Thoughts on a Gray Day by Red Mazzo
Fields and a village, a pit,
a development split
the occasional farm...
Rome cannot be undone.
Silver clipped more'n one
dead man's lunatic run.
(It all comes back to me,
the movies and the factories,
hazy in complicity...)
Myriad lives of sorrowed charm,
nettled den, a sparrow,
lounging in pernicious shadow
of anonymity: trapped
as ambered Abyssinian insect:
fools who fancied themselves
Red nodded with solemn certainty as he looked his poem over with a jeweler's eye one final time. Along with a succinct note of introduction, he stuffed a manila envelope, addressed it to Cedar & Cider Press, a small local imprint that Lenny, the proprietor of Prozen Sutch Books in Albany, told him about. Red made the conscious choice to sign it "Red," not "Edward," feeling it was distinctive. "Red" had a manly appeal, redolent of a hillbilly singer or baseball player, no hint of a Percy Dovetonsils.
Envelope in hand, he descended the stairs from his attic apartment in his parents' dreary little home, headed to the post office. A bit of chit-chat with the postmistress, a few coins, and the poem was on its way to judgment. In the oppressively humid July late afternoon he sighed and sauntered home, sweating. For weeks he tried not to think of it, and after a couple of months, not hearing back, he almost forgot about it.
A few days after Thanksgiving his mother called him from downstairs, there was a small package for him. Surprised, he sprinted down the stairs. Looking at the return address, Red saw that it was from Cedar & Cider Press! He took a deep breath, bracing himself for rejection. He'd avoided submitting poems for all the years since graduating Marist because rejection was almost more than he could bear. He was still stung by the rejection of a poem to The Raven, his Catholic high school literary journal. As the editor explained to him, they had indeed selected Red's poem, but he was edged out at the last minute by a popular jock because, "Well, hey, who can say no to Rick?" Nearly 20 years later, Red still fumed. The athlete's so-called poem was little more than a facetious rehash of the lyrics to Let it All Hang Out, it an ersatz mockery the surrealistic genius of the Great Poet, Bob Dylan, Red's all-time hero.
Holding the package in both hands, Red remembered Rick sitting in the very back of the school bus, surrounded by his cohorts, laughing, "If The Raven takes this 100% USDA BS poem it may give me the brownie points to pass English. Mr. Shields is enough of a candy-ass to take this garbage seriously!" On a transistor radio, The Hombres hit played, Rick randomly jotted bits and pieces of it, while singing, "Let it all hang out! Let me eat you out! You've got a greasy snout!" Young Red steamed. He liked Mr. Shields.
In the envelope was a copy of Poems Upstated, and a Xeroxed form letter thanking him for his contribution. Red almost fainted in a vertiginous cocktail of joy and disbelief! He was now, officially, a published poet! He had to sit at the Formica topped table. Taking another deep breath, and with trembling hands, he opened the slim 4 x 6" volume. He found his poem, second to last, then a black cloud blotted the sun: his surname was misspelled: Muzzo. Halcyon triumph cratered to grim defeat in a heartbeat.
He took a second look, hoping he'd been wrong, but he'd never been so right. He slumped in his chair.
"Another book, Eddie? Lunch in a few minutes, no point in going back upstairs."
Red could only manage to nibble at his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, completely ignoring the sweet pickle and strawberry milk. He felt as if his stomach was being punched. Torment raged inside and around his skull like some sort of crazed skateboarder. He wanted to cry, to shout, to fly off the handle, smash things without remorse.
"What's the matter, Eddie? Cat got your stomach?"
He wanted to rip her stupid head off her stupid shoulders. How can anyone be so dumb, to so mangle common clichés?
"Uh, I don't feel so hot. I'm gonna go upstairs..."
