Catacomb of cloud
in calculation: cornflower
by a nose. Peppermint and
cinnamon, leaves a-moulderin'. The
shadows lengthen as time
sinks o'er the slumbering tortoise of
Those words, a poem, formed clearly in Red Mazzo's mind as he lay on the linoleum floor a bookstore, Prozen Sutch, the poetry section, fittingly, on a side street in Albany, New York. After years of writer's block, there it was: a poem.
From there, his unconscious state traveled back, back to high school days, crossing the campus of Bishop Gibbons one February with his pal, Jack McVey, both in dress-code sport coats and ties, slacks, headed to the cafeteria for lunch. Casting his gaze to the pale leaden sky, Red said to Jack, "Indeed, the sky is a hazy shade of winter," to which his friend nodded earnest assent.
Seated at a lunch table, after standing in line for an institutional hamburger, side of fries, a half-pint of milk—and a Hostess fruit pie from a machine—the two were approached by a three members of the football team, seniors to their sophomore. The largest, the most apish, Rich, slapped Red on the back much too hard, causing Red to cough out a mouthful of chewed hamburger. "Hey! Disgusting," said Rich. "Keep your food in your mouth, bozo!" One of Rich's henchmen said, "Hey! Can I have a fry?" Knowing resistance was futile, Red pushed his tray in the direction of Stanley. Stanley took a fry. Then another. Then another.
"Mmm! Good fries, munchkin!" Then, with a casual swipe, he knocked the fries on the floor. "Hey, too bad, munchkin! Lemme help!"
Stanley scooped the fries off the floor and rained them on Red's burger.
"There ya go, munchkin! I'd hate to see some good fries go to waste!"
The footballers guffawed, and Rich slapped Red, smartly, on the back of his head and said, "Bon appetite, bozo!"
The football heroes swaggered away, pleased. Red batted back tears. He had no money left to get another lunch. ("Well, at least I have a fruit pie...") Jack said, "Geez, tough break. Here, have a fry."
In those high school days of anxiety Red sought refuge in his Roman Catholic faith and time spent with the brothers after school hours discussing civil rights and "the war." They cast their collective Catholic eye in the direction of the Berrigans, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and James Groppi. In the faculty lounge: copies of Ramparts atop a worn coffee table, Personality Posters of Ho Chi Minh and Oscar Wilde taped to a far wall, a cheap folk guitar collected dust in a corner. On a portable phonograph, Peter, Paul & Mary warbled. Red lived for these afternoons, time spent whetting his intellect, bull sessions ranging current events and historical precedent.
In religion class one morning, in a "rap session," Red ventured his opposition to the war, to all war, actually. A kid said, "So what're ya gonna do? Are ya gonna be like that Quaker idiot who set himself on fire? In front of his little daughter? That's pretty dumb." Another kid added, "What about Pearl Harbor? You'd just let the Japs take over America, running around killing everyone? Like, they could grab your mother and bayonet her to death and you'd just say, oh okay, that's fine and dandy?" A third kid, "My brother's in Vietnam. He ain't no coward. It's kill or be killed over there, he says. Who cares about some gook?"
Then his brain landed on a more recent incident, just a year ago, shortly after the projects—four eight-story apartment buildings—were dropped behind the Mazzo's acre. (Despite Mr. Mazzo installing a chain-link fence, debris was tossed into their above ground pool and backyard.) It was a sunny, if slightly too crisp, October day. Red raked leaves and picked up stray cans and bottles, doing something to earn his post-college keep. He was a little winded from the unfamiliar exercise. A group of kids caught his attention as they gathered on the other side of the fence. He noticed a teen girl whisper to a small boy dressed only in BVDs and sneakers.
"C'mere, mister," said the tyke. Red dropped the rake, walked over, and squatted to be eye-to-eye with the youngster.
"Gots a question fo' you, man."
"Shoot," Red said with a smile.
"You fuck yo' mama?"
Immediately all Red saw was white, a fuzzy white punctuated with pinpricks of pale pink. From someplace far off he heard the same voice say, "I wouldn't, man! She ugh-lee! What zoo she 'scape from, man?"
Slowly, Red struggled to his feet and staggered back to the house. In the background he heard the laughter of children, and his puny antagonist yelling, "She gusty! Musta been whupped with an ugly stick when she a baby!" On the front porch Mr. Mazzo was in the hammock, smoking a Kent. "Done raking? Already?"
"So, what's up?"
"Nothing! Don't hand me that!" He was on his feet, using his beer belly like a bulldozer, shoving Red to the left, to the right, then bounced him down the steps, forcing Red to fall, landing sharply on an elbow.
"Ah, shaddap! Sick of having a crybaby for a son! Some son! A daughter is more like it! The money we sunk into that fancy college! And what do you do all day? Nothing! You're a stinkin' waste," he spat out, tossing his cig in the direction of the fallen man, his son, stormed past, got in his Valiant, revved it a few times, and squealed out of the driveway.
