E. David Brown arrived in Canada in 1976 to attend the University of British Columbia where he met his wife and received an MFA in Creative Writing. He later went on to the receive an M.A. in Education from The University of McGill. They have lived in Montreal for over forty years and have a daughter, Flannery.
In 2000 they bought a house on Lac Travers in Saint-Adolphe d’Howard and now divide their time between the city and the country. The Laurentians hold a special attraction for David. They remind him of the Taunus Mountains in Germany and the foothills of Colorado where he lived briefly as a kid.
David’s career incarnations have included being a bartender, probation officer, freelance writer, Human Resource Director, and CEGEP professor. At UBC he received the CBC award for screenplay and documentary work. In 1999 Plateau Press published his novel “Tell You All”, a black humor retelling of the story of Lazarus. His most recent story “Wildflowers of Colorado” was published in the Scarlet Leaf Review.
Another Superfluous Man
The smell is what sticks with me, not the mustard coloured walls or old men absorbed by arm chairs in the lobby of the YMCA. The old men’s eyes are trained on a black and white television secured to a metal platform that hangs from a wall. There are young men as well. Like me they have come to this place not by choice but by circumstance. Like me they want to believe it is only a temporary shelter. They want to believe this but their eyes settle on the old men whose eyes are trained on the black and white television and they fear that they, we, will one day be sitting in arm chairs with the platform too high to permit us to switch channels. But like I said, the fetid odour of cigarettes, fried food, and perspiration permeates the air like the promise of failure. It is not a rare smell. It hangs as a poisonous cloud over every street corner in North America. No matter how hard you try to wash it away, mask it with cologne or bury it under success it sticks with you. * I hitched a ride at the Oklahoma border with a card carrying John Bircher. Did my part and listened to him rant for three hours about how these here United States was going down the shit-tube because of peaceniks, draft dodgers, druggies, hippies, queers, pinkos and intellectual do-nothings. I didn’t tell him that I qualified for three of the miscreants on his list. He dropped me off at the Dallas YMCA. Constructed in 1943 the fourteen-story building looked like it had been lifted off the streets of Chicago and deposited on the corner of a cowtown comprised of cold war inspired federal buildings and warehouses. Mr. Love-it-or-Leave-it America lectured me on how my generation needed to straighten up its act. Somehow the fall of the Roman empire came up. It either had to do with willy-nilly orgies or lead wine goblets. Outside the Y an old black guy asked me if I needed help carrying my belongings. I said, "No sir." My ride leaned over to the passenger side and rolled down the window. "You gotta be careful who you call sir. Some people might take you for a mark. Only say sir to those people who deserve respect." I didn’t thank him, and did not say sir. The desk clerk barely looked up from his crossword puzzle. He must have been at it some time; the paper was dated from the Sunday three weeks before. The headline read George Wallace Survives But Paralysed. When I coughed he rose from his stool and leaned over the counter top. He counted out loud the number of bags at my feet. It wasn’t a prodigious feat considering all I had was a backpack and a seabag I toted all the way from San Diego where I had been expelled from the Navy and throughout Europe. The clerk tucked his thumb under his collar and pulled it away from his neck. The shirt, likely white, had taken on the greyish tint of several laundromat washings. “I need a room for two months, maybe more.” “Let me see ya I-Dee.” “What kind of identification?” “The kind that tells me if you are you and how old you are.” I stooped over and fished my passport from my backpack. “What the heck, ain’t you got a drivers license or library card or something?” He flipped open my passport and held it up comparing my face with the photo. “How old you gotta be to get one of these?” His lips moved as he read my name. “At least old enough to register for the draft.” “With or without a bathroom? The rooms with a john and shower runs three dollars a week more. That’s eighteen instead of fourteen bucks,” he said. Tempted to correct his math I calculated how much cash I had to hold me until I got a job. A hand the size of a catcher’s mitt came down on the desk bell, muffling its ring. The hand belonged to a man two heads taller than me. His polyester beige suit reeked of body odour and Aqua Velva. His head resembled a jack-o-lantern. Black pupils pushed the whites to the corners of his eyes. His upper lip curled above his incisors when he spoke. “405”, he said in a voice taxed from disuse and shoved a V.A. hospital card at the clerk. “Don’t need an I-Dee Harland. I know who you are.” “405,” the man repeated. “Can’t you see I’m busy?” The clerk turned around, snatched a key from a pegboard and slapped it on the counter. “Breakfast comes with the room but dinner will cost you an extra ten dollars a week, mind you we don’t serve on Saturdays.” Harland curled his lip. “Not worth it. There are passable eats nearby.” “We got services every Sunday at 10 a.m. and like to see our guests there.” “I don’t go in for religion,” I said. “Maybe you don’t understand. We like to see our guests at chapel.” “I understand. I just don’t care.” “Praise the Lord we finally got us a true disbeliever in this piss pot of salvation.” “Ain’t you late for something Harland?” “No Elroy, I always make time for you.” “I’ll take the fifteen dollar room.” The clerk removed key 406, from the board. “Looks like you and Harland are gonna be neighbors. We got a few rules here. You know the normal kind of things; no drinking, no women, no smoking in the rooms, no doing nothing that is against nature.” “Jesus Christ, he means to say is no Hoovering down below or prospecting from behind.” “No swearing or obscenities either, Harland.” “No shit,” the man said and walked toward a caged elevator dragging his left leg behind him. Harland held the cage open and waited for me to join him. He flattened himself against the wall of the lift and squeezed his eyes shut when it rose with a groan. At each floor Harland exhaled then inhaled deeply. “Damn it why don’t it just get it the hell over with?” When the Otis opened at the fourth floor Harland announced, “Could have, should have died a thousand times over but I’m