Monday, April 6, 2020

Johnny Cag’s

I could tell you some stories. There was Sad Jean. We called her “Sad” Jean because she always looked so damn sad. Her very molecules moped with misery. She wore such grim tragedy on her rainy countenance that you didn’t know whether to hug her or hit her. She only managed one facial expression, woe. She wore drab brown clothes and had long, stringy oily Manson-girl hair. We often speculated about what accounted for her tragic, weight-weary comportment but our theories all fell flat. They were whack in the final analysis. The only thing that seemed plausible was that she was imprisoned in a miserable marriage.
     We called her husband “Weird Beard” because he had a thick bristling beard and acted weird. He’d served in Vietnam and wore sandals with black socks. He would laugh before he said something, like “Hahaha how ya doin’?”. “Hahaha what can I getcha?” We surmised that he’d done a lot of wonderful drugs in his youth. I once ran into him in the woods. “Hahaha,” he said. “How far back do these woods go?”
     I told him they went pretty far. He nodded and I walked away, glad that a conversation hadn’t emerged. The scuttlebutt around town was that he suffered from PTSD but nobody called it that yet. Word was if you startled him by yelling “Air raid!” it would induce a terrifying flashback but I never witnessed this behavior and don’t trust the sources.
     Weird Beard and Sad Jean worked for Sad Jean’s father at a honkytonk-type bar in our neighborhood called Johnny Cag’s. That's how we knew them. They all helped tend bar and did kitchen stuff. Local country-western musicians would enliven the joint on the weekends. Cag's had a pool table and Ms. Pac-Man machine and we, the neighborhood kids, would hang out and order Cokes and French fries and spend a lot of our money, mostly quarters. Usually we got high before we went in. There was no Johnny Cag. We were uncertain as to the origin of the name. The burly, friendly guy who owned it was named Bert. His wife Dot also worked there. She used to write the ever-changing menu on a big whiteboard and we laughed at her crude lettering and many misspellings. Once, around Christmas, my friend Jack and I stole a basket of flowers from a nursery called Bellaire Gardens and presented it to her. She was thrilled. “Bert! Look what the boys brought me!” Johnny Cag’s was a small, family-run business. The kind you’re supposed to like, politically.
     The place survived for a couple of years and then closed. Bert went back to work as a driving instructor. I have no idea what happened to the others. They depended on Bert for their livelihoods.
      But seeing as how all this took place in the early 80s, they might all be dead.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Pictures of Lela

They finally found Lela at the cemetery. Her body at least. They’d been searching for her ever since she disappeared three days before. It took the police three whole days to find her and they didn’t even find her. A couple of doom-laden teenage girls discovered her. They were hanging around the graveyard taking pictures of antique tombstones, dressed in black, smoking thin cigarettes and they came upon Lela. They weren’t expecting to find dead people on top of the ground.
     They looked at the body for several stunned, silent minutes and then began to greedily take pictures. They both posed with the corpse.

     “Okay, look up at me. Big smile.”

     “She’s starting to smell.”

     “Hey, if she’s gone all rigor mortis maybe we can pose her. Like a Barbie.”

     “I don’t really want to touch her.”

     “Yeah, me either.”

     And then they came to their senses and called the cops. They had seen stories on the news about Lela, the latest missing blond chick, and figured they’d gain local fame for finding her.

     Poor Lela had a clear plastic bag over her head but when they completed the autopsy they learned that she’d died as a result of too much fentanyl. The plastic bag suggested foul play but wasn’t the cause of death. A precaution maybe? Overkill? They also found traces of semen in her deceased vagina.

     The two teens, Cassie and Maggie, were questioned but they had airtight alibis. They were both working at Max’s Candle Stand when Lela met her fate and had the timecards to prove it. Besides, they couldn’t have been responsible because semen. They were dismissed as suspects. Cassie and Maggie were relieved of course, but thrilled to have been briefly suspected of murder. They both felt the experience gave them some kind of morbid credibility. Of course they were pissed that the cops had confiscated their beautiful pictures of Lela. They got a stern lecture and were told they were lucky that the police decided not to charge them with tampering with evidence.

     “Homicide is not a laughing matter,” they were told.