Then Red's thoughts, still encased in the woolly cocoon of subconscious, went from there to a few weeks after that, to Jack sprinting the stairs and bursting to Red's attic bedroom, flushed, announcing, "Hey, pally! I got two tickets to see Dylan! He's playing at the Palace in Waterbury, Connecticut, it's that Rolling Thunder Revue we read about in Rolling Stone! Can you believe it? And before you claim poverty, this one is on me, pally!"
Red was dumbfounded. For a decade he'd adored Bob Dylan as an ancient Greek peasant worshipped Zeus on Mount Olympus. It was one thing to listen to a record or watch him on TV, quite another to see Dylan perform, actually be in the same (albeit large) room with him. The thought of it took Red's breath away. He looked at the tired rug and shook his head. Instinct almost made him decline. But he was surprised, happily surprised, to hear himself say, "Wow! That is far out! Yes! Let's do this!" A drive to Waterbury was long, but the outing had a ring of On the Road to it. (Red liked to fantasize of them as a sort of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Jack McVey as the handsome devil-may-care imbiber and lady killer; Red as an owlish, humble, bearded, reclusive poet.)
On November 11, Jack showed up an hour late. "Don't worry! These things never start on time!" And to further complicate, he was accompanied by his on-again off-again girlfriend, Joan, a thin-lipped chubby shrew. She never said much, and when she did it was harsh.
Red's heart sank.
Still it was the chance to see Dylan. Red had tucked a few of his very best poems into a pocket of his denim bells on the off-chance he might actually get close to Dylan, an opportunity to hand them off. He nurtured an insane notion that if he could catch his eye, well, who knows?
The trio was on the Interstate, past the point of return, an Allman Brothers hit on the radio, when Red piped up from the back of Jack's rusty Pinto, "I thought you said you had two tickets. Joan, you have one of your own? I guess?"
"Leave it to me, pally! I got it worked out."
"Uh... What do you mean by that? Either we have three tickets between us or..."
"Have no fear, Reddy! Me an' Joan will use the two tickets, then I'll open a side door on the alley and sneak ya in! No problemo, amigo." Stunned, Red sat back abruptly and thought, "God. Damn." He was silently furious, stewing for a few minutes when Jack veered across three lanes and leapt onto an exit, triggering honking and skidding from all sides. "What the!" said Red.
"Beer run, chum! Gettin' thirsty!"
Fear gripped Red's heart as his stomach knotted. He felt the deep stab of betrayal. They'd been over this time and time again. He'd made it clear, via a few things he implied, that he didn't want to be in a car that Jack was driving while drinking. Sober his driving left much to be desired. It was fast, sloppy, aggressive. Add alcohol to that mix? Red shrank. They had an understanding, possibly tacit, but nevertheless, an understanding. Jack screeched into the parking lot of Beverage Barn, hopped out of the car, into the establishment, and was back with a six of Bud tallboys. Of course he hadn't eaten anything all day. On his gurgling stomach drinking is like mainlining.
Settled into the driver seat, Jack cracked one open and practically inhaled the contents and started the car as Joan fired up a small clay pot pipe. Jack held up his empty can to her and said, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." Joan was holding the smoke in, but flashed him a confused and angry stare. She exhaled and coughed out, "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Oh, I will not never mind, you stupid son of a bitch!" They were on the highway again, Jack on his second tallboy, the first empty out the window, his free wrist resting on the noon hour of the steering wheel. The arguing was escalating, as was the speed of the Pinto, until it narrowly missed sideswiping a family in a station wagon. The Ford wagon's dad leaned on the horn. Red was pushing his feet so hard into the floor he felt something snap in the floorboard. He made eye contact with one of the terrified kids, a little girl, so suddenly close he almost said hello to her.
Ten minutes later, out of the blue, Jack said, "Hey, Reddy! What was the name of your girlfriend at Marist? You ever hear from her?"
"Cathy. And, no."
"Did you ever bang her?"
"Jack! There’s a lady present," said Joan.
"Seriously, Reddy! Did you ever bang that Cathy?"
Red was silent, mortified. No, he never had "banged" Cathy. Or anyone. He wanted to point out that he had gotten to one of the bases—second?—and was sure to score if it weren't for circumstances beyond his control: she had to kick him out and study for finals. Yet he knew all too well that his romantic accomplishment—the happiest and most complete hour or two of his life—would be ridiculed to extinction if he said anything. He sat there: mute, trapped, numb.
"Just takin' a wild guess here, Reddy, you're still a virgin, aren't ya?" Silence. Just the sound of tires on highway, the radio turned low. "Geez, Red, 24 and still haven't done the tiny deed? Hahahahaha!"