being saved for something special, some auspicious ending.” He rushed into his room and slammed the door. I jiggled the key in my lock then withdrew it and saw the teeth were too worn to be of much use except to clean the grime under my fingernails. I was about to head back to the lobby and ask for another key when a kid who looked like teenage girl’s heart-throb stopped beside me. He was dressed in flame red pants and a yellow shirt so bright that it screamed remember me. “I got the same problem. No use complaining to the cabron downstairs. That fat ass will just tell you to book a suite at the Plaza.” He took my key and placed one hand on the door jam, inserted the key and he pulled the door toward him. It sprung open like a jack-in-the box. I extended my hand to shake. “Looks like you’ve had practice.” His touch was feathery. His hand floated out of mine before I could give it a proper squeeze. He stood in front of me a moment waiting for something then threw his arms over his head. “Least you can give me is your name seeing as how I helped you out.“ “Blake, Blake Moore.” “Good that’ll help.” “Help with what?’ “Let’s say I see some certified pervert sneaking up behind you in the showers. I can scream Blake, Blake Moore turn around. Just as you can warn me if the cops show up. You can yell Trejos, Trey, haul ass.” “Why would the cops hassle you?” Before he could answer Harland appeared in the hallway. His massive shoulders blocked what little light the spent fluorescent fixtures provided. “Knock knock,” he barked. I swept my arm into my room. “Come on in guys. Sorry I don’t have any refreshments but I didn’t expect a visit from the YMCA Welcome Wagon.” “Funny.” Harland grunted. He jabbed a finger under Trey’s nose. “The cops hassle him because that’s what they do, hassle the hustlers.” I backed away and rested my hand on a porcelain sink hanging on a wall more by luck than intention. Trey hip bumped Harland to the side. He waved his finger at me. “Don’t make no judgements. I’m not infectious.” Harland coughed out the words, “Not-dangerous-either. That’s-my-speciality, my-burden “ “Harland’s not my chulo. He’s my friend. Maybe my only one.” I slung my seabag onto the bed. The mattress buckled in the middle. “I don’t care what either you guys are up to as long as it doesn’t involve me.” Harland took two steps into the room and pressed me against the sink. “I’m not his way.” The air in the room was getting too close, too humid. “Harland, Trey, it’s a real pleasure to meet you. Know it’s rude, but I gotta get some sleep, heading out early to find a job” “No jobs around here unless you want to deal dope or sell your ass-ets,” Harland said. “Maybe I’ll tend bar in some local dive or work at a garden center.” “Be a trip to see this güero filling sacks of shit with my brothers.” “I’ve bagged more than shit before.” The room was tight but more spacious than the brigs and jails I’d checked into. No reservation necessary. Just smile and tell Uncle Sam to do a full gainer onto a flagpole for refusing to go to war, pledge the allegiance to a rag, or fail to salute an asshole who looks he has just wandered in from The Pirate’s of Penzance. Doesn’t take courage or conviction, just the inability to engage the brain before the mouth. Can attest to that having told a Turkish custom official to sit on his Fez. That quip earned me two months in a cell without a view of Istanbul or a Bosporus beach tan. On the plus side there was zero chance of me contracting trichinosis from under cooked pork. I inspected the pillow to find the least stained surface. Didn’t bother to undress and flopped down to snatch a few hours of sleep. The neon cross of a street mission across the street flashed an invitation of salvation and soup. I got up to fill a Dixie cup with warm tap water but reconsidered drinking. The communal bathroom was too far away. I figured I could hold off until my eyeballs floated to the top of my skull. I’d slept in worse digs. In Amsterdam I crashed at the base of a statue where someone stole my shoes and left in their place a pack of Gitanes and a cube of hash. When morning arrived I did not open my eyes, having never closed them. From my seabag I took out clean underwear, a plaid shirt and pair of jeans along with a bar of soap and razor and rolled them up in a towel. My bare feet squished in the damp hallway carpet. Strips of wallpaper hung like dead eels down the corridor. When I entered the communal washroom Trey was pinned against a stall by two guys wearing green windbreakers with SMU SECURITY stencilled on their backs. Trey’s bloody nose did not indicate a friendly encounter. The head of the bigger of the guy was shaved completely. The thinner one drooled black crud from his wad of Redman every time Trey squirmed. The bald guy jerked Trey back by his hair and slapped his face. “If I see you hanging around campus again they gonna find you floating face down in the Trinity.” His buddy caught sight of me and spat a black glob at my feet. “Hey Mick, look another one of them.” “Grady, he ain’t no twinkie just a sorry ass hippie.” “Probably right but sure be fun to work him over a little to keep in shape.” “Better rethink that,’ Harland’s raspy voice preceded him into the washroom. “You boys moonlighting? I know you don’t live here.” ”Fuck you Harland, Elroy put us on to keep things orderly,” Mick said and pushed his way past me. Harland dug his fingers into Grady’s shoulder muscle so hard he sank to his knees. “Mick, tell Elroy I’m going to talk to him about his hiring practices.” He pulled Grady to his feet and pointed at the arched opening of the washroom. “Don’t let me catch either one of you candy asses on this floor again.” Harland turned his back on Trey and me and headed to the showers. “What just went down?” I asked Trey. “Not us, thanks to him.” *