In his aerie Red knelt before a wall crucifix and wailed, "Dear God! Why can't anything ever go right for me? Sometimes a victory seems within rare grasp—only to evaporate in an instant! Why, why, why! Dear Holy Ghost! I humbly beg of thee! Give me the strength to endure! Dear Blessed Mother! Please, I humbly beg of thee! Pray for me! Dear Lord! Why must I be so forsaken!"
Then the familiar—all too familiar—screech of Jack McVey's rusty Pinto spraying gravel, negotiating the Mazzo driveway like an Olympic skier.
Dammit! Red braced himself as best he could. Will Jack be mocking me? Or will he be drunk and mocking me?
Jack bounded the stairs and burst into the cramped room and immediately sensed that his old pal was at the end of his rope. For once Jack didn't move in for the kill. Instead he sat down on the one chair, the chair at Red's desk, and faced his forlorn friend cringing on the bed, head in hands. Jack lit a Winston and said, "Okay, chum. Spill. Lemme know what the problemo is, por favor. This is serious, even I can tell."
About 20 minutes later they were driving to Cedar & Cider Press outside of Delmar, NY, not a terribly long drive from Schenectady. Jack was sober, obeyed the speed limit, and refrained from obnoxious behavior. They had no game plan, just a desire to set the record straight if possible. The address to Cedar & Cider Press led them to a two-story, rundown clapboard house. They walked up three rickety steps to a brown wood door of peeling paint. On the door was hand-painted hippie-style lettering that read: Cedar & Cider Press. "Dis must be de place," said Jack as he pressed the door buzzer. They heard a female screech, "Coming, dammit!" And they heard dogs, at least two, yowling and scratching at the door.
They waited. And waited. Red stared at the door. The dogs kept at it, their fury not tempering. Jack turned away, lit a cig, and surveyed the terrain: a vacant sandy lot on one side, some brush and scrub on the other. Across the street an almost identical forlorn two-story clapboard, a sad Chevy in its dirt driveway. Jack wondered if it commiserated with the Cedar & Cider VW van. There was a distinct chill in the air, winter was approaching.
After a few minutes they heard tromping, then the door cracked open a few inches. "Yash!" A squat woman in bib overalls, a flannel shirt, and work boots poked her head and one foot out. Behind her two Dobermans snarled and leaped, angling to get past her to attack the strangers. She was about 45, her brown and gray hair an easy-to-manage clip. She turned to solidly kick the canine corp aside, then turned back to stare at Red and Jack blankly, no hint of humor, and barked again, "Yash!" Red was tongue-tied. Her voice was like a rusty tin can scraped along cement. He didn't know how to react to it, so Jack stepped up, "My buddy had a poem published in Poems Upstated, and..."
"Yash! If you wish for more copies they may be purchased at cost. We have a department to handle that."
"No, um, that's not the issue, you see, um, when you published his poem, his name was misspelled, and, um, we were wondering if there might be a way to correct..."
"We are on the verge of Ronnie Raygun igniting a nuclear holocaust! And you have the unmitigated gall to pester me with your trivia? Hello! Yash! I beg your pardon!" Red and Jack each took a step back as she stepped onto the porch and held both of her palms about four inches away from her temples, fingers splayed very wide and very taut. Her eyes were shut tight. Her head shook, indicating she had nothing more to say to imbeciles on the subject of a misspelling, or any other subject, while Planet Earth teetered on the brink of annihilation. Then she slid back indoors, slammed the door shut. They heard the lock click.
Dumfounded, the two fellows stood on her porch for about a minute before they turned and walked down the steps to the Pinto. "Sorry, chum. We tried. We failed." They got in the car and drove off. Jack said, "Hey, pally! I've got an idea! It's kind of crazy, but hear me out before you dismiss it. Okay. Let's drop everything, just walk away from it all, and head west! Really west! Montana! Dakota! We'll get jobs working as forest fire lookouts! Or we'll pick apples! Something!"
"I dunno... I don't think so... What'll we do for money?" Red was stunned, but a faraway siren crooned to him, "Go for it, child!"
