. for a while i thought about hurling a rock through the window, it was a rental, we could say we'd been vandalized, but gregory said no way. the windows were all up, there was no way to get in with a jimmy or a clothes hanger, not that i had either a jimmy or a clothes hanger but i though of everything. i spent who knows how long in the phone booth with the yellow pages open to locksmiths, with my nearly maxed credit card, i called all around california, i must have made a dozen or more calls. one guy finally said he'd be there in 90 minutes, for 200 bucks. what could i say but yes?
i gave him our location: gas station in the middle of nowhere.

i hung up, exhausted. everything had taken a toll. all this mincing around each other, this stupid trip, this day when i wished i could have just gone back to bed and started all over again.
"a guy's coming." i said.
gregory was sitting on a picnic bench. he didn't answer.
"I'm sorry."
no answer.
"i'm really totally abjectly completely sorry."
"maybe you can't help yourself," he finally said. it was something you'd say to a puppy who shit on the rug, or to a slow child who's made a mess with his cream of wheat. it summed up everything he felt about me. i was some unformed tot, who could be counted on to ruin things, who was always going to let him down.

it was by now late afternoon. to pass the time, i read license plates of the cars that zoomed by. they kicked up red dust that got in my eyes, but i wasn't about to sit next to him, and there was nowhere else to be but leaning against the guard rail on the shoulder of the road. a motorcycle roared into the gas station driveway. an enormous man in black leather hell's angel gear got off the bike with a groan.
he nodded.
i nodded back, not knowing what else to do.
he took a quick glance at the montage we made, me and gregory and the car. "got trouble?" he asked.  even the casual passing stranger could see there was a problem here, that something was wrong with us, out of synch.
"are you the locksmith?" i asked, suddenly hopeful.
he shook his head "not exactly."
he was grizzled with a full ZZ top beard and every bit of visible skin was tattoed. he didn't look like a locksmith.
he glanced over to the rental. "locked yourselves out?"
i nodded again. gregory looked over, he saw me and the harley guy talking.
"what's going on?"
"nothing" i said, "go back to being an asshole."
the biker guy smiled. "lucky for you i come riding through," he said, "I might could help you out here."

for a minute, a brightly fleeting, tantalizing moment, a thought flashed in my mind: i could hop on the back of the motorcycle, and take off with my unlikely knight, where we would go, where he would take me, i didn't care, as long as i got out of this spot, away from gregory, away, somewhere away. it was silly, but i smiled. it never occurred to me before that i could leave. i could take off, right now.   it never crossed my mind that i might leave him, and i realized that every day for weeks i had been waiting for him to leave me. i was waiting for him to call it quits, end it. i was done waiting.

"i made a stop for some gas and a six pack, " my new friend said "if you give me a few bucks to cover that, i'll pop your lock. no problemo."
"sure" i said.
when he sauntered to the attendant, gregory came right over.
"is he robbing us?"
"yes. he's going to steal my swatch watch and the 45 dollars i have in my pocket. then he's going to slice me ear to ear and toss me off the cliff to be eaten by seals. how'd you like that?"
"what the hell are you talking about?"
"you don't need to pretend to give a shit about me anymore. i know it's over."
he stared at me.
"it's over," i said again, and it felt good in some unexpected way. it felt buoyant, floaty, an out of body thing.

true to his word, the guy returned. "lessee what we have here." he said. he pulled out a key ring that had dozens of odd appendages on it.
i could hear gregory breathing hard, he was still convinced we were about to get robbed. i hoped he got to his inhaler before he passed out. i didn't love him anymore, but i didn't want him dead either.
within 8 seconds the little nub doorlock popped up.
"ta da" said the harley guy.
i gave him a 20. "thank you, you have no idea. you're my guardian angel. my savior" i said.
he pocketed the bill, "let's just say i have a few things i need to make up for, you know karma? you'll be my good deed for the day."
he got on his bike, started it up with a noisy sputtering roaring spew of exhaust, nodded, and was gone. 
and that was the last of him. to this day, i think of how that guy saved me.

i got in the car and turned the radio on full blast. debbie harry heart of glass.
he interrupted my singing:
"did you end everything? is this over? it that what happened?"
"pretty much."
"just like that."
"you want to keep going on like this?'
"bill's just a friend."
"can i just say for the record-"
"let's just stop talking."
"you're ok?"
i shrugged. "we'll see."

just as we were pulling back onto the road, i spotted the blue truck that said "evergreen locksmith."
"you the people who are stuck?" the driver yelled out from his rolled down window.
"nope. not anymore."