After pounding the pavement for three days I landed a job at Oasis Garden and Feed miles away from the Y. The boss at first didn’t want to take me on. He didn’t have a high opinion of wannabe proletariats who desired to chum around the working class. “You ever done any hard labour?” He asked. “No don’t answer that, I can see the hardest thing you ever held is your own puny dick.” “Least I know where to find it. Sure isn’t hidden like yours, trapped between two slabs of thigh blubber.” “I outta stomp a mud-hole in you. Instead I’m going to put you to work. Bet you don’t last out the day. Be a gas to see how long it takes for one of my men to kick your ass for slowing them down.“ “Anything else boss?” “Just two things. My name’s Virgil and this here isn’t fucking San Francisco. You sure the hell ain’t going to be wearing no godamn flowers in your hair. Either find a barber or wear a hat.” By days end Virgil pulled me aside and said. “Well Ringo the guys say you take to this work alright. Let’s see if you last the week.” “If I do I get a nickel raise, boss?” “No, you keep this job and I throw in a pair of coveralls and work gloves.” And that was it. If I worked it right I could save enough money to be out of the Y in four months. For the first few weeks I specialized in shovelling sheep and cow manure into 50 pound bags. Then I graduated to unloading sacks of fertilizer and paving stones from flatbed trailers. Eventually I learned how to identify a perennial from an annual. I discovered enough about herbicides, insecticides and generally killing unwanted things to be given an apron. Virgil told me to sell myself as an expert to people longing to transform their burnt North Texas plots into botanical wonders. I even convinced myself of my astounding horticultural expertise. *
At the end of a day I smelled worse than the shit I loaded into truck beds. Elroy would toss my room key across the lobby when I returned from work. “You stink so bad the cockroaches are moving out.” There was no quick comeback. I could hardly drag myself to the shower to attempt to scrub off the layers of dirt on skin. One day Elroy stood at the entrance of the Y. “Moore, people are complaining about the stuff you’re tracking in. They say you reek worse than roadkill.” He handed me a urinal puck dangling from a string. “You can wear it round your neck like a peace symbol.” I tossed the puck from hand to hand, mustering all my self control. “No thanks Elroy.” I slipped it into his shirt pocket. “You keep it. Use it as a breath mint in case the goat you’re fucking takes offence.” Harland and Trey were seated in the lobby. Harland helped Trey to his feet. With each step Trey winced. A purple bruise covered the left side of his face. The big man shoved Elroy aside and opened the door for his friend. “Blake, you coming?” He growled. “No, I’m beat, gonna shower and crash.” “You need chow more than soap.” I followed them out of the Y and onto a sidewalk vacant of the suits and skirts who worked in the business core of Dallas. When the sun went down the streets of Big D were given over to derelicts, drug addicts, hustlers of both persuasions and the occasional cop who seldom announced his presence prior to clocking you for daring to contaminate their turf. Two weeks earlier I had decided to hitchhike back from the Oasis. It did not turn out well. A cop wearing an old west revolver and Stetson picked me up and drove me ten miles outside the city limits and warned me to start walking. I got off easy. I could have ended up three months on a road crew charged with vagrancy or in a ditch with my face turned into salsa. It was a short walk to Jack’s Shack, a double-wide converted into a dimly lit diner. Harland called it right. My grubby clothes and body odour went unnoticed at the lunch counter. Garbage, rancid bacon fat and incinerated toast smothered the cabbage soup stench of the patrons. We sat on stools at the end of the counter. Harland waved over a waitress. “Where’s Jack?’ From a distance the waitress benefited from the low lights that concealed a creased face the colour of an overripe banana. “I’m his slop server not his secretary.” Harland’s lips stretched in an expression approximating a smile. “Nora, you do a righteous job of it. ”Don’t do that Harland it looks like it hurts.” A baby blue Camaro pulled up outside the diner. Four young men outfitted in pearl button shirts embroidered with roses and cacti and wearing bootcut Levis got out. They peered through the window. One guy pointed a finger at Trey. He grabbed his crotch then stuck his thumb in his mouth and moved it in and out. His three friends joined in. They jumped back in the car and drove off. Trey sunk his chin into his neck and wrapped his arms around himself. “They the ones?, Harland asked. Trey nodded. “Just them?” Trey shook his head and held up two fingers. “Mick and Grady?’ “Don’t know. Didn’t see who was in the van.” “Hells bells Trey, what did you think was going to happen when they spotted you plying on the corner? Don’t you know Texas has three pastimes, football, hunting, and queer bashing? Oh yeah, I left out racism and lovin’ Jesus.” Trey slumped over the counter. “I need the money to get to New York. The one who picked me up looked nice, his friends showed up at the park out of nowhere.” The big man cupped the top of Trey’s head in his hand. “It’s okay to have a goal so long as it doesn’t get you killed.” Nora appeared holding a tray loaded with three bowls of chilli, a basket of crackers and a tub of onions and cheese. She slid each bowl off of the platter. Harland dumped a mound of onions and cheese on the red beans and beef. He crushed several packs of crackers and mixed them in his bowl. He shovelled a mound of chilli into his mouth. “I learned early if you’re gonna spend your days hopping from Y to Y it’s best to know how to stretch a meal of beans.” *
My room shook when something slung against a wall woke me in the middle of the night. Even with a pillow wrapped around my head it was impossible to muffle the curses and howls. I opened my door and bumped into Trey. “Blake, he’s really gone over the hill this time.” Harland’s door stood ajar. Trey poked his head inside the room. “Oh god I think he’s dead.” Harland’s bed was flipped upside down. He lay on the floor. An open bottle of Jim Beam next his ear. A brown halo of bourbon pooled around his head. “Yeah he’s dead, dead drunk.” A Marine blue dress tunic hung over a chair. On the sleeve were three chevrons and three rockers. Official looking papers covered the floor. An ammo box lay open under a hole in the wall, its contents strewn across the room. I picked up two purple hearts, a bronze star, and a Navy Cross. On Harland’s right side I saw a 45 military colt and a full clip within arm’s reach. Clutched in his fist a clipping from The Dayton Daily News read, LocalKorea-Vietnam War Hero Fails to Show For Key to City. Trey stripped off the vomit soaked sheet covering Harland. Two columns of tattoos were inked from his shoulders to his navel on opposite sides of his chest. Korea 1951-1953 Vietnam 1965-1968 Inchon 1950 La Drang 1965 Bloody Ridge 1951 Xcam 1966 Pork Chop Hill 1953 Khe Sahn 1968