"I just cashed my unemployment check! I got dough! I can float us until we have work. And my mom can forward my checks. We'll work off the books, under the table! It'll be a gravy train!"
Earlier that day Red had heard his dad banging the renter, Sheila. It seemed to go on forever, she moaning and groaning. It was an open secret that she, the freelance prostie, was trading favors for rent. It disgusted him to hear them going at it directly below him. And his idiot mom made believe nothing was going on. He used to love his mother, but now had nothing but a forged contempt for her.
What was there to keep him tied to Schenectady? An hour later, he'd packed some clothes, a comb, and a few paperbacks in his high school gym bag, informed his mom he was on vacation indefinitely, and was in the Pinto on an Interstate. Jack brought his folk guitar, an old Harmony. Before they left, Jack, foot on Pinto bumper, strummed some blues chords, and sang, "Look out, mama, I'm on th' road, ag'in! Ain't had no lovin' since who knows when! Ooo-wee baby, ooo-wee! Don't let your horse bite me..." He added a few neat riffs, bending strings just so, ending with a jazz chord. Red thought, "He's really pretty darn good! Too bad he never tried to make a go of it." Jack tossed the guitar into the back seat, and they were on their way.
One hand gripping the steering wheel, the other hand gesturing with a cigarette, Jack said, "Imagine, pally, the times we'll have! Saloons teeming with booze and broads! A maniac in the corner hammering ragtime piano! It'll be like that old TV show, Route 66! Or one of those Jack Kerouac stories! Maybe we'll get jobs on a trawler going up and down the Mississippi! Wait! I know! We'll head to Cali! Frisco! Haight Ashbury! Then we'll barrel down to New Orleans! Work on the docks! At night, the cathouses! And Basin Street! Dixieland! From there, LA! Hollywood! I'll bet we could work as extras! I did a little theater at SUNY Albany. Maybe a bit part in a movie! From there, who th' hell knows? We'll be rich! Mexico! We can go to May-hee-koh! Señoritas will crawl for our gringo dollars! And we'll buy bottles of tequila for pennies!"
"You know, you could make a few bucks playing blues in some clubs!"
"Ah, I'm no good!"
"No! You are good! You just lack confidence!"
"Hey, we'll see! Who knows? The world is our oyster now, Reddy!"
As Jack drove and the sky darkened, Red was lost in thoughts, dreaming about how this could really be something. Maybe he'd get a novel out of it? It was as if Jack was Bob Dylan, and he was Allen Ginsberg in some fantastic cinéma-vérité. He would need to keep a diary. This was going to be historic. Red stifled a laugh; he was dizzy with delight. He packed some Borkum Riff into his pipe, lit it, puffed away contentedly. This was one of the happiest and most complete moments in his entire life. He set his pipe in the ashtray, fished a harmonica out of a pocket of his bell-bottom jeans and whinnied a chord. That's all Jack needed to goad him into song: "Ain't no gard'ner, ain't no gard'ner son, but I can mow your lawn till that gard'ner come, 'cause I'm wild 'bout my lovin', mm-hm, likes to have my fun! Oh yeah! See you in th' mornin', honey! I'll be your risin' sun!"
Meanwhile, all the way west, south of Los Angeles, in a motel turned into cheap apartments for migrants and vagrants, at a complex crossroads of highways and super-highways, a smattering of truck stops and gas stations, Robert Foont stepped out his door onto the second story landing, dwarfed by the dismal view. He'd slept very poorly his first night here. Murdering his wife back in Ohio didn't bother him a-tall, she had it coming in spades. But some drunk Mexicans had beat on his door in the middle of the night scaring him half to death. It was a case of them being too plastered to pick the right apartment. But as a high-strung sort, he was still rattled by it.
He had some cash, enough for a little while. But he was wanted for murder in the first degree. "What to do with the rest of my life? How do I play this hand? Think, man, think!"