by P.D. Addio
Behind Calvert Cliffs, a marsh world brims with bouncing organisms. In light of day, colors course like blood through puerile veins; meandering rivulets of cool, mossy sage, billowing plumes of boiled burgundy, vibrant, salacious streams of saffron.
In the marrow stands a bleached White Oak community; stark, stoic, sepulchral. Light fizzles, the marsh stalls, and the hues dim to a dribble. As the afternoon star fades beneath horizon’s cover, an explosion of fuchsia bursts in splatter against the clouds and the marsh’s pulse flat lines. Oo-waaa, wails a feathered mourner, her face buried beneath a veil of foliage. The world lays in mute rigamortis until the emerging sickle-moon brings resurrection. Illuminated by light traveled from distant corners of the universe, the aged trees huddle at a deferential distance from their tallest member, who stands, limbs outstretched and upturned to the pearl-speckled, obsidian infinite. The towering shaman initiates the ceremony and a night breeze whisks through the congregation, granting its members breath and sway. They chant vigorously, their mighty timbre innervating the marsh, infusing it with a frenetic energy. A dozen Sharp-Tailed Sparrows dart through the respiring mausoleum as one, dexterously weaving an invisible tapestry about the elderly statesmen. Two brilliant Mallards lock glances, squawk ferociously, then engage in a fierce blood tango. A Great Blue Heron takes sleek flight from the shore and glides elegantly over the placid waters, powered by strokes powerful, looping, graceful. An infant Belted Kingfisher flits the throaty cry of a babe newly emerged from its shell-womb. The moon recedes, sun materializes, and the heart chokes, sputters, then pulses again. Lub-dub, lub-dub.
‘Just stay right here, Jason. And don’t go in the water, it’s too cold.’ Kim squatted beside her son and stroked his chestnut, bowl-cut hair. ‘Okay, Hon?’ Jason nodded his bulbous head in comprehension, but his attention was focused squarely on the task at hand, the methodical digging of a hole into the wet sand. Kim fished the hood of her son’s sweatshirt from against his back, lifted it over his head, pulled the string taught around his chunky ruddy cheeks, and rubbed his neck with one hand. She kneaded her overcast eyes with the other and sniffled through an angular nose. In spite of her age of just twenty-two, the young mother’s hair was sparsely accented with dusty strands of gray and her attenuated face featured subtle grooves about the mouth. ‘Uncle Richie and me will be just over there in the lighthouse.’ As Kim rose to walk away, Jason reached up with his stubby hands to grab his mother’s pony tail. ‘Let go of momma’s hair, baby boy. We’ll be right back, okay.’ Kim gently guided her son’s hand back to his shovel, kissed him lightly on the forehead and walked off.
Aside from the shrill squeals of the gulls and smack of waves against the causeway’s rocky embankment, Point Lookout, situated on the peninsula that forms the tip of southern Maryland, where the Chesapeake receives the Potomac, was essentially silent this time of year. It would be at least another two months before the day-trippers would descend with their RVs, fishing poles, volleyball nets, and sunbathing blankets. The park’s only human inhabitants this time of year were the Koreans, who packed the pier, along with their hibachis and shopping carts full of fishing poles and ice chests.
Kim jogged to the lighthouse, opened the door, and entered.
‘What took so long?’
‘I just had to make sure he was okay.’
‘If you really cared about that, we’d be doing this at home and he’d be locked safely in his room.’
‘Look Rich, I don’t know how many times I gotta tell you, I’m not gonna be cooped up in that goddamn dump all day long. Besides, Jason needs to get out of the house from time to time. You know how cranky he gets.’
‘Not my kid, not my fuckin’ problem.’
‘No, he’s not yours. But if we’re gonna keep doing whatever it is we’re doing here, you’re gonna have to get over that.’
‘Why I didn’t leave your ass the minute I found out you were screwin’ around, I’ll never know.’
‘Nobody’s got a gun to your head, Richie.’
‘Look, I don’t feel like getting into this right now. The point is that being here is making me nervous as fuck.’
‘If you’re so paranoid, let’s push off, ditch the shit and go for a walk.’