Trey and I righted the bed. It took all our strength to lift Harland and move him onto the mattress. Harland bolted up staring into nothingness and yelled,“Enough, enough,” then collapsed again. With his face pressed against the mattress he struggled to breathe. We rolled him over. A mural covered his entire back, the image of a naked girl screaming,”Nong gua, Nong gua,” as she fled her burning village. “Did you see all those medals? He never let on he was a hero,” Trey said. “Maybe because he doesn’t believe it himself.” “All that ink, it must mean something.” I started to explain, but held back. It wasn’t my place, let someone else give him a history lesson. Every token of heroism on the floor, pistol and the full ammo clip spoke of a dark story not far enough in the past to be mercifully forgotten. Each tattoo, service commendation and news paper clipping hinted at a future lacking absolution. Harland’s eyes shifted around the room without us seeing what he was seeing. He hung his head over the edge of the bed and spewed out his guts. “It burns it burns. Nong gua, Nong gua!” Trey retreated to the door, his face squeezed as tight as a prune to block the smell of fresh puke. “Leave him alone, Blake. He needs sleep.” ’Get your ass over here. If we don’t prop him up he’s going to drown in his own vomit.” Harland fought us but we managed to place a folded pillow and blanket under his neck. “Go on, I’ll stay here just in case,” I told Trey. “In case of what?’ “In case he comes to and hunts for his 45.” In the worst case scenario Harland might blow his brains out or do a Charles Whitman and start bagging pedestrians from the roof of the YMCA. Trey covered Harland with the filthy top sheet before he left the room. When Harland started breathing normally I policed the clutter and packed it in the ammo box decorated with stickers and business cards of YMCAs from Boston to Anchorage. Stuck to its bottom was a bus ticket to Pensacola. I sat down in the only chair in the room and kept watch. Harland didn’t move until sunlight trickled through the half open blind. He rose from his bed and glided past me without acknowledging my presence. He made his way for the dresser where I had placed the ammo box along side 8 ounces of Jim Beam. “Rough night?” I held up the 45 and magazine. “This what you’re looking for?” “Yeah, a royal head up my ass rough night.” He scratched his chest then realized he was shirtless and wrapped himself in the foul sheet. “For Christ sake, what are you staring at?” “Never seen ink like yours before.” “These aren’t tattoos. They’re a journal of places I’ve been and things I’ve seen.” “Been easier and less painful to take snapshots.” “Naw, pictures you put away in a shoebox and forget they exist.” My muscles were wrapped like barbed wire around my calves, my ass numb from guarding Harland from Harland. “You recover pretty well from a ballistic binge.” “Practice, practice makes perfect.” Harland pointed the bottle of bourbon at the 45. “You planning on keeping that?” I handed it over butt first. He opened the top dresser drawer and put the pistol and clip inside. “On your way out don’t slam the door.” “Wouldn’t think of doing that to a war hero.” He pounded both fists on the dresser and spun around. “How long were you in for?” he demanded. “What makes you think I served?” “Didn’t say you served. That seabag you dragged in told me you did time somewhere. Treasure Island , Miramar, Portsmouth?” I let it ride. It didn’t matter where I spent four months awaiting my sentence like a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal. Behind door 1- A Dishonourable Discharge, Door 2- A six year stretch at Leavenworth, or Door 3- A General Discharge Under Honourable Conditions. Luck was on my side I got Door 3. Sure I liked to think that I sacrificed myself as an act of protest. But that’s bullshit. Sure I was opposed to the fucking war. What 18 year old kid who knew every lyric of The Eve of Destruction didn’t? My old man did thirty years, my two brothers another eight so I enlisted to carry on the patriotic carnival. To avoid killing I joined the Navy and trained as a corpsman. It didn’t take long for me to wake up to what my role would be; slosh through rice paddies and jungles to patch up guys who had their testicles blown off by pressure mines or stuff their remains into Giant Glad Bags; torso first, then legs, then arms, then head. I joined a parade of sailors marching against the war. My adherence to the creed of non-violence vanished when local yokel cops and MPs cut a path through us like a combine harvesting wheat. Civilian protesters told us, “Don’t engage, don’t resist, don’t fight back. Go slack.” When an MP’s baton came down on a WAVE’s clavicle so hard it snapped in half I lost it. I split his head with a lead pipe. Batons rained down of me from all sides. After three days in sickbay I was transferred to a genuine military prison. “Blake we’re alike. We both want the same thing out of life. A promise, not a promise of something better, just a promise of a painless way out of it.” Harland’s voice brought me back to the present. “As one screwed up guy to another, Semper Fidelis, or more like Mori semper.” He lifted the bottle to his lips and drained the 8 ounces. “Everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified. Wonder if Sherwood skipped his parade?” I slammed the door behind me. It was Sunday, a day of rest. I intended to sleep through supper time.
Virgil had a good September hawking faux Italian fountains. The concrete monstrosities more often than not featured a naked nymph pouring water from a jug into a giant birdbath. He sold so many that he could not keep up with the requests to install them. If I wanted to earn a little cash on the side he’d show me how to install the pigeon pools and recommend me to clients. “The folks we sell this crap to are so lame-brained that it takes two of them to make a halfwit. I’d ask Reggie or Miguel but the Texas Belles would pass out if some black or Mexican drank from their garden hose or asked to use their bathroom.” “Boss, they should read more. Most serial killers are pasty white boys.” I didn’t see much of Harland or Trey. Coming in from work I sometimes crossed paths them. Harland barely gave me a nod. Trey always smiled and asked how I was doing on his way to his corner. Countless times on his return he limped into the lobby. His face more often than not brusied and his clothes torn and bloody. If Harland was around he’d shake his head and guide Trey to the elevator and ask the same question. “Kid, when you gonna learn?” “Only need a little more time and I’m outta of here.” By the end of September I received a dollar raise and a name tag to attach to my Oasis Consultant Vest. Soon I would have enough money for an apartment and maybe take night courses at a local junior college. If I pulled it off I’d make a point of calling my old man to let him know that his fuckup son didn’t need him or anyone else to put him right.