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Reluctant Dragon Slayer

On the piss-poor star of Vega, a young prince who never wanted to be king sets out to meet his destiny.

            Griselda was on her second mulled wine when Prince Harold shambled in.
            "I almost gave you up for dead!" She gave him her cheek to kiss, then made a face. "Are you trying to grow a beard again?"
            He touched the stubble of his cheek, "Don't you think it makes me look rakish?"
            "You're funny."
            Prince Harold signaled the bartender, "Make it a double, Tommy."
            "Rough day?"
            The Prince merely sighed. He downed his drink in one quick slug. "Another," he gasped.
            "What's happened?" Griselda and the bartender exchanged a worried glance. Harold was not one to drink like this.
            The word went through the room in a trice. All around them, the crowd suddenly fell silent. Dragons make people nervous.
            "Oh Harry! What are you going to do?"
            "I'm going to slay him," said the heir to the throne, "it's up to me to slay the dragon."
            And then everyone in the place started to laugh.

            Harold would have frozen them with his best regal glare, but even he had to appreciate the irony of the moment. No one ever would have ever expected, him least of all, that one day it would come to this. He remembered his father, that cantankerous old bastard, yelling after him about duty and honor, and all that dreck. They were dragon slayers, that’s what they were supposed to do. The son knew he'd never please the King. It was useless. He'd never be as good as those three elder brothers, each who had been fine, hale, and hearty lads. One by one, each had perished. They were all killed while trying to slay the dragon.

            And now it was Harold's turn.
            The King wasn't such a terrible man, in his reckoning, at least. He just wanted a peaceful kingdom, enough bread for his people, and no one to be eaten by mythical fire breathing beasts. He also wished his surviving son would have any of the qualities his brothers had possessed, those beautiful Princes who fate cruelly cut in the green wood of youth. He tried not to be bitter, but Harold could be willfully exasperating. As a young boy, he showed no interest in jousting or tilting, he never went to hunt nor enjoyed the manly sports. Despite a number of eligible Princesses from around the galaxy, he was not the lusty example of virility his brothers had been.
            "Why, my son?" he'd asked him once, "why do you ignore the lasses I bring around? Such beautiful young women, the loveliest daughters from Vega."
            "I suppose I don’t much care for Vegans," the Prince sad with a rueful laugh.
            Nothing displeased the king more than being laughed at.
            He hired the best coaches, but the Prince showed no aptitude for swordsmanship. He could barely hold a lance. An ogre from Arcturis tried to teach him to wrestle, but that had been an embarrassing episode. When the lad had taken to poetry and writing sonnets, the King had the tutor beheaded. What father would do less? Nothing worked. The boy remained obstinate, stubborn. He would never be the man his father had wished he’d be. Now, at the ripe age of sixteen, he showed no signs of changing.
            There was a brief moment of hope, when the father heard that Harold had gone to the stables each night for a week. "Perhaps he shall overcome his fear of horseflesh," the King had said with growing pride to the Man of the Royal Household, "remember you not how well his brothers sat in saddle?"
            The Man was compelled to answer. " It's not the horses that attract him, my Lord."
            The handsome groom was shot the next day, the stable boys were sent to the stocks to keep their silence, and the Man of the Royal Household was banished to the outer star of Sirius. But it didn't make a difference.

            "Why are you so difficult, my son?"
            Harold just shrugged. He had taken to being sullen and morose. It must be admitted that the golden blond boy was beautiful in his velveteen doublet and matching jerkin. With his lip just now down-turned in defiance, and the strong cheekbone and high forehead, he was so like his mother. Those eyes that looked with scorn, they were her eyes, too. The King suppressed a welling emotion as he remembered how the astrologer had prophesied that the child born in the third decan of Pisces would be blessed beyond measure. What hijinx the fates can play, for look at them now! The Queen died in childbirth, leaving behind this mewling, puny, pink-fleshed alien creature to plague his later years. Add to this, those three marvelous sons, those brave brash boy Princes, who were taken away too. What a fine prank.