‘Screw it.’ Rich craned his narrow neck forward as he reached into his pocket, his pronounced Adam’s apple jutting out and his slightly scoliosis-warped spine standing up against a gray sweat shirt.
Jason pulled himself out of the sand and walked toward the pier in halting, awkward strides. He ascended its steps and ambled across the wooden structure toward the bay, watching the stunted green waves roll below through the cracks between the planks. The smell of fish entrails and foreign spices filled his nose and mouth with curiosity. The Koreans took little notice of him and continued about their business, cooking their catch, telling stories and jokes, smoking cigarettes, waiting for the next catch.
Rich carefully placed a few pinches of brown powder retrieved from a sandwich bag in his pocket into a spoon. Kim withdrew a Zippo from her jeans, held it beneath the spoon, flicked the flint, and rotated the lighter slowly, voyeuristically watching the flame lick and caress the metal. Rich withdrew a syringe from the bag, inserted the needle into the spoon’s puddle and pulled back the plunger. Kim wrapped a large rubber band around her hand and rolled it up her forearm. Rich inserted the needle into her scarred skin. Kim’s eyes rolled back in her head and blinked with strobe-light rapidity at the ceiling’s chipped paint.
At the end of the pier, Jason noticed a thin man slumped in a chair with a pipe hanging precariously from his lips and a fisherman’s cap pulled over his eyes, revealing nothing of his face but a chin full of ashen stubble and kimchi-stained teeth. A long pole rested against the guardrail and a large blue cooler. The boy walked around the chair and tugged on the man’s sleeve, but received no reaction. He opened the cooler’s lid to find three gasping, smoke-colored fish with spikes protruding from their scales. He reached in and the three ballooned to the size of softballs and began hissing. Jason squealed, slammed the lid and sprinted back down the pier and toward the lighthouse. The sun had seared a weeping, phosphorescent wound low in the azure beryl atmosphere adjacent to the structure; it lashed his retinas and slammed his eyes shut. The wind rose lustily, whipping the bay into distemper. It blew hard against the boy’s face and whistled in his ears. He struggled to make progress, tucking his mouth into his sleeve to draw oxygen.
He reached the lighthouse and opened the door. His mother was holding his uncle’s arm with one hand and had something he could not recognize in the other. She dropped the object to the ground, grabbed her son by the arm, and jerked him into the lighthouse. Jason heard a loud pop in his shoulder and felt a sharp pain. He began to bawl spastically; Kim released her grip. ‘Goddamnit, Jason! What did I tell you!? What the fuck did I tell you?!’ The boy froze, rooted in the doorway, tears and snot streaming down his face in a yellowish deluge. Rich kicked him in the abdomen so that he fell out the door and to the ground. He hurled the door shut. Jason bit down hard on his hand to stifle his sobs, walked back to his bucket clutching his shoulder, sat in the wet sand, and rocked back and forth in silent time with the ebb and flow solace of the bay.
Snow had fallen heavily the previous two days. Finally, the sky had taken rest, leaving southern Maryland in a two-foot blanket of white powder. Officer Rich Hawlicek’s shift ended minutes before dawn. He exited the grimy, seventies’-built precinct and ambled toward his cruiser, purposely trekking through the un-cleared areas of the parking lot so as to feel the tension of the snow’s top layer break beneath the weight of his goulashes. Noticing the sun had just peaked over the horizon, he began to softly hum ‘Good Day Sunshine.’ After shutting the cruiser door, turning the engine over, and looking about the parking lot to be sure no one was looking, he began to quietly sing the tune, his lips moving as subtly as a ventriloquist’s.
Driving home was always the sweetest part of the day for Rich. Whether his shift was ending at some pre-dawn hour or mid-afternoon, and whether he had spent half a dozen hours pulling some mind-numbing duty like setting speed traps or running the metal detector at the county courthouse or something he found satisfying, like resolving a domestic dispute peacefully or arresting a dealer on a bench warrant, the sense of having served a purpose was a feeling that washed him over with satisfaction. ‘I need to laugh’ And when the sun is out’ I’ve got something I can laugh about.’