The tepid breezes of a North Texas autumn were a blessing compared to the summer blast furnance that melted asphalt. When gardening season ended I became a varmint assassin. Virgil let go of most of the crew but kept a few of us on to exterminate anything that hissed, crawled or stank for squeamish clients. Virgil outfitted me with a tank filled with pesticides. He gave me a pair of rubber gloves and a bandana to cover my nose and mouth. He scoffed at the need for more protection. “I ain’t met nobody that died from this stuff, least wise anyone who came back and told me.” During the down season Virgil converted the Oasis into a store catering to the upcoming holidays. Witches, ghosts, tombstones, glow in the dark skeletons and pumpkins filled the lot the entire month of October followed by more pumpkins and plastic turkeys. Truckloads of real and fake trees, inflatable Santas, and reindeers, illuminated candy canes and life size nativity figures started arriving the day after Thanksgiving. I spent my days off hunting for a decent apartment and hanging out at El Centro Junior College. There I convinced professors to allow me to audit their courses until I enrolled in the winter semester. Virgil told me if I took a landscaping certificate and a bookkeeping course he’d pay half the tuition. “You surprised me, thought you wouldn’t last a day. Go get a haircut and clean up good and I’ll make you an inside manager.” One day when I returned from apartment scouting I found Trey outside my door. He took hold of my hand. “I want you to see something. Need your opinion.” He nudged me into his room. 8x10 glossy photographs of Trey adorned every wall. In one shot, no doubt doctored, he was frozen in a midair Nureyev leap. In several photos he gazed at the ceiling in an expression of artistic pathos or trapped flatulence. He handed me a large mailing envelope. Inside were duplicates of the photos on his walls. “Okay, I give up. What do you want?” “Take them back to your room and tell me honestly which pictures I should use.” “Use for what?” “The kit for the talent agent I signed with.” “You mean a portfolio?” “Yeah that’s it. He says every actor, dancer needs one to show people in New York. They’re begging for new faces.” I didn’t need a crystal ball to see what kind of agent gaffed Trey. Some con-artist who placed an ad in the local rag promising fame and fortune to every aspiring performer. For Only Two Hundred Dollars Your Dreams Will Come True. “Blake, do you think you can get me on where you’re at for a few weeks? I don’t want to take a chance getting messed up again.” “Not much going on now, gardening season’s over. My boss laid off most of the guys.” “I can do a lot of stuff, load cars, start seedlings even set up displays. I really need the cash. My agent wants $300 for a January audition he’s arranged for me in Houston. If the talent scouts from New York like me I’m on my way.” Instead of telling him to wake up I said, “How much money do you have stashed from your night-hawking?” Two grand but I need that to live when I get to New York. Mr. Vander says I have a chance of landing a spot in a new production of Cabaret.” It would have been cruel but merciful to set him straight. Tell him when he got off the Greyhound in Houston there would be no angels from Broadway. But dream crusher did not exist in my job description. A guy without dreams has no right to extinguish someone else’s fantasy. “Sure, I’ll talk to my boss. Maybe he has something for you,” I lied. “You’re a real friend.” Trey spread his arms out and sang, “ Life is a cabaret old chum.” He stopped before he could go full blown Liza Minnelli. As usual Harland’s voice preceded him into the room. “No it’s not a cabaret, young chum. It’s not a bed of roses or a beach. It’s a bitch and then you die.” * Everyday after work I peeked inside the lobby to see if Trey was waiting for me before entering. I’m not sure why I never brought his name up to Virgil. No, that’s bullshit. I know exactly why. Guilt by association figured prominently in this betrayal by omission. Trey was gay. Vouching for him might lead to the same conclusion about me. Ridiculous considering my rap sheet. Trey had never done drugs. I had not only partaken I peddled them at one time. Trey never hurt anyone that I knew of. It’s unlikely I could claim the same. Lacking an option on how to fulfill his pipe-dream Trey headed to his corner or ventured to the park. Although I didn’t see him the rest of the month sometimes I heard him late a night. His cries penetrated the wall between our rooms. A week before Thanksgiving a fist crashed against my door almost taking it off its hinges. Harland flung the door open. His right hand snaked behind my neck. He pulled me into the hallway. “Nora left a message. Trey’s in the alley behind Jack’s Shack.” The black grip of the 45 stuck out of Harland’s waistband. “I’m not going anywhere with you if you bring that.” Harland went to his room. When he returned he lifted his shirt and turned around to show me he’d left the gun behind. The downward cast of the streetlight splashed Nora’s shadow on the sidewalk highlighting her curved back. Her hand shook when she struck a match and lit a cigarette. “Could have been worse if I hadn’t come out to the dumpster.” In the alley we found Trey sitting on an empty 20 gallon can of Crisco. A pink streamer of blood and tears flowed down his cheeks. He flipped a butterfly knife open and closed with one hand. His other hand lay on his lap. Its index finger was bent so badly that the knuckle aligned with his thumb. He spoke through chipped teeth.“You should see the other guys. Not a mark on them.” “Same ones as before?” Harland asked. “They all look alike.” He held up the butterfly knife. “Asked me if I ever saw a eunuch. Told me if I didn’t have five-hundred bucks for them by next month they’d show me. They took off when Nora came out to dump the trash and dropped this.” Harland kicked a trash can. A black cloud of flies rose from the spilled garbage. “For Christ sake, give it up.” “Can’t, need to make enough to get to New York.” “What you got is a fairy tale. Go back to Eagle Pass. You’ll live longer. Pick grapefruits, work at a taqueria. Become a priest.” “I’m a dancer Harland. I’m going to New York.” “You think you’ll rise to the top there? You won’t. After three weeks you’ll be getting your ass drilled behind a tree in Central Park.” “I’m a dancer.” “Trey, I got a leg full of shrapnel and an ankle and knee held together by nuts and bolts. With all this I have more of a chance of becoming a Rockette than you do of being a dancing chicken in front of a KFC.” Trey clenched his fist and punched the sky. “I should go back to Eagle Pass? You think I got it bad here? Will have it worse in New York?” “Just saying you might be safer.” “Let me tell you something. I’m a joto back home. Do you know what that means? It means I’m nothing. I’m a disgrace to my family. My brothers, my father, my uncles beat the shit out of me because I’m a joto.” Harland avoided Trey’s eyes as he pressed his palm against his chest. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. There’s no future for you out East.” “In my community there is no future period. The only way out for most is to box or play baseball. Not me, I discovered another way, with my feet. I worked as a bag boy, picked watermelons, hooked at the bus station to afford lessons at Arthur Murray. Learned to jitterbug, waltz, tap. You name it I mastered them all. I won a dance contest in El Paso. I won a ballroom competition in San Antonio. My partner knew I’m gay but she didn’t care because she wanted to dance with the best.” * Every guy has a reason for billeting at the Y. Just temporary until I get a job. Waiting for a spot in the dorms at college. It’s cheaper than a hotel. It’s a good Christian place to stay until I get the call to spread the gospel. Almost rings true. The overriding reason is that there is no other place to go. No other place will have us. Trey sincerely believed the Y was a carousel. If he rode the unicorn long enough he’d snatch the brass ring and be on his way to Broadway. Harland checked in and out of Ys across America because every room looked the same. When the time came to off himself it didn’t matter if it took place in Pittsburg or Bismarck. The decor never varied. Didn’t matter. In the end he’d be planted in a potter’s field, his medals dumped in a trash bin. Me — I came for both a belated and prospective funeral. My mother died three months earlier while I sat in jail in Omaha for something I no doubt deserved but don’t remember. Ma took my father’s mental abuse like a Sister of The Divine Order of I am Nothing. Cause that’s what she heard over her 40 years of marriage. My sister told me mom had pleaded while coughing up blood to be cremated, her ashes scattered in the Gulf of Mexico. The old man interred her in his soggy family crypt in Baton Rouge despite there being plenty of dry holes in Irving where she lived out her final days. If I ever find the time and cash I intend to exhume and incinerate her, stand on the shoreline of Galveston and pitch her as far as I can on a windless day. As for my father, I’d learned from my sister that he had cancer devouring every organ of his body except his heart. It had calcified years ago. She prodded me to make amends so he could feel forgiven and justified. I told her if I passed through Texas I’d think about it. Harland sat in an armchair in the Y’s lobby. He looked up from a book propped on his knees. I noticed the author’s name and opened the conversation with, “Turgenev. What’s he write sci-fi, horror, mysteries?” Harland stood up and thrust the book under my chin. “Just because my body resides in this dump doesn’t mean my brain does. Bet you’d be surprised to learn that I not only read books, important books, but that I also brush my teeth and wipe my ass when necessary.” I slapped the book away. “Christ, how am I supposed to know about some Polish author?” Harland smiled. “Russian, not Polish. Are you going to stand around all day or tell me what’s bothering you.” The absurdity of spilling my guts to the only person more screwed up than me failed to register. I charged ahead and told Harland that my sister wanted me to see my father before he died. “I don’t buy it. I think you want to kneel over him so you he can hear him gasp I love you son. Those words are never going to be spoken and even if they were, neither one of you would believe them. Put your bus fare toward toward buying a new shirt for the Thanksgiving dinner the benefactors of this noble establishment throw for its inhabitants.” I took Harland’s advice and bought an Oxford dress shirt and pair of tan slacks at J.C. Penny. At least I’d dress the part of a student when I enrolled at El Centro Jr. College. * The days of November trickled by with as much energy as spilt molasses. Posters announcing the approaching Thanksgiving dinner hung throughout the Y along with notices of the religious services. Elroy passed out Pilgrim hats and head bands with a feather at the cafeteria entrance. The inmates of the Y marched in single file. Every table featured a carboard turkey centrepiece. At each place setting were plastic cutlery and a mini-cup of mixed nuts sitting in the middle of durable paper plates. Compulsory speeches of gratitude for the benefactors of the feast followed by a subdued prayer and listless rendition of Jesus Loves Us launched the festivities. Servers plopped mashed potatoes ladled with gravy the color of motor oil next to desiccated turkey breast topped with cranberry jelly and sweet potatoes shrouded under melted marshmallows. I saved a seat for Trey but he never showed. Three weeks past without his returning to the Y. Harland spent everyday searching for him. One morning when I opened my door Harland walked past my room with Trey stumbling beside him. Trey’s thick black hair had been buzz cut. He licked his lips and jerked his arms and legs. “Don’t talk to him,” Harland said. “They gave him so much crap to swallow that it’ll take a while for him to get normal. I kept sticking my tongue in and out of mouth and walking like a marionette for a solid month when I was locked up at the VA loony-bin.” Trey had got the bright idea he could earn more money by moving his act to the swanky hotel district. He started hanging around the Hilton and the Statler to attract a better clientele. Didn’t work out. The concierge reported him to house security who in turn called the cops. He spent Thanksgiving week locked in the city jail with serious bad guys. Despite his screams not a single guard checked to see if he needed saving. On the Monday after the holiday the guards, tired of his crying, shipped him to the mental ward of a bedbug infested charity hospital. Harland tracked him down and bribed an orderly to spring Trey. Only four months had passed since I met Trey. It might as well been ten years. The hundred watt luminance in his eyes had been extinguished. His smile replaced with a slash of desperation. Undeterred he pushed on, classifying his latest descent into a maelstrom as a temporary set back. Once his hair grew out a little he would be on the path to his version of Nirvana. “A few more tricks and I’ll be flush enough to pay for the auditions in Houston.” Harland and I ceased trying to dissuade Trey. We racked our brains for distractions to keep him off the streets. I took him to a meeting supporting Cesar Chavez’s United Farms Workers where I signed a petition to ban non-union grapes. Trey put his hand behind his back when I passed him the clipboard. “I’ve picked truckloads of grapes and strawberries. I don’t need to write my name next to a bunch of white do-gooders who can afford not to eat something we didn’t have enough money to eat.” Harland had better luck. He scored theatre tickets to Hair. Being a production mounted in the buckle of the Bible belt, minus the nude scene. Trey loved it. During The Age of Aquarius he danced in the aisle. An usher intercepted him as he moved toward the stage. He threatened to eject him. The usher retreated when other members of the audience joined Trey. After the show he related his experience in the mental ward. “Think this is theatre? You should have seen the circus on the loony floor.” The custodians of the hospital regarded homosexuality as something to be cured. An evangelical Christian charity funded the unit. They were determined to rid Trey of the unnatural urges that infested him. A Baptist minister visited him three times a day to persuade him to repent and be born again. “Vanquish those abominable impulses,” he commanded. “Like I have anymore control of that than I did of being born brown on the north side of the Rio Grande,” Trey said. “But I played along. If you raise eyes to the guy hanging from a telephone pole and say forgive me Padre you get time off for good behaviour. The preacher wanted to hold me under water until I said I believe. I would have drowned before I gave in.”