     They both had to restrain themselves from rolling their eyes.

     Lela had died at the tender age of twenty-four. She had lived with her grandparents and worked as a physical therapist. Her grandfather, Roscoe (62) was also questioned as a person of interest because he had a history of violence and access to fentanyl (he had cancer in his knees and used fentanyl patches for pain) but since he was bound to a wheelchair, he was quickly omitted as a suspect.

     “You got me all wrong, fellas, I ain’t violent. I just used to get drunk and beat my wife. Because of my bad legs I can’t even do that no more.”

     “Domestic abuse is not a laughing matter,” he was told.

     Eventually, they determined that Lela had committed suicide, choosing the cemetery as some kind of black ironic statement. Those who knew Lela were shocked and puzzled:

     “She was an upbeat, people-person.”

     “She was so cheerful and could light up a room. A real people-person.”

    “She was a people-person. Nobody ever saw an anguished side of her.”

     “It’s tragic whenever you lose a people-person.”

     There was a tiny local radio station (WZIP) in town and the morning DJ, who went by the moniker of Lizard P. (nee William Zecker) was notorious around town as a womanizer and heavy drug user. He bragged about his sordid exploits on the air. He was the little town’s own shock-jock/morning-zoo type celebrity. He was fifty-two years old and wore a brown, curly wig and gold medallions.  

     Acting on a hunch, police sampled his DNA. When the results returned from the lab, they found it matched the semen from the crime scene. They brought him in for questioning:

     “Yeah, we had sex together. But it was totally sensual.”

     “I’ve never even seen fentanyl let alone kill somebody with it.”

     “You guys want me to confess to something I didn’t even do! At least accuse me of something I did do! That I could understand!”

     Eventually they had to release him due to lack of evidence. He went on the air, called the cops “pigs” and threatened a lawsuit. Most of the folks who listened to his show thought he was guilty and his ratings plummeted.

     Eventually, Lela’s death was officially ruled a suicide and the case was closed.

     Zeke Vorte (38) lived one town over, in Headly. He lived alone, enjoyed sports and opioids, and got away with murder. Again.


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Changing the Channel

I ate three powerful mystery brownies I’d copped from Glen and sat watching TV and waiting forever to feel the effects and eventually the remote control began to change. Right there in my hand. I quickly tried talking sense to myself but it was fruitless. The remote kept changing. The buttons were wet and squishy, like Jell-O only warm. And then the next thing I knew they were like ice—hard and cold and slippery on my fingers. Somehow I kept holding onto the thing even as it writhed. It became a clump of dry, unruly hair. It felt like a face. I didn’t dare look at it and kept my eyes peeled on the TV screen that kept flickering through channels at a rapid rate. I was still hitting the buttons with a frantic hand. Only now they were eyeballs. And now they were lactating nipples. And then the very concept of the remote control changed. It was a rainy Sunday morning. It was a speech by Hitler. It was a sour taste, a sharp pain, a dull pain, a Mark Twain witticism, a mailbox on fire, an arc of light on a broken toilet seat. Changing changing, the faces on the screen bleeding into each other through a snowstorm of altered images. Whirling confetti—each tiny paper square an art museum. And it just kept going until I thought my brain would burst from the overload. The pressure kept building. I cursed Glen. I tried, again, to reason with myself, remind myself that it was merely the brownies and that it would wear off and things would return to normal but Lyndon Johnson was whispering warm light into my colon and the fear that my bowels might leak occurred to me and I dropped the remote control into the breathing, tangerine shag at the roots of my feet and the TV screeched to an abrupt halt smack dab in the middle of a prison documentary.
     A guy with tattoos all over his face was complaining about the food. I wished I could give him one of Glen’s infinite brownies. That would also combat the boredom and claustrophobia of the cell.   