Rich rubbed his hand against the back of his head, feeling the closely cropped blanched hair bristle against his callused palm. At 40 years of age, and having served 15 years in the county, Rich was among the most senior officers in the Sheriff’s department. The girth of his paunch, gained from countless breaks spent noshing on pancakes and grits at the local IHOP with his fellow deputies would attest to that, as would the minute sacks hanging from his modest copper eyes.
As he passed the boarded-up Shell station a mile before his neighborhood, Rich noticed a figure curled up on the front steps out of the corner of his eye. He drove onto the shoulder, swung back around in the opposite lane and turned into the station. He got out and inspected the individual. He or she was about 5’6′, thin, and wore a cobalt-colored sweatshirt with a hood obscuring his or her face, a pair of chewed tennis shoes and jeans with the fabric tired at the knees. Rich took out his nightstick and gently prodded the person at the shoulder. When the figure did not react, he bent down and pulled it over on its back. The hood fell to the side, revealing a piercing through the individual’s lower lip, a few strands of turquoise hair, and a pair of thin, but dimpled cheeks. ‘Fuck, Jason, what the hell are you doing here?’ Rich leaned over and put two fingers against the boy’s carotid artery. He felt a normal pulse. ‘You can’t afford to be doin’ this shit anymore, Jay.’ Rich shook his head and sighed. He scooped the boy up in one motion and put him over his shoulder. He carried him to the back of the cruiser, gently laid him down, and started back down the direction from which he had come.
‘Hey, Richie,’ he heard the boy say, the words muffled because his face was pressed against the seat.
‘Yeah, what’s up, kiddo?’
‘Thanks, man. You’re the coolest uncle I got.’
Rich glared back at the youth. Seeing the position of the boy’s face, he just shook his head.
The week’s weather had unearthed Rich’s youth from the recesses of his mind. Every night for the past week, timeworn memories flashed into his head like reflections off nickels in a muddied puddle. The most frequent memories were from his teenage years; mostly of nights spent drinking and skateboarding or late night joyrides in his dad’s Cammaro, careening down the back roads of St. Mary’s county.
One particular memory persistently tugged at Rich’s brain though. It was of his last morning on his father’s oyster trawler when he was 17. He and his father, Albert, pushed off hours before dawn from a harbor on the Potomac. The air bit greedily and a thin spectral mist skimmed across the water, thinly obscuring the frosted shoreline. The engine hummed a deep-throated tune and steadily propelled the small craft down river as the dark silhouettes of the shore lethargically slipped by. A few miles down, the river opened its mouth wide and spat the boat into the vast ebony expanse of the Chesapeake, which spread to the horizon’s precipice and seemingly spilled over and into the cosmos. Albert turned up shore a few miles to the cove that was his destination, cut the engine and revealed a flask of Knob Creek Whiskey from his jeans pocket, proclaiming, ‘Well boy, I reckon it’s ’bout time to wean you off your mother’s tit and introduce you to the real mother’s milk.’ Albert raised the flask in the air with a meaty paw and lowered it to his wind-chapped lips, throwing it back with a jerk of his head. Rich received the flask and mimicked his father. The warm amber liquid splashed the back of his throat and shot down his esophagus, singeing like liquid fire. Rich’s stomach immediately convulsed and he rushed to the side of the boat, vomiting up the liquid with a splash.
His father laughed aloud; a long guffaw interrupted intermittently by a coarse cough acquired from years of chain-smoking Camel filters. ‘Nothin’ wrong with fallin’ off a bronco so long as you hop right back on and whup that thing ’til he knows who’s boss. Here, take you another swig.’ Rich accepted the flask again and reticently raised it to his lips and gulped. He held a gloved fist to his mouth that reeked of stale oyster juices and, with Albert looking on expectantly, burped loudly. Albert chuckled approvingly. ‘There ya go, boy.’ He then bent over and picked up an oyster hatchet, handing it to his son. Now let’s get to work.’
The two men labored in silence for two hours, bobbing with the gentle metronome tempo of the bay’s undulations beneath the cool glow of the moon and stars, breathing the frigid air that seemingly saturated their internal organs and invaded their bones. Over and again, they hoisted the dredge with the boat’s diesel-powered wench from the bay’s bed by way of a pulley suspended from a pivoting plank of wood, guided the catch onto a wooden table, hacked with clinical violence at the muddied mess, and burrowed for oysters of legal harvesting size. Their thick gloves barely insulated their hands from the insidious cold such that after thirty minutes of the work, they felt like numb stumps.