* The Oasis received a truck-bed of Colorado blue spruces. I swallowed my fear of guilt by association and told Virgil that I knew a whiz kid to to set up Christmas displays. Virgil marvelled at how Trey transformed the dingy garden centre into a holiday wonderland. He promised to keep him on after Christmas to upgrade the lot, make it a go- to-place catering to Dallas millionaires. Trey rode the bus with me but got off several stops before me on our way back to the Y. He chose his locations carefully, avoiding the same corner or park twice in a row. He started carrying the butterfly knife on his night outings. A rare frosting of snow covered the Oasis grounds on the 24th of December. Trey convinced Virgil that there was no need to sell the remaning trees at a discount. He assembled a tree decoration package that sold at a huge markup. At the end of the day the lot was picked clean. Only a broken baby Jesus remained. Virgil brought us into his office for the season send off. “You boys did real good,” he said and handed us tumblers of rum and coke. “We start up again in February. I had my worries about you Trey.” “Because of what you think I am?” “You and me got a lot more in common than you know. I saw you coming out of a club I sometimes frequent and head for the park. Think I’ve also seen you a few nights hanging around the Hilton. Be careful. There are people out there who don’t take to us.” Boarding the bus Trey glanced over his shoulder at a white panel truck parked across the street. On the side of the truck was a red decal of a mustang with SMU written in bold letters above it. “What did Virgil mean by us?” I asked. “It might shock you but we come in all sizes, colours and levels of visibility.” Trey looked out the window. The panel truck did a U-turn and drove behind the bus. “He’s right. Better be careful. Think I’ll take the night off.” Harland met us in the lobby. “The Y is no place to spend Christmas Eve.” He held up three tickets for Handel’s Messiah. Twenty minutes later we were sitting in the nose bleed section of the concert hall. Harland leaned to the side and whispered, “Tried to get tickets to the Nutcracker but they were sold out.” “It’s beautiful. Almost makes you believe in God,” Trey said. Harland jerked his hand away when Trey squeezed it. “I believe in God. But I’m damn certain God doesn’t believe in us.” When we left the concert hall the same panel truck I’d seen across the street from the Oasis revved its engine. Harland walked toward the van. It sped away before he reached it. On Christmas Day I tripped over a basket outside my door. Harland stood in the hallway holding a similar package. The baskets contained a summer sausage, pecan crusted cheese ball, bag of peppermints and an orange. The small card read, “To my best friends.” Trey popped his head out of his room. “To my only friends.” * The days following Christmas were as dull as the empty streets of Dallas. Harland often sat in the lobby along with other residents resembling faded Polaroid photos. They stared fish eyed at the suspended TV with its volume turned down. Harland’s gaze seldom moved from whatever quiz show or football game on the muted Zenith. Whenever Mick and Grady finished their shift he rose and followed them to a parking lot. On New Year’s Eve Trey knocked on my door and said, “This is no place to celebrate.” I stepped into the corridor and saw Harland. Instead of the drab suits he habitually wore he had on a white silk shirt decorated with blue parrots. His shirt-tail was pulled out of his turquoise pants. He peeled off three twenties from a wad of bills. “You guys go on ahead of me. I’ll join you later.” Trey pocketed the cash. “Make sure you get there before the ball drops.” We caught a cab to small a pub on the corner of Knox and Travis street. Inside we were immersed in laughter, music and discussions on everything from football and politics to poetry. Businessmen, hippies, blacks, hispanics, bikers, straights and gays not only sat next to one another they communicated and embraced. This was not supposed to be happening. This was fucking Texas. Any moment I expected Dallas stormtroopers to smash the plate glass window. When Rainy Day Women spun on the jukebox and Dylan croaked out -Everybody Must Get Stoned- everyone raised their drinks and sang along with him. The bartender placed a pitcher of Sangria in front of us and two wine glasses. I shook my head and he returned with a mug of beer. A young black woman who towered over most of the patrons palmed my wine glass. She motioned the barman to fill it to the top. “You don’t mind do you blondie?” She placed her lips next to Trey’s ear. “Sam, told me you’re headed for Houston and then onto the footlights of New York.” “If things work out that’s my next stop, Laurice.” “It’s a good dream sweetie.” She floated away to join another table. Above a mirror covering the back-wall of the bar were strings of Christmas lights, ornaments and garlands. “Guess you’ll be taking those down soon,” I said when the bartender brought me another beer. “Not a chance. Every night here is the night before Christmas. I hung those things Christmas Eve 1968. My wife left me the next day.” A waitress raised the volume of a tv. The bar grew quiet. Dick Clark broadcasted from Times Square. Customers anticipating the descent of the silver ball stopped talking. Trey turned on his stool on each time the door opened. People counted down the final seconds. They yelled Happy New Year so loudly that the glasses and wine bottles rattled. The lights of the pub dimmed. People kissed in the dark. When the lights came on my face and Trey’s were pressed into the ample cleavage of a woman rappelling the other side of sixty. “It only comes once a year and I’d be crazy not to make the best of it,” she said. Laurice took her by the elbow and guided her to their table. Take Five played on the juke box. Customers began filtering out of the pub. “Guess Harland had better things to do than be with us,” Trey said. We joined the other celebrants on the sidewalk. I tried hailing a cab with no luck. The buses had stopped running at midnight. We walked without talking, our arms crossed over our chests to stave off the chill of a North Texas winter. The brights of a van flashed us. It rolled slowly keeping two car lengths behind us. It turned off its headlights and waited for us to continue before following us again. “That van’s been dogging us since we left the pub,” I said At a traffic signal we hauled ass across a four lane boulevard before it turned red. The van burned the light leaving a slick of rubber on the pavement. We dashed across the parking lot of a Target and and hopped a fence. The white van idled on the corner when we came to another intersection. The passenger side window cranked down. Mick stuck his head. “They’re all yours boys.” The rear door of the panel truck slid open. The four guys who had pasted their faces on the window outside Jack’s Shack jumped out. They wore SMU letter jackets and frat pins. Mick and Grady leaned against the van. They obviously intended to be the cheerleaders of the beating they’d engineered. The first jock advanced too quickly. I nailed the bridge of his nose with my elbow and a kneed him in the balls. He dropped to the ground squeaking like a mouse caught in a trap. His friends knelt next to him. Trey and I took