"Jack! Stop it! You’re humiliating him," said Joan, but Red saw she was shaking with laughter suppressed. After that Jack shut his yap, all was quiet until Waterbury, whereupon they poked around trying to find a place to park for free. Then the trek to the Palace Theater from the hinterlands. Red waited by the alley as Jack and Joan waltzed in. He stood there getting what he recalled Julie Nixon Eisenhower referring to as "museum legs." He walked up and down the alley to relieve boredom. It was getting chilly; he zipped his windbreaker. He could hear muffled music, but couldn't make out actual songs. After an eternity there was quiet. Intermission.
About five minutes later Jack and a young man, a Yale student in J Press sweater and LL Bean duck boots, were hurled out the front doors by a pair of security guards, and shoved in opposite directions, told to keep moving and not make further trouble. Jack's nose was bleeding. "What the hell happened? And why didn't you open the side door?"
"Ahhh, that idjit shed I pish on hish shoes inna men room, got inna fight... Anna play-sh... hash guard ev'where, spesh by exit..." With that they walked along until just out of view. Jack slumped down on the sidewalk, leaned his back against a hardware store's cold brick wall. He held a handkerchief to his bloody nose and said, "Jeesh..."
"Nothing..." Then he was snoring.
After another eternity, a human ocean gushed out of the theater, the sound alerting Red. He dashed to the mob and with a great deal of difficulty finally spotted Joan, waving to her frantically. She was huffy. "Where's Jack? Where is that stupid son of a bitch?"
It took about a half hour for the three to locate the Pinto and get on the Interstate, Joan driving, Jack passed out next to her, his head against the window. Barreling along, Joan punched the car lighter, lit a Marlboro Light, and then said, "Some concert. Too long. I don't see what you guys hear in that clown. He cannot sing. James Taylor can sing. Tom Jones can sing. And do you know who can sing? Ed Ames. Jesus, the voice on that man! He can park his shoes under my bed any night of the week! But this Dylan character? Do. Not. Make. Me. Laugh. Couldn't sing his way out of a wet paper bag. Granted, some of his songs are okay—if sung by someone else. Like if Judy Collins sang, oh, I dunno, the one about the wind blowing? That'd be nice. By the by, his name isn't really Dylan, you know. It's some kinda you-know-what-ski name. Just another Chosen One trying to pass. He forgot to get the nose bob! Anyhoo, my two cents! You didn't miss anything." With that she clicked on the radio. There was no more conversation the rest of the ride. Jack snored most of the way. Red rolled down a side window, pulled his prize poems out of a pocket, cast them to fate.
For a moment, Red thought he was looking into the ebony eyes of Jesus of Nazareth as the world slowly came into focus. But it was merely Lenny, the owner of Prozen Sutch, his long dark hair and beard creating a brief illusion of Christ as he held a bottle of smelling salts under Red's nose. A few customers gathered. Lenny told them to clear, to give the man room, give the man air, as he helped Red to his feet. "You can rest in my office until you get your wind back. I'll call a doctor."
"No. Don't do that, I'm okay... Was just a bit dizzy..."
"Are you sure? To call a doctor is not a problem."
"No. Please. No doctor. Thank you. I... I just stood up too quickly is all..."
Jack stood over him and said, "How ya doin', pally?"
"You know what? Shove it, you... you bastard!" With that Red stood up straight, shoulders back. He thanked Lenny, walked out of the bookstore, onto Lark St., around a corner or two. He didn't frequent bars, had never drunk much more than a ceremonial sip or two of Mogen David at an ecumenical Passover service, but today he walked into the first bar he happened upon, two steps down, into a dark and nameless dive. His wallet was fat with cash his mother had given him for weekly groceries from the corner market. He was going to use one dollar of that cash for a bottle or two of beer, to hell with everything. To hell with Jack McVey, to hell with life, to hell with his fat philandering father, and to hell with the last faded memory of Cathy. Bitch!
He settled in a booth, and, like a man, called to the bartender, "A bottle of Bud!"
"Regular or Bud Lite?"
"Uh... Regular! Please."
On his second bottle, Red was feeling it. He was lost in thoughts, good thoughts, happy thoughts, admiring the table top, pondering how it had been a tree, a tall and mighty tree, and now it was a table top. Was this a miracle or a tragedy? He looked up to see a vision, a female, maybe 35 or 40—not terribly younger than Mrs. Mazzo, if you thought about it—sitting before him. Her hair was red, bright red and curly. It reminded him of a fresh copper scrubby. He smiled. He blinked his eyes, twice. He zeroed in on her, on her smile, on her eyes, blue as a May sky, so blue they drowned out the wrinkles and creases surrounding them. The entire world melted away until all there was in God's good and great universe was... her.
—Follow J.D. King on Twitter: @jdking_mod