Romita buzzed my doorbell at two in the morning. I was still up so I pushed the button. “Yeah? Who’s this?”
     “Romita! Let me in!”  
     I buzzed her up.
     Romita was a woman. I put on my pants.
     My apartment (at the time) was a tiny sculpture of a children’s hospital.  I rarely had visitors anymore and that was fine with me. I could hear Romita’s footsteps gaining on me. She entered my apartment, drunk, shedding forensic evidence all over the place. She coughed and pulled a pack of Newports out of her leather jacket, smacked it against her hand. I allow smoking in my apartment, I allow friends to drop in, and I allow Romita to exist.  
     “Hey Joe,” she said. Her eyes were blurred slits. “Kill anybody lately?”
     “I’m working on it,” I told her.
     “I bet,” she said and then gave me a snort of laughter. “You’re so fucked up.”
     “What do you want, Romita?” Her father had named her after comic book artist John Romita (The Amazing Spiderman). It was homage to one of the greats. I knew this because I knew Romita. Better than almost anyone. She knew things about me too. It was a dangerous two-way street.
     “I was just in the neighborhood, saw your light was on. Figured you were working.” She closed her eyes and—still standing—seemed to be asleep for a few seconds. She opened her eyes (sort of) swaying and said, “I want you to kill me.”
     “Oh no. Not this again.”
     “Come on. Just do me this one little favor..."
     “I’m sorry Romita, I can’t.”
    “How come?” She plugged a Newport into her lazy smile, clicked it to life with a blue Bic.
       “I don’t kill people I know,” I told her. Again.
     “Yeah I know. You only kill prostitutes. Hey, I could be a prostitute.”
     “Don’t say that. You’re not a prostitute.”
     She gave me a lopsided smile. “I know I’m not a prostitute. I’m saying I could BE a prostitute. Like as an ambition.”
     “Uh-huh.” This was getting tedious already. I hated dealing with drunks. Romita was a miserable drunk. And her desire to be murdered was getting on my nerves. It wasn’t the first time she’d made the request. Romita and I used to work together at Sledgehammer Industrial. Bathtubs stained grimy with iron dust. Bathtubs full of blood and splintered bone.
     “Why don’t you just take things into your own hands?” I asked.
     “I can’t commit suicide.”
     “Why not?” I asked but I already knew.
     “Not allowed. It’s a sin.”
     “Well, I’m sorry, Romita. I just can’t help you.”
     “What if I blackmailed you?”
     “Be careful, bitch.” I hated to get angry but Romita was pushing my buttons. It was a tactic she’d tried before.
      “Or what? You’ll kill me?” She snorted out a laugh.
     I laughed, relaxed.“Yeah, I guess that is pretty funny,” I admitted.
     “Hey, you got any beer?” she said.
     I did. We sat down and drank beer and Romita smoked, her mind drifting with the curls and clouds. Eventually, she left. On good, safe terms.
     I went back into the bathroom to finish Helen.


Monday, March 30, 2020

The Paralyzed Man-Ape

Joey was the only kid in the neighborhood that had a jungle gym in his yard. If the other kids wanted to climb a jungle gym, they either had to go to the park or the grounds of Herbert Hoover middle school. Or they could climb Joey’s jungle gym in his backyard. But then they had to play Joey’s game. And Joey only played one game.
     The Paralyzed Man-Ape was his game. And it went like this:

     Joey would play a “pre-humanoid anthropoid” (his words) or Man-Ape. Hunched over and chattering and loping across the arid Savanna grassland, he would climb to the top of the jungle gym and the other members of the “tribe” would throw rocks at him. Joey had instructed them to, “Huck `em hard!” and they would, aiming for his face. Pelted with rocks, Joey would topple from the jungle gym, pretending to shatter his spine. He would just lay there, immobile, until the saber-toothed tiger attacked him. Joey’s Man-Ape would release truly blood-curdling screams as he pretended to be ripped to shreds under the tiger’s huge, knife-like teeth. Then he would die. That was the signal for the other kids to drop their rocks and then they were free to climb the jungle gym. Joey would turn back into Joey and go into his house, leaving the other kids to play normal games for the rest of the day. Joey was satisfied with this arrangement. He never got tired of playing the game, bruised as he got.

     But if they could get a ride to the park, they preferred that to playing The Paralyzed Man-Ape. They thought Joey was really weird and sometimes they really hurt him with the rocks. Once they cut open his eye and he had to go to the hospital for stitches. They continued to play on the jungle gym while he went through that. Life in the Paleolithic Age was tough on Joey. He wouldn’t have it any other way.