off. We burst into a 24 hour Dunkin Donuts and took a booth. The van pulled in front of the shop. Mick entered and smiled when he walked past us. He ordered 6 coffees and a mixed baker’s dozen. “You twinkies can’t roost here all night.” “Back off or I’ll call the cops,” I said. Mick pointed at a phone booth on the corner. “Go ahead. You might even have enough time to hear a dial tone before my boys kick your ass.” He was right. There was only so long we could spend nursing our coffees before the manager ordered us to hit the road. We were on our third cup when I saw the van pull away. No way were they calling it quits. Behind the display wall of donuts I spotted a door leading out the back. We charged through the kitchen. The manager shouted,”Hey that’s off limits.” Trey tossed him a twenty. The guy snatched the bill as it floated to the floor. “Take a few apple fritters and eclairs on our way out.” Avoiding the main streets we walked through a series of alleys that ran several blocks. We weren’t more than a mile away from the Y and should be safe if we kept on this path. A lamp post curved like a Bishop’s crosier spilled a circle of light on the pavement outside the last alley. The van rolled up and blocked our way blinding us with its high beams. Mick sat on the hood of the van. “Really, you thought you could slither by us? Your kind is like hunting squirrels. Let them run around long enough searching for their nuts and eventually they come right to you.” Grady slid open the rear door. He flicked a lit cigarette at us. “Would have been easier on you if you just took your lumps back there.” Three of the college kids sprung out of the van. The fourth one slowly exited. His nose bled despite the chunks of tissue stuffed up it. He covered his groin with one hand. In his other hand he wielded a short baseball bat. “Fucking faggots. We’re going to plant you tonight.” I hoisted a rusty rebar from the ground. The look on his frat brothers’ faces betrayed their reluctance to go the distance. Mick hopped off the hood and held one hand up in a gesture of peace. “Trey, go to your nest and return with say a thousand bucks for selling your ass near these upstanding Christians’ campus and we’ll call it quits.” Grady took the bat from the college kid and aimed it at me. “We’ll keep your friend here with us as insurance.” I rushed Grady and brought the rebar down on the hand grasping the bat. Trey reached into his pocket. He sliced the air with the butterfly knife. The frat rats blitzed us driving us back to the wall. Trey leapt onto a green dumpster. Mick drove a knee into my back. I spun around but buckled when he caught me full force with a blow to the kidney. As I raised my head Mick handed the bat to Grady. Trey sailed off the dumpster and blocked Grady’s swing. The bat struck his thigh and broke in half. Mick bent over and picked up the butterfly knife. He unsuccessfully tried to flip it open then tossed it to one of the college kids. Trey was curled up like an amadillio. He had no protection from the frat rats kicks and blows. Mick and Grady pinned me to the ground with their boot heels. I struggled to break free. “Don’t be in so much of a hurry to join the party,” Mick said. “Your turn’s next.” “That’s enough.” The boys stopped pummelling Trey. Harland stood spread legged at the entrance of the alley. “Get out of here old man unless you want to play too,” one of the punks threatened. “Really Mick, you rely on these chuckleheads to do your number? How much did you promise them?” Mick smirked, “They’re doing it as a public service. We got enough lily white cocksuckers and hippies invading Dallas without adding his kind to the mix.” “Mick, I knew if I followed you long enough I’d see who had their hand up these Phi Betta shit kickers asses.” The frat rat with the tissue up his nose said, “You don’t hear so well. Get out of here or you’re next in line.” “Maybe you didn’t hear me. I said that’s enough.” Harland slipped his arm behind his back. Everyone exhaled when he whipped out a pocketbook and not a gun. Harland held the book close to his face and read aloud, “While a man is living he is not conscious of his own life; it becomes audible to him like sound, after a lapse of time.” “Is that supposed to mean something?” Mick asked. “Probably not to them. They’re too young,” he answered and pulled the 45 from under his shirt. The barely audible noise of the slide pulling back was deafening. “Face the the wall, ” he ordered. “Put the gun away, Harland. You fire that thing and the cops will be here in fifteen minutes,” Mick’s voice was calm. “Yeah, tuck it next to your shrivelled dick,” Grady said. Harland fired one shot at Grady. His kneecap exploded. When blood and bone confetti showered the the frat boys they screamed. Harland pointed the pistol at Mick. “Fifteen minutes you say? Take a bet with all the partying going on they won’t show for at least thirty. Let’s time it.” “Hey man, we were just messing around. We’re sorry,” the kid with the tissue stuffed up his nose said. “Of course you were just messing around. Did some of that messing myself a few times on tour. Only difference is the guys we messed with outnumbered us and could fight back.” Harland stepped over Grady. “Mick, see how is he twitching? Not even crying anymore? He’s in shock. Probably going to need medical attention soon.” Trey raised his arms as if beseeching Christ to come down off his cross and intercede. “Harland let it go. He needs help.” Harland turned his head from side to side. “Medic, medic, man down,” he bellowed. His gun hand jerked at one of the frat boys as the kid inched his way along the wall. “Where do you think you’re going? Thought you would have the same motto as the corps, no man left behind. Mick, hold Grady’s hand. He needs some cheering.” Harland scratched his temple with the barrel of the pistol. “Looks like no medic is coming. Too busy bagging and tagging bodies in another country we decided to bring freedom and democracy to against their will.” Harland helped Trey to his feet and embraced him. “In my room there’s an envelope taped to the back of the dresser. Maybe it’ll help you get to New York.” He motioned me over with the gun, pulled me into his chest and kissed my forehead. “That wasn’t so bad was it?” Mick removed his belt and cinched it above Grady’s shattered knee. He held up his bloody palms. Harland lowered the pistol. “That’s not going to do any good. Loosen it or he’ll lose that leg.” “Harland, it’s gone too far,” I pleaded. “You and Trey run along. Mick and Grady will keep me company. These frat rats can leave too.” He fired several rounds into the air. “I wonder if Turgenev was right. Go on get out of here.” Harland pulled back the slide of the 45. “One in the chamber two in the clip. That oughta do it. Blake! I told you when I met you, I’m being saved for something auspicious.” Trey and I staggered out of the alley. The street lamp hanging above us dribbled into nothingness as the morning sun climbed above Dealey Plaza’s grassy knoll. We made it a few blocks then froze. Three pistol reports disturbed the stillness of dawn. The banshee wails of police sirens filled the concrete and glass mirrored canyons of Dallas. A barrage of shots that could be mistaken for a string of firecrackers announced the failed promise of a New Year and the end of another superfluous man.