            The astrologer had been summarily drawn and quartered.

            When the Lady Griselda came upon the scene, there was a renewed glimmer of expectation as Prince Harold seemed to enjoy her company to the exclusion of almost all others. The gloomy boy was even seen to be laughing! Could this be the lady of his heart? She was buxom and lively. For a while, the fripperies and rhyming couplets seemed to be forgotten. But Griselda’s influence was not quite wholesome. She drank, and gambled, she swore like a Lord. She dabbled in occult arts better left to wizards. The sober Vegan court was astonished at the frivolities of the heir and his favorite. Daily reports of their carousing and general silliness only made the sire’s heart sink lower. The King’s dynastic dreams were dashed yet again, for there would be no wooing, and no bedding.

            “How are you to ever be King?” the father was furious.
            “I don’t want to be King. I’ve never wanted to be King!’
            “It’s your destiny, my boy, and we none of us has any control over what the gods have chosen to give.”
            “But Daddy-“
            The King bristled.
            “But Father-“
            “There is nothing gained in more talk, nothing more need be said.” And the child was dismissed. There was in truth nothing more to be said. For better or worse, Harold was born to a royal life, he would be King. There was no getting around it.

            And now, the dragon.

            At the pub, Prince Harold stared into his empty glass.
            “Cheer up, Harry,” the Lady Griselda soothed.
            It was late, just the two friends and the faithful giant Tommy were left, after everyone else had scurried home to be behind double locked doors and windows.
            “How am I to kill a dragon? Me? I can’t do it. I can’t.”
            “You’re a gentle soul, a sensitive spirit. It’s just one of the many reasons why we love and adore you, Harry.”
            “I’ve never even stepped on a bug.”
            That much was true.
            “I’m afraid, Grizzy. I don’t want to go. Honor and duty be damned. I’m no dragon slayer!”
            Tommy poured them each another dram, and as they touched tankards in toast, a thought seemed to seize the Lady.
            “Wait!” she said.
            The men looked upon her, she was known to have fanciful, outlandish ideas. They watched her face change expressions as an odd glint flickered in her large violet eyes.
She jumped up with a start: “We’re going with you!”
            “We’ll go with you! The three of us! We’ll make an adventure of it! We’ll give that beast a bloody fight!”
            "You can't be serious."
            "I am. It's a marvelous plan!"
            “I couldn’t ask you to endanger your lives for me,” the Prince said.
            Tommy spoke up, “the Prince is right!”
            “Thomas! Are you a yellow coward? Would you abandon our noble Hal in his moment of need?”
            “But my Lady, we’ll meet with certain doom.”
            Griselda leveled him with a look. “Sirrah, you’ll join us, or I’ll hex your peter so that it falls off.”
            “Right then. So, when do we leave?”
            “We don’t” said Harold. “I can’t let you. Tommy, you’ve been a loyal servant. I can’t ask you to do this.”
            Tommy exhaled deeply, clearly relived, and drained the dregs of his drink.
            “And, as for you Griselda, you can’t even be thinking in such a way, you’re a woman.”
            She slapped the Prince’s face so hard that he spat blood.
            “A pox on you!”

            And so, it was decided.

            In the early dawn hours of the next morning, the three friends set out on their journey. Worse for the hard drink of the night before, and little sleep, they made a motley appearance as they left the empty courtyard. By the king’s order, no one was to see them off. He Himself chose to watch from a lone window, behind a heavy drape. Whatever thoughts he had at seeing his son perhaps for the last time, the old man kept to himself. If he suffered any pangs, if any regrets disturbed him, they did not show on his wizened face, but he gripped the curtain tightly until they were out of sight.