Rich watched his father struggle. Though Albert’s belly had grown swollen from a love of fried seafood and National Bohemian beer, thirty years of the same arduous motions had turned his muscles to iron. It had also, however, shredded his back, making it a difficult task for the middle-aged man to get out of bed, much less maneuver the cumbrous, primitive tools of his profession. Rich snuck peeks as his father winced while guiding the dredge over the table or delivering a blow to a pile. Finally, when he could handle no more, Albert sat in a folding metal chair on the side of the boat, leaned his head forward and rolled it from side to side to loosen the thick muscles of his pink, sun-spotted neck. He grimaced as he removed his gloves and proceeded to rub his lower back.
‘So, what are we gonna do now?,’ Rich asked his father.
Albert looked up at his son. ‘We’re gonna keep workin’ until we have three bushels full. That’s what we’re gonna do.’
‘That’s not what I mean, Pop. I’m saying, what are we gonna do?’
‘Oh.’ Albert arched his back slightly, wincing. ‘I dunno’ Well, all we can do is hope things pick up so we can buy some more time with the bank.’ Albert lifted the flask out of his jacket and tilted back two belts.
‘Look, I know how you act every time I mention this, but what about what we talked about last week?’
Albert squinted, feigning a lapse of memory.
‘Don’t give me that, Pop. Jake’s dad’s shop. I told you he’d hire you in a heartbeat.’
‘Why not, Pop?,’ Rich shot back sharply.
Albert took another swig, avoiding eye contact with his son by re-directing his glance across the water at the gathering salmon hue at the sky’s base. The gulls circled patiently overhead, biding their time, waiting for scraps. Albert inhaled deeply, embracing the chill with his lungs. ‘You know, I saw this National Geographic episode the other week. Fella on the show says some sea gulls are queer. Ain’t that some shit?’
Albert shot a look at Rich that paused him. He replied, ‘Look, I’m just not cut out for being no goddamn slave, Richie. You didn’t have to ask me to know that. And I sure as shit ain’t cut out to be no fucking grease monkey.’
‘It’s not slavework, Pop, it’s a job. Besides, you like working on cars.’
‘I like working on my car, Richie. And no way am I working for some chump working dents out of his bitch customers’ Mercedes and BMW’s. Sorry, kiddo, I’m an oysterman from a long line of oystermen.’
‘I was born an oysterman and I’ll die one. Hawliceks been oysterin’ far back as the Oyster Wars of the 1870’s. Your great-great grandfather died in a gun fight with Virginians; died for our right to oyster this bay. Oysters are all we know, it’s in our blood.’
‘Weepin’ Jesus on a neon cross. That’s great, Pop, but all those ancestors worked the bay when there was practically a limitless supply of oysters. It’s so goddamn polluted from run-off and so completely over-harvested, you’re not going to be able to make a living off it forever. Ten years from now, it’s gonna be even harder to scrape a living from it than it is now. You gotta see that, Pop. We gotta adapt at some point. Now’s a perfect opportunity; before we’re so deep into debt we can’t get out.’
‘What’s this ‘we’ bullshit. You mean before I’m too far in debt to get out of it. And don’t talk to me like I’m some fucking child,’ Albert barked.
‘This family has had a relationship with that bay that goes back longer than you can comprehend, son. Sure, she don’t give to me what she gave to your grandfather and his father and his father, but she still gives. Second, oysters are a gold mine. Yeah, I’m workin’ up a debt now, but things will change. You just don’t understand the bay like I do. She’s fickle. For fuck’s sake, she can be a real cunt when she wants to, but she’s forgiving too.’