            The trip itself was the usual tedium, relieved by the drinking songs Tommy sang from a seemingly inexhaustible list, and Griselda’s running commentary on the scenery, which was mostly dust and rocks and the occasional withered, stunted tree. Harold said little. He tried to laugh at the banter, but in truth he was deep in thought, and afraid. The horses clopped along, kicking up dry clots of red dirt. The good Prince tried to sit high in his saddle like his brothers had done, but it was a sham parody. By the time they got to the thick wooded forest, it was full noon, though the dense leaf cover in the tall looming trees made the place feel like midnight.
            “It’s so dark,” Harold said, trying not to let his voice betray him.
            An owl from a high branch shrieked in response, making his skin tingle with fear.
            “Don’t be afraid, bonnie Hal,” Griselda tried to sound cheerful, but truth be told she was just as worried. There was something about the scene that made her blood chill. She tightened her fur-lined mantle about her throat.
            “Here, my Lord, have a drink, “Tommy handed over a silver flask.
In spite of the warm liquor, they all shivered as they neared the dragon’s cave. It seemed too soon. No one felt ready for this.
            “Bloody Hell!” Griselda said.
            “My Lord,” Tommy said, his words breaking, “we can still turn back.”
            Harold said nothing.

            They dismounted.
            Gingerly, they made their way, stepping over the many skulls and scattered bones that littered the ground. It was a place of carnage and death, a burial ground of lost souls.  The smell of burnt wood and rotting flesh made them cough, their eyes stung with tears. Carrion birds circled overhead, they swooped endlessly, cawing and screaming to one another. Harold could taste the bitterness of dread at the back of his throat as his mouth went dry. His insides felt a cold finger of nettling anxiety, there was nothing in his stomach but grog and bile.
            In the stony hillside, the entrance to the dragon’s den was like an open maw.

            During the too short journey to this moment, Harold had been contemplating his lot, and that of his two friends. In the whole of his life, nothing had prepared him for anything like this. Motherless, brotherless, practically fatherless, all he had in the world really was the love and the faith of Griselda, and the ever-loyal Tom. Though the sight of the dark, echoing cavern filled him with horror, the growing awareness that they were behind him gave him a kind of strength he had never before known. He turned to them, and they saw something in his eyes, a flash of something that made them both pause.
            “I’m going in,” the Prince said.
            Griselda started to remonstrate. “Harry! You must be mad!” But instinctively she understood. She stayed herself, and fell silent.
            “I don’t want to be King,” he said. “I never wanted to be King.”
            “Who can argue with that, Harry? Who would want to rule some piss poor planetoid like Vega? Vegetables don’t even grow in the dirt. I never saw anything like a flower here, ever. Nothing beautiful exists there. And the subjects? Slack-jawed unattractive plebes with no intelligence.”
            “Beg pardon, your Ladyship,”
            “Oh Tom! I didn’t mean you of course.”
            The barkeep merely smiled.
            “But honesty, dear Prince, what would we be going back for? Thomas had the right idea. Let’s turn around now. Let’s leave this place and start life somewhere, anywhere else. Let’s go. Let’s leave this blasted, blighted kingdom forever! What’s keeping us here?”
            Harold listened, and was still some minutes.
            He shook his head.
            “Tom. Hand me the sword.”
            “My Lord,” the giant unsheathed the gleaming blade. With a grace of movement unexpected for a man of his proportions, he knelt on one knee before his Master, and he bowed.
            “Dear Tom," Harold gently touched the top of his friend’s head, before taking the weapon. Its heaviness surprised him. The solid heft of it, the purpose of it, the metal forged from fire that gave it power, all this he felt at once.  An energy surged through him, an electric current of white heat.
            “Harry, don’t.”
            He smiled. “If I return, my most beloved friend, we’ll do as you say. We’ll go wherever you like, we’ll start a new life."
            "If I don’t come back, tell my father I did my honor and duty.”
            But he would not be swayed, she knew as much, and in her buxom breast her heart swelled for the gentle, sweet boy she'd come to know.
            "Oh Thomas!" she cried.
            They stood together, silently, and watched as he turned away.

            The Vegan Prince who never wanted to be King held his sword up. With squared shoulders and steady gaze, he entered the dragon's domain. If his father had seen him then, even he might have been proud of the young man who walked alone into the darkness to encounter his fate.