‘Dad, you’re not listening to me”
‘The last couple of years have been tough. But there have always been years like that. I remember years when I was a kid me and all three of my brothers’d wear the same beat up underwear fours years in a row. But there were also years so rich we’d eat like royalty. One year we even saved up enough for a brand new store-bought Ford pickup. And our fortunes will turn around soon. You just gotta keep faith. When they do, there’s all sorts of new opportunities your grandfather, great grandfather, and all the Hawlicek men before him never would have dreamed of that we can build up five, ten years down the line. Mark me boy, when I buy that land on St. Jerome creek and open up my oyster ranch with the floating oyster reef system I’ve designed up here in my head, the sky’s the limit!’ Albert’s eyes opened wide and he began to gesticulate excitedly. ‘No more fishin’ for ’em, just gotta harvest ’em. Then we perfect a strain through selective breeding. Over 10 years, we take several different genetic lines of oysters, chosen for growth rate, disease resistance and’ and shape, and breed them into our own original line. They’ll have an extremely thin shell, grow extra fast, and have a deep cup to ’em. They’ll grow so fast in fact, I’ll bet that, combined with the floating oyster reef and a seed production system I’m fixin’ to design, we can take them sonsabitches from spawn to market in under 18 months!’
‘Okay, okay, enough. I’m done arguing with you about this, Rich replied. ‘But we gotta come up with a plan in the meantime, Pop.’
‘I’ll figure something out,’ Albert returned. ‘Besides, as long as we stick together, we can pull through any spot. You’re my good luck charm’ain’t never gotten into a spot I couldn’t get out of with you nearby.’ Albert winked and smiled. It was the same wink and smile Rich got when he broke his leg after falling out of his tree house five years earlier. He smiled back and offered his hands to help his father out of the chair.
Rich pulled the squad car in front of a split-level home at the end of a cul-de-sac. By this time, Jason had slipped back into his slumber. Rich opened the back door and pulled the boy out, slinging the teenager’s arm over his shoulder. Jason groaned, having achieved a semi-conscious state. Rich helped guide the boy’s stumble to the front door. Before they reached the porch, an interior light flicked on and the door opened. Kim was standing at the door in a flannel robe, her hair frazzled and matted.
‘Goddamnit, Jay. What the hell?’
‘Lea’ me alone,’ Jason gurgled.
‘I swear you’re going to be the death of me, boy. For Chrissake, what am I gonna do with you?’
‘Lea’ me alone.’
‘Thank you Rich, you’re a Saint.’ Kim took Jason’s free arm and placed it around her neck. She and Rich started walking Jason upstairs.
‘No sweat,’ Jason mimicked, giggling, slobber dribbling down his chin.
Kim slapped her son across his jaw with an open hand. Jason responded by head-butting her in the eye. He then grabbed her face and slammed it against the wall, knocking two family portraits tumbling down the stairs. Rich grabbed the boy, but Jason’s grip on his mother was tight. Rich exerted some extra torque from his torso to wrench Jason away and the three tumbled, falling hard down a dozen steps. When they reached the bottom, Rich grabbed his nephew by the shoulders, forced him face-down on the ground, shoved his knee in the boy’s back and cuffed him. He helped Kim to her feet. Kim stomped on her son’s back, digging the heel of her foot into his back. Rich let her get three good strikes in before grabbing her in a tight embrace and carrying her away to the living room. ‘I hate you! Fuck you, Jay! Fuck you, you fucking fuck!’ Rich sat Kim on a sofa.
‘Shhhh’ Calm down, Kim.’
‘Goddamnit, Rich, I can’t take this anymore,’ Kim blurted frantically.
‘I know. Shhhhhh’ We’ll get him help.’
Kim buried her face in her hands. ‘I don’t give a shit what you do with him. Just get him out of here, Rich. Just get him outta here.’
‘Okay, he’s out of here.’ Rich walked to Jason, who had passed out again, picked him up and into his arms and carried him out the front door.
Albert brought only two bushels of oysters home the last day on his boat. Donnie Stalberg, a kid he had hired on to help him out part-time a year earlier, sat on the edge of the trawler as they pulled into the pier, reading the sports section.
Donnie was a nineteen year old high school drop-out with pomade-encrusted, prematurely thinning flaxen hair that he combed straight back, and a tattooed image of his infant son Jimmy on one of his disproportionately scrawny forearms.
Albert pulled two National Bohemian bottles out of a cooler in the corner of the boat and sat down beside Donnie, placing one in front of his assistant.
‘Thanks, man,’ the grubby man-child said to his boss.
‘No sweat,’ Albert replied. ‘Ya know what? It’s hard to believe how much went into this goddamn thing. There’s probably enough of my sweat dripped on that boat to overflow the Patapsco.’
‘Hard to believe,’ Donnie nodded in feigned interest, pulling a joint out of a pack of American Spirits. ‘You mind?,’ he asked, pointing at the joint.
‘Nah, go ahead. I always pegged you for a stoner, anyhow. I just never wanted to bring it up on account of bein’ your boss and all. Fact, you mind if I take a few tokes?
‘Me joint es su joint,’ Donnie replied smiling, his eyes crinkling up. He lit the loosely rolled marijuana cigarette and drew deeply and without coughing.
‘Promised the little lady I’s quittin’ last week. Says she heard a joint’s got ten times the carcinogens a cigarette’s got. I says horse hockey’ But, I digress.’ He paused a moment, pensively surveying the bobbing harbor from his seat. ‘I just can’t believe it’s all over. All them arguments with my ol’ man trying to convince him to lend me the money to buy this hunk-a-junk.’ Donnie passed the joint lit side forward to Albert, who grabbed it and inhaled completely until his lungs were filled to capacity. Albert exhaled and watched the smoke billow forward, twirl about in an air current, then dissipate. He lifted a puny oyster from the bushel sack he had plopped down on the floor. ‘All them lost hours spent chilling myself to the bone in twenty degree weather and below dredging up these little fuckos. All the blisters and back aches. And what do I got to show for it all. What does it all amount to now?’ He looked at Donnie as though waiting for an answer to his rhetorical question. ‘Shit. A big ol’ steamin’ pile uh fuckin’ unpaid debt I’ll be spendin’ the next ten years of ma’ life tryin’ to pay down..’
Donnie nodded and pursed his lips, his disinterest becoming less concealed, and took a long drag from the focus of his attention.
‘But ya know what? In a sense, and ah mean in a real tangible sense, there’s also sort of a feelin’ of relief that comes along with there bein’ a resolution to all this. There’s no more waitin’ for the wheels to fall off the hearse. They’re sure as shit off now. I know my fate now. No more hoping. There’s a real sense of release in knowing for a fact you’re fucked ‘stead of waitin’ to get fucked.’ Albert accepted the joint from Donnie and smoked heavily from it.
‘So, how ’bout you, Donnie boy, you ever had any dreams?’
‘Sure, just the same as anybody else, I guess. Difference between me an’ most folks is I’ve lived most of mine.’
‘Ya don’t say?’
‘Well, I was in the circus for a couple of years.’
‘Say what now?’
‘You know, the circus.’
‘You mean like white tigers jumpin’ through flaming hoops, contortionists, siamese midgets, eight foot tall strong men”
‘Ex-cetera, ex-cetera. Yeah, a circus. ‘Cept it wasn’t one of these corporate deals. It was one of the smaller circuses; the only place alternative performers such as myself could still get work.’
‘You might know us better as circus freaks.’
‘Really? Well, which one of ’em freaks was you?’
‘I wasn’t no freak!’
‘I was a bearded lady.’
‘Yeah, had a real good run of it for a few years until I got found out…’
‘On account uh you’re not a lady.’
‘Nah, on account of I got caught stenciling in the patchy parts of my beard.’
‘Those were some great days, though. I’ll tell ya what, I’ve never done so many drugs in my life. I mean coke, mescaline, LSD, PCP, you name it.’
‘You don’t say.’
‘Yeah, man’ain’t no party like a circus party. Me, the siamese midgets, and the lobsterman used to do a minimum of five lines before each show.
‘What’s so freakish about a guy who catches lobsters for a living?’
‘It wasn’t so much that he caught lobsters with traps as it was that he had claws for hands.’
‘No shit? Where do you find somebody like that?’
‘Want ad on Monster.com.’
‘Really though we didn’t have the budget for a guy with real claws, so he was actually just a drunk with a couple papier-mache prosthetics. The whiskey-reddened cheeks really helped for the effect, though.’
‘Tricks of the trade.’
Donnie stared off into the distance. Snapping out of his trance, he continued, ‘Anyway, I digress. So what are you gonna do now?’
‘I don’t know. Richie says his buddy’s dad has an autobody shop. I guess I could go work for him. I worked in one of them shops back one summer when I was 15. Not much to it. But I don’t know; once you’ve owned your own business, though, it’s real tough to see yourself slaving for somebody else’s dollar.’
‘I hear you, man. I couldn’t see myself doin’ that. More of a self-made man ma-self.’
Both men nodded and looked across the harbor and the conversation dead ended. ‘Say, what if I told you I know of an opportunity that’ll allow you to keep your boat, with plenty of cash left over to boot,’ Donnie inquired, breaking the quiet.
‘What, like a bank job?,’ Albert chuckled.
‘No, much worse.’
‘You’re funny, kid.’
‘Ain’t tryin’ to be. I still got connections to some of my old troupe-mates. They’re with Barnum and Bailey now, but we still keep in touch.’
‘Anyway, it seems the lion tamer, Deiter, is sleepin’ around on his boyfriend, this dancing queen named Gustav, with the ring leader”
‘Ring leader of what? Like a gang?’
‘Of the circus; ring leader of the circus. You know, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, ex-cetera, ex-cetera.’ Seems Deiter has a thing for men in power; that or he just digs the top hat and baritone voice. So, anyway, this Nancy-boy, Gustav, wants his ex-boyfriend whacked.’
‘And you know this how?’
‘We dated for about five years. He broke up with me about three years ago to be with Deiter. I tried to have him killed, but when my guy backed out, I realized we weren’t any good for one another. I was really entering a ‘me phase’ in the worst way. Anyway, water under the proverbial bridge. Ever since, we’ve become best friends.’
Albert considered the proposition momentarily. ‘You’re fuckin’ crazy, kid.’
‘Alright, guy, if you’re gonna be a homo, that’s fine with me. Just don’t come cryin’ to me when you’re that dude’s greasy servant boy.’
Albert studied his blackened fingernail tips and his gnawed and hardened palms. He thought to himself that they looked even more worn and gnarled than his fathers’. He wondered why they had not served him as well. ‘I’ll sleep on it.’
Jason lifted the handle on the passenger side door of the VW bug and plopped in his seat. Rose stepped in the driver side, pumped the clutch, and turned the engine over. The old tape player came to life with a plaintive wale, blaring out some power ballad by Journey; or was it Foreigner, or Europe? Did it really matter? The answer was no and Jason was going to switch to the radio. The cost would be a painful flick in the ear, a transaction that did not merit consideration. He reached for the stereo and dutifully accepted his punishment.
‘I don’t know why you can’t respect my car.’
‘It’s not your car I disrespect. Cars are inanimate objects; they engender neither respect nor disrespect. It’s Steve Perry I disrespect.’
‘For your information, that was Steve Augeri. Steve Perry left Journey in 1998.’
‘And so the journey should have ended.’
Another flick in the year’equally worth it.
‘Yeah, but you know the old proverb’a journey of a thousand crappy songs begins with a single mullet.’
‘The next one gets a journey down south from my kung fu grip, Jay.’
Jason made a zipping motion over his lips, which spread wide in an attempt to contain his pleasure, and placed his hand on Rose’s thigh. She accepted it with a shake of her head.
‘So, how long do we stay at this thing?’
‘Just long enough to make an appearance, help out with my Granddad a little, say hello to my mom and step dad, Uncle Rich and his wife Reggie and my Uncle George and his new girlfriend Lupe.’
‘Right, and this Uncle Rich is the Uncle Rich that isn’t really your uncle and he isn’t your father or stepfather or even ex-stepfather?’
‘Right, he defies categorization, so he gets lumped into the catch-all category of Uncle; like Ravi Shankar in the World Music section of Best Buy.’
‘Impresario of the sitar solo?’
Rose rolled her eyes. ‘So, make me understand. Why is your mom’s ex-boyfriend of a decade coming to Thanksgiving dinner?’
‘It’s hard to explain and harder to understand. In a nut shell, he